Vocal Presence – Using your Voice to Own the Space
Our delivery style is crucial to getting a message across effectively to our audience, and one of the key factors in delivery is using our voice to create power, warmth and persuasiveness.
Our voice gives our audience clear messages about our confidence, energy and vitality. When we contract and mentally “turn away” from the audience, our voice follows; we swallow our words, mumble and rush, or become monotonous or ‘lifeless’ in our tone.
Of course, one thing which will always affect vocal presence is how much we trust ourselves and the value of what we’re saying. Every time we speak, we have the opportunity to come from history or possibility. We can choose to to project, to be powerful, and to be greater than our past speaking experience.
It takes courage to speak up and be willing to be heard, and depending on the starting point it will take time, patience and practice in a safe space; but the benefits are enormous. In any moment where we have an opportunity to speak up, we have a choice.
Over the next few articles, I’ll take a look at some of the factors which get in the way of having a strong vocal presence. Today I’m going to focus on two issues which frequently cause my clients to have vocal problems:
- Breath – lack of good breathing technique
Let’s look at breath first:
- Breath. Breath is vocal fuel: sound relies on using our bones to create resonance, and breathing properly gives us that. Sound also travels on air: so steady breath and enough oxygen will help you to create a strong vocal presence.
Specifically, what works is low breathing (imagine you have a ‘belt of nostrils’) into the ribs and abdomen – and into your back. Thinking of a ‘belt of nostrils’ will help you become more aware of your back, as we often think only of the front half of our body when we breathe.
Clients often say to me “well I can’t focus on my breath when I’m actually speaking, can I?” And of course it’s a challenge when you’re focused on what you’re trying to say, and wondering whether your boss’s yawn means that you’re doing a bad job. So your first goal is to become aware of how you breath normally, and then how you breathe if you’re anxious. (When we’re anxious, we naturally go into high, shallow breathing.)
Then, once you’re more aware of how you breathe, start to practise low, relaxed breaths (longer exhale than inhale) when you’re not stressed. If you can start to do this, you have a chance to do it when you are anxious or stressed out.
Once you’ve practised focusing on gentle, calming breaths, you can do them:
- while you’re waiting to present; maybe sitting at your desk before a meeting or virtual conference. Or while you’re being introduced just before you say your first words
- during a presentation: while you’re moving to a new point, new paragraph, or transitioning to a new slide. You can also take time to breathe while letting the audience read a slide with text before you start to speak.
Keeping the breath going across your vocal cords will also prevent another common vocal issue: swallowing or ‘grinding’ the ends of sentences (also known as vocal fry). ‘Grinding’ is particularly common in women. If you’re not sure what I mean, here is a recent article with examples of speakers with vocal fry.
When we breath in a new, stronger way, it’s easy to try to do too much. Don’t take deep breaths – if you’re nervous, that will just cause you to start hyper-ventilating (taking in too much air). Just allow the air into your lungs, don’t force or strain. Talking of strain, this leads us to the second common issue: tension.
- Tension. Tension distorts the voice and kills vibration, which is essential for good presence.
The most frequent sites of tension in the upper body are:
Exercise: relaxing the jaw. Let your lower jaw relax by putting your hands on your face, pulling gently downwards and re-enacting The Scream by Munch! The lower jaw is actually only held onto the upper jaw by muscles: imagine it as a false beard, unhooking and letting it go.
Exercise: relaxing the neck. Lengthen the back of your neck, and imagine your head is balanced on the neck like a roll-on deodorant. Feel it gliding around on the top of your spine.
Exercise: shoulders. Shrug your shoulders up to your ears and then let them really drop. Breathe out as you let them go.
Exercise: feeling vibration in your body. Breathe out while saying a strong “oooh”, while holding your ribs and back. Feel the sound vibrating as you do this.
And remember that words need space. Aim to have at least 2 vertical fingers length (try it!) when opening your mouth.
Our whole body needs to be as relaxed as possible for real presence. Most people think of the voice as coming from the throat or voice-box. It really comes from the solar plexus or core; so ideally, think of your whole body as your speaking voice!
I’ll talk more about creating vocal presence in future articles.