By Andrew P Bennett, Toastmasters International
Using vocal variety to make your voice a pleasure to listen, means you’re more likely to grab and hold your audience’s attention.
So, how do you develop vocal variety?
Get yourself in good shape for speaking
Imagine you are a musician getting ready to play a beautiful piece of music. You have to know how to hold your instrument correctly to produce the most beautiful and varied sounds. Just the same attention needs to be given to the body and the speaking voice.
Stand relaxed and tall
We need to find a comfortable, flexible body alignment which helps us look alert, and ready to speak. Your body is like a column with the feet supporting the column – just slightly apart or one foot a little in front of the other. No wide apart stance or crossed ankles.
Now release tension by gently, slowly allowing your head to drop forwards, then your shoulders and torso, arms nice and floppy – as if you were a rag doll- no need to touch your toes, just as far as is comfortable. As you do this, breathe out.
Then slowly, slowly uncurl yourself bringing the head up last as it is the heaviest part of the body. As you uncurl breathe in calmly and then once upright gently breathe out.
Your head is now crowning the column of your body. This means you can breathe freely and your voice can travel easily.
Use your breath to carry your voice
Our voice starts with the breath that comes up from our lungs and travels through our voice box and mouth into the big wide world. We also breathe calmly during an expressive pause in our speech.
Very confusing things are said to speakers about breathing. The key point to remember is that we need to train ourselves to move away from a stressful, shallow, high-in-the-chest breath which often accompanies nervousness. In its place, we want to breathe using our full lung capacity so that our breath is anchored lower in the body and brings poise. This is the kind of breathing that opens the door to vocal range and variety.
Remember you need your breath to be free to carry your voice to the back of the room. Good breathing and good posture will go a long way to achieving this.
Remember your voice needs humidity to work well. Speakers should always carry a bottle of water. Take regular sips during warm up and always have water with you during your presentation.
Play with sound
If you record your voice and listen back you’ll hear what you sound like to other people (we genuinely sound different to how we sound in our own heads).
One way to play with sound is to read aloud.
Particularly at work we mostly read silently and purely to get the meaning of the text. If we read a presentation, even though this is out loud, there is a good chance we will become monotonous and dull. However, if you ever read aloud to children you’ll be used to an audience that actively demands that you are vocally lively and “do all the voices!”
I believe that all speakers should regularly practice reading aloud both their own words and the words of others to extend their abilities. If you practiced 10 minutes of reading aloud a day following your vocal warm up you’ll soon find an improvement in your voice, but I want to suggest a plan of action.
Firstly, read the passage silently to yourself. Look for the meaning of the words.
Read the passage aloud – aim to express the meaning behind the words. Is the writer happy, frustrated, sad, ironic, humorous?
Take a rest and read the passage silently again two times. Note any key words or phrases the writer uses to construct the message. You are allowing the words to play on your imagination and open the door to expression.
Read the passage aloud again. If you do not mind listening to your own voice you could record and listen for the differences between your very first and later attempts. In this way, you will begin to train your ear to experience new sounds. You will undoubtedly hear improvements in your vocal variety.
Suggestions of material to read:
The novels of Charles Dickens were written to be read aloud and contain many characters, which is good practice for vocal flexibility. You can transfer this skill if you are telling an anecdote with different characters in one of your speech presentations.
An exciting police, spy or action novel can be excellent. Reading poetry is a challenge. There is a huge range from the rich language of John Keats, Wordsworth, and Shelley right up to the present day with Maya Angelou, Lemn Sissay, and Carol Ann Duffy.
However, the reading material can be anything you like. The point is to do it and make your voice sound more interesting when you speak.
What about accents?
If you have a regional or foreign accent that adds character and distinctiveness to your speech. It’s part of who you are. All we are interested in is making sure your words can be clearly understood by your audience. What is important is clarity and expressiveness.
Practice, practice, practice
Lastly, make sure that you find time to practice your own words and speeches to integrate your new skills. The whole point of my suggestions is to be able to share your message with your audience.
There is no quick fix to finding vocal variety. Each of us has to practice a little and often to extend our abilities, which is so much more effective than long, irregular session of practice.
The path to vocal freedom and expression is an exhilarating one to take. I encourage you to follow my tips. Your audiences will thank you and you’ll find you are in demand as a speaker and presenter.
Andrew P Bennett is from Toastmasters International, a non-profit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. Headquartered in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, the organization’s membership exceeds 345,000 in more than 15,900 clubs in 142 countries. Since 1924, Toastmasters International has helped people of all backgrounds become more confident in front of an audience. There are more than 300 clubs in the UK and Ireland with over 7,500 members. To find your local club, visit Toastmasters International. You can follow @Toastmasters on Twitter.