By Andrew P Bennett, Toastmasters International
Public speakers sometimes come to me for advice because they are aware that their voices lack clarity and variety. The issue can be that they have got into the habit of speaking on one note. This means their audience find their voice monotonous and hard to stay engaged with. Does this resonate with you?
Luckily an attractive, dynamic speaking voice lies in something we all do – breathing. To be more exact the key is in finding a depth in our breathing so that our voices are nourished by a steady flow of breath as we speak.
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As a public speaking teacher and voice coach, I’d like to suggest a few tips for improved breathing and posture that will help you find your true and expressive voice. Find a calm place where you can focus when trying out the exercises below. If you have any physical issues, for example with your back, undertake the exercise in a way that is safe for you. There is no need to rush as the aim is to create healthy new habits gradually.
Posture counts for a lot. If you were going to play a musical instrument, a guitar, for example, you would learn how to hold the instrument to produce the most beautiful sounds. It is the same situation with our speaking voice. Whether we are standing or seated, we need to create the best conditions to take a breath.
So how do you stand? Your feet should be no more than shoulder-width apart, firmly feeling the ground beneath your feet. Align your posture so you can imagine a line proceeding up your legs, and continuing up your spine. Your shoulders are back and relaxed, hands and arms comfortably by your sides in case you need them for gestures. You can imagine your head crowning your body.
There is nothing stiff or military about this position, rather think of it as springy, active, alert – ready to speak.
Start by gently breathing out as we all have residual air and taking even more air in on top simply makes us feel tense.
Maintaining your good, flexible posture place your thumb under your lowest rib at the side of your rib cage, shoulders are still back and relaxed. Gently and slowly take a deep breath through your nose, and feel a slight expansion at the rib cage. Then calmly breathe out.
This kind of breathing is the opposite of the shallow, high in the chest, asthmatic breath many people use in everyday conversation.
In a spoken presentation you will breathe through your mouth or nose as required. The benefit of working on taking the breath through the nose, when you are able, is that it warms the air as it passes through your body and there is less chance of feeling as though your voice is getting dry or hoarse.
It is recommended that speakers, and those who use their voices a great deal at work, always have drinking water at hand because your vocal folds (or vocal cords as they used to be called) will only work well when you are hydrated.
Increasing breath span
Having learned to find the sensation of this ‘low rib’ breath, which is anchored deep in your body, rather than high in your chest, you could practice your breath span. It’s recommended to only do so for 1 or 2 minutes at a time to avoid feeling lightheaded.
Take a low breath, then in your mind count to 5 slowly breathing out gradually: 1 2 3 4 5!
Rest for a moment, then take your ‘low rib’ breath and breathe out counting slowly in your mind to 6 this time.
You can continue all the way up to 10 or eventually beyond. But remember only 1 or 2 minutes of this type of exercise at a time before taking a pause.
If you continue this exercise over a period of days your body will accustom itself to a more settled, longer span of breathing out, rather than losing all your breath in one go. You need this gentle, flowing span of breath to sustain a fine quality in your voice as you speak.
A bonus is that if you are feeling nervous before a speaking presentation of any kind, be it an online call with clients or perhaps a formal or social occasion speech, you will only need to focus on your breathing like this to remind your body of the healthy breathing reflex you have established with the exercise. This has the effect of reassuring you and making you appear poised to your audience.
Please note that all successful speakers feel some level of nerves before a major presentation, even the most experienced. However, they have learned to set up the conditions and reflexes with their breathing to be able to use the nerves as energy or added excitement as they present.
Now that you have established a good posture and breath it is time to transform that breath into words and expression. You can extend your breath span so that even longer sentences can be delivered comfortably without a feeling of running out of breath.
Here is a warmup routine using your settled, flowing breath.
Firstly, set up your good posture, take a low breath and hum a tune. I tend to use ‘Happy Birthday to You’ in my international workshops as it is a song that is familiar in one form or another in many cultures. It also has the advantage that the third line of the song is a little longer than the others and requires you to spin your breath a little further, expanding your capacities.
At first, breathe at the end of lines as you need to, but gradually try to do the first two lines ‘Happy Birthday to you, happy birthday to you’ in one breath.
Now do it again, maintain good, poised posture and ‘low rib’ breath. Sing it out loud with the words – it doesn’t matter whether you think you sing well or not. This is about warming up our voice for speaking and using that breath.
As an alternative to ‘Happy Birthday…’, there are many tongue twisters and rhymes that you can use in a warmup as you steady and expand your breath flow and extend your vocal range. Here is one example (you can find others online). Master the verse one line at a time, allowing the pitch of your voice to rise or fall naturally to convey the meaning of the words.
He is longing for the rattle of the complicated battle,
The rum tum tum of the military drum
And the guns that go boom boom.
The last element of a warmup before a speaking event is to try your first few lines out loud, once or twice. This helps you to ‘break the ice’ for yourself. Then when you start speaking, on stage or online, you will be ready to express yourself and share your message with your audience.
Andrew P Bennett is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organization that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland.
Members follow a structured educational program to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings, and time management. To find your nearest club, visit Toastmasters International.
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