A popular ethos in most areas of life is to let things flow, improvise, be natural. We associate such an approach with authenticity, something hugely desirable in speech, and indeed, personality. After all, who wants to deal with people who are trying to be something they’re not?
Picture this: you’re in your meeting and feeling pretty confident. It’s not the first time you’ve done this pitch, after all. Authenticity comes from being relaxed, so you bring out your tried-and-trusted techniques, maybe taking 5 minutes alone to familiarise yourself with the room, trotting out your sure-fire opening joke, or even that old favourite: imagining them in their underwear! (Maybe.) You begin your pitch and all seems to be going smoothly, at first. It went well last time when you set it all up this way, so what can go wrong?
Frustratingly, for some reason, today your sparkling authenticity has gone into hiding. Showing up instead is that ‘thing’ that sometimes happens when you speak: your tongue feels too big, your lips are dry and your delivery just isn’t flowing as it did last time. You might be running out of breath, leading you to rush. Or your voice must be quieter or less clear as people are getting that ‘strained’ expression on their faces. Now someone’s just asked you to repeat yourself as they ‘didn’t catch that’. Awkward: this hasn’t happened for a while. What’s going on?
It’s probably happened to all of us at least once. You may need some vocal techniques. Interesting. Perhaps you had thought about exploring this before, but because authenticity is so important to you, you would be worried that using some ‘voice formula’ might make you come across as stiff or fake. Plus, even thinking about your delivery while you’re presenting might feel distracting, and distracted is the last thing you want to seem!
So, what to do? Just try to relax next time and hope your authenticity kicks in? Hope for the best?
We all have voices, and they’re all as unique as we are. A good vocal technique is a set of tools, a structure through which your authentic voice, and therefore your personality, flows. Of course, you don’t want to be stumbling through a detailed mental vocal checklist just before or during a presentation, when you already have enough to think about. Instead, good vocal exercises should be simple to switch on, easy to practise anywhere, and most of all are there to support and enhance your own inimitable style and message.
We may all be different, but the following can serve as good solid structures to underpin the clarity of your speech, whatever your accent:
1. Open your mouth! Creating space in your mouth lets your audience hear your sounds more distinctly, giving more colour and ‘frame’ to your words. Imagine little springs between your upper and lower back teeth, so that you are never talking through gritted teeth. Suddenly, your words are leaving your mouth more easily, landing effortlessly in your audience’s ears.
2. Breathe low! Adrenaline might kick in just before a presentation, causing your breath to be shallow and high in your chest. Next time you breathe in, imagine your favourite smell in the world, then inhale that coffee/chocolate/perfume right down to the bottom of your lungs. More than likely, you’ll notice some expansion in your lower body. This low breath is excellent fuel for that pitch! A couple of breaths like this before you speak will give you and your voice steadiness, strength and more gravitas.
3. Move your lips! Imagine you’re speaking to people who need to lip-read you. This encourages you to move your lips and tongue more precisely, making you articulate more clearly. This is particularly useful in a presentation situation as your words need to carry.
Like anything new, some of these may feel a little fake at first. Why not then try them out in ‘easier’ situations first? Open your mouth more when you call a taxi, breathe low at lunch with a colleague, or move your lips more next time you order coffee. Or simply take 5 minutes from your day to practise at home alone. Using these techniques when you are feeling less pressured will help build some muscle memory so that they will be much easier to apply even when the pressure is on.
I hope these tips can serve as something quick and simple to rely on so that you aren’t just hoping for the best next time you speak; you have a simple structure through which your ideas and personality can shine. Also: no more being asked to repeat yourself, which saves everyone time and trouble!
If you want to find out more about voice training in person or over Skype, contact me via www.clearspokenenglish.com