Ros and Neil Johnson, speech and drama specialists at Theatresaursus, explain the benefits for presentations of improving the voice, and offer some techniques.
Have you ever given a presentation or done any other form of public speaking? If so, you probably spent some time thinking about the words you were going to use and the ideas you were going to express. But, as Dr Emily Grossman has pointed out, when someone is speaking, most of the information we receive as an audience comes through the speaker's body language, their enthusiasm, and – very importantly – the tone of their voice.
Why is it important to improve the way we use our voice?
When we make a presentation or speak to a large group of people, it's important to have an authoritative and appealing tone of voice. This will come from the ability to make your voice resonate, as a resonant voice is more pleasing on the ear and can make you sound more confident. This in turn helps the audience relax and enjoy the presentation.
An audience will ‘pick up’ on your voice and respond favourably, potentially affording you a greater deal of respect and attention. Often, the audience won’t know or understand why this is the case, so having the ability to control and improve the way you use your voice can be a useful and powerful skill.
There are practical reasons, too. Using your voice skilfully can stop you getting a sore throat. When we shout, our vocal folds (often known as vocal chords) crash together and become swollen and red, sometimes causing damage. So learning how to use your voice by warming it up will prevent soreness in the throat.
How does our body produce sound?
Breath is the power behind the voice, but this is only the start. As we breathe in, our lungs expand. When we speak, the air comes up through the trachea, making the vocal folds (which are situated at the top of the trachea) vibrate. This creates sound. The ability to control the breath is very important and is the basis of all voice work.
We then use the resonators in our throat, nose, mouth and cheek cavities (sinuses) to amplify the sound, and our articulators (tongue, teeth, lips, etc.) to create specific sounds that become understandable words and therefore speech.
However, as with any sport or exercise, it is important to warm up before we start. This means first warming up our body from head to toe before we start to work on our voice.
Check through the body, shaking each part from the toes upwards. Shake your legs and arms. Then, stretch up to the ceiling or sky. Roll the shoulders and lift them up to the ears and then back down again, all the time making sure that they end in a relaxed position. Finally, relax your neck. Gently roll your head by first putting your chin on your chest and roll the head round to the back clockwise and anti-clockwise.
Yawn – this relaxes the throat and all the vocal areas. Then, yawn and stretch at the same time.
How do we improve our breath control?
The most important thing is to learn how to relax and allow yourself to expand and increase your breath capacity. The natural tendency is to breathe only in our upper chest, so learning to breath down into our lower lungs and using the diaphragm properly is the first step. The diaphragm is a muscle separating the thorax from the abdomen – by finding and exercising this muscle, we can learn to better control our breath during speech.
Lie on the floor on your back with feet on the floor, so that your legs are bent with your knees pointing upwards. Check your posture: you should be relaxed, shoulders down, fists unclenched, etc. Now mentally take a journey through your body from head to toe, making sure you are relaxed. Start with your feet, ankles, legs and work your way up to your head. When you find tension, ask your body to release it.
Relax and breathe. Take the breathing deeper, breathing in to a count of four (in your head). Breathe in through your nose and feel the breath expanding the ribs like an umbrella up and out. Place a hand just below your belly button and feel the belly rise and drop.
Remember you must try to be relaxed at all times – always check (see exercise 1) and do not force anything.
If the upper chest begins to lift while you are breathing, gently place a hand on it to keep it still and down. Release all the abdominal muscles. Take your time and breath in and out (in through the nose and out through the mouth). Breathe in and release the breath to produce a long 'huh...ahh' sound. Do this a few times.
Now, apply tension throughout the body so it is completely tense and then release. Feel your body relax.
Go back to your breathing – in through the nose and out through the mouth. Feel your muscles through your back and keep your upper body still, but not tense.
Now slowly stand up. Centre yourself with your legs shoulder-width apart, arms and shoulders relaxed, knees unlocked. Your head should be perched upon your neck. Make sure your chin is not jutting out or pulled in.
Let your head drop, chin to chest (relaxed) and then let your body roll down vertebrae by vertebrae so your body is hanging, arms loose, and stay like this hanging, relaxed and breathing. Roll back up (make sure your head comes up last). Hug yourself, with your arms, your hands touching your ribs. Roll down again into the hanging position. Breathe gently in and out and feel the rib cage move. Gently roll back up as before (head last).
This is a great exercise for feeling the movement needed in the ribcage and to help get the muscles working.
Please note: as this way of breathing may feel very different to what you are used to, you may not notice a great deal of movement to begin with. However, as with anything new, 'practice makes perfect'.
How do we articulate sound into speech?
Articulation creates the specific sounds that make up words. By using our tongue, teeth, palate and lips (our articulators), we create recognisable words. In order to be clear in our speech, we need to exercise our articulators by going through the vowel sounds. The following exercises 4-6 will help improve your articulation:
Make a 'hum' sound with your lips together but not tight – feel your lips tickle or vibrate. Move the 'hum' sound around inside your mouth from the lips to nose and back to the lips. Feel the vibrations in the different areas.
Chew some imaginary gum. Imagine it is growing and growing. Now, imagine you have toffee stuck in your mouth and use your tongue to get it out.
Always from a relaxed and centred position, say out loud:
'pah paw poo pee pay...pah paw poo pee pay'
'lah, law, loo lee lay...lah law loo lee lay'
'gah gaw goo gee gay...gah gaw goo gee gay'
Use these structures to go through different sounds and, in particular, sounds that you find difficult. For the 'lah' sound, the tip of the tongue should be behind the front teeth before flicking out to an open mouth.
Say out loud:
'ba da ga...ba da ga' (making the sound of the consonants, i.e., 'buh' not 'baah', 'duh' not 'daah', etc.). Repeat.
'pa ta ka...pa ta ka' (again make the sound of the letters 'p', 't' and 'k').
You can do this anywhere, but try to use your full voice and also whispering (which should always be voiceless).
Tongue twisters are also a good way to exercise the articulators and help improve fluency of articulation and diction. You can find many on the internet, for example: 'She sells sea shells on the sea-shore' and 'Peter piper picked a peck of pickled pepper'.
Place your hand on your chest and yawn. Feel the vibrations and resonance in your chest. Now say 'hello, hello, hello' from deep down in your chest.
Why is the ability to project our voices important?
If you want to be heard, you need to learn how to project. Projection comes from taking control of the breath.
If you can, arrange to visit the room you are going to be speaking in and walk around it. Use your speech and play with it, walking around while speaking, playing with the volume. Ask a colleague to listen to you – can they hear you clearly? Does your voice resonate?
Try speaking very slowly. Now try singing your speech. Now 'throw' your voice to the farthest wall. This should always be done from a place of relaxation. Check that your shoulders are down. Wriggle and roll them to check for tension. Check your posture.
Finally, make sure you check your pace – we always speak much faster than normal when we are nervous. Practise speaking very slowly. You will feel that it's too slow, but it almost certainly won’t be.
Ros and Neil Johnson are founders of Theatresaursus, which runs Shakespeare workshops, drama courses and holiday courses. They recently delivered a course for teachers and trainers at the British Council in Malaysia about how to use theatre-based techniques in the classroom.