Whether you're speaking in person or on Zoom, your voice matters when it comes to persuading others. Here's how to use your best voice for public speaking.
Today, in the age of Covid-19 and constant Zoom calls, your voice matters more than ever. Simply put: with less to observe in terms of communication cues, everyone is listening more closely to how you sound.
Although we seem to have become more visually oriented (all those virtual meetings on all our screens!), we're actually observing less. Body language, for instance—a key indicator of someone's state of mind and intentions—is now literally left out of the picture. Also, all the subtle indicators you might see at, say, a team meeting in a conference room, are nowhere to be observed.
No wonder your vocal skills have suddenly assumed more importance!
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It's the perfect time, then, to take stock of this all-important tool in your professional kit. We all should be asking ourselves, "Is my voice helping or hurting my career?" Following are two ways to determine whether you're using a healthy, strong, resonant voice that's right for you.
You may not have thought much about those last four words. But your voice is not only the most powerful tool you have in spoken communication, it's also your most personal. So it's definitely worth a little self-examination to tell if you're using it well.
This article deals with two important aspects of vocal production. In a subsequent piece, I'll discuss two other issues which are concerned with the effectiveness side of the equation.
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1) Habitual vs. Optimal Pitch: Which Are You Using?
First, you will benefit from knowing whether you're using the pitch that's right for your speaking voice. Pitch in vocal terms means the highness or lowness on the musical scale. And though you've probably been using the same pitch when speaking for many years, it may not be the best one for you.
The pitch you're accustomed to using is your habitual pitch. Yet it may not be the optimal one for you personally. A well-placed pitch means that the voice is being produced easily and without strain; that it carries well and has good resonance; and that it's easy on the ear of the listener. When you use a pitch that's either too high or too low for you, you're causing strain—respectively, by tightening too much or "pushing down" on the vocal folds.
Here's an easy test to determine your optimal pitch: record yourself singing the "Happy Birthday" song to yourself ("Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you . . ."). Then immediately start speaking about anything related to your job. Listen afterwards to the two taped segments.
The birthday song should be close to the right pitch for you, since singing it is spontaneous and doesn't involve any thinking about how you sound. Compare it with your "on the job" voice. That's the one that you tend to "put on" in performance, i.e., speaking the way you think you should sound. If that voice differs significantly from your spontaneous one, you have exactly that much distance to go to get closer to your natural sound.
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2) Achieving the Sound of Authority
Now let's tackle a problem that's emblematic of our modern professional world: too much head voice. This has to do with the absence of the sound of authority—and once again, we have a dichotomy.
This time it's between a thin, overly intellectual way of speaking (head voice), versus the other extreme: a style of speaking called "chest voice" that sounds like it's trapped in the basement. Each of these extremes has assets and liabilities. A head voice sounds young, bright, and spontaneous; but it lacks the sound of experience and authority, is weak on credibility, and doesn't carry well across physical space. A chest voice, on the other hand, possesses authority and credibility by the bucketful and embodies the sound of experience. But it's also stuffy—a fuddy-duddy, grandfatherly- or motherly sound, so that it seems as though the speaker had their last original thought a couple of decades ago.
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You may have guessed by now that what's needed is a balance between the two. When it comes to this pair of extremes, most of us are guilty of being talking heads—of producing a too intellectual sound that reflects our never-ending habit of analyzing and processing data. Here's how to find a balance, once again by recording yourself.
First, allow your voice to "thin out." Deliberately place it in your head. Don't get nasal or change your pitch, for those are different issues. Think of your voice as emanating entirely from the head and release the sound from there. Immediately afterwards, allow your voice to completely sink down into your chest. (We're talking the southern tip of South America here, not the Carolinas.) Feel the deep resonances of a voice rumbling from a cave down there, and make that the sound that emerges as you speak.
Now find the balance between the two voices. If you're doing this exercise correctly and you really are reaching the extremes, your third attempt should sound dramatically different. This time, your sound should be bright and articulate, yet mature and experienced. Aren't these the qualities, along with warmth and friendliness, that you want your professional voice to have?
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Gary Genard is an actor, author, and expert in public speaking training and overcoming speaking fear. His company, Boston-based The Genard Method offers live 1:1 Zoom executive coaching worldwide. In 2020 for the seventh consecutive year, Gary has been ranked by Global Gurus as One of The World's Top 30 Communication Professionals. He is the author of How to Give a Speech. His second book, Fearless Speaking, was recently named as "One of the 100 Best Confidence Books of All Time." Contact Gary here.