Practical tips for projecting your voice
As we wind up this month's focus on presentations Helen Sewell delivers an updated version of the TrainingZone guide to projecting your voice, including tips for voice projection exercises.
The art of voice projection is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the Blackadder episode 'Sense and Senility' when the actors Keanrick and Mossop attempt to teach the Prince Regent the art of speaking in public. Asked to research and write this article, I thought I might save myself a job by providing a link to the said episode and the words: 'Like this, but less so'. Nevertheless to save the classrooms and boardrooms across the UK the sight of trainers roaring, with impossibly splayed legs, here is a slightly more acceptable approach.
Projecting - not shouting
Projecting the voice is not just shouting louder – that can strain and ultimately damage the vocal cords – but a way of speaking that uses the diaphragm, an umbrella shaped muscle which lurks at the bottom of the stomach above your belly button. The strength of the speaking voice is marked by the amount of air that can be steered by the diaphragm through the lungs to the vocal cords.
"Projecting the voice does not involve just shouting louder – that can strain and ultimately damage the vocal cords. Projecting is a way of speaking that uses your belly muscles to push the sound up and out of you.” Says voice projection expert Helen Sewell.
Get your posture right
The first step to mastering the art of voice projection in any situation is good posture. Bad posture, slumping or hunching, can tense up the muscles used for both breathing and the voice – stand up and straight, with hips over legs and ears over shoulders, with your weight evenly balanced and muscles relaxed, and you already have a sound basis for projecting the voice.
Stand upright, your head resting comfortably above the spine. Roll your shoulders back gently and your hips slightly forward while tucking the tailbone in at the base of the spine for support. Stand with your feet comfortably apart.
Having improved posture, there are a series of simple exercises that can improve and control your breathing. Initially find your diaphragm by placing both hands, finger to finger beneath the ribcage, then breathe in. Your fingertips should be pushed apart as the diaphragm moves, and they should come back together as you breathe out: this second stage is what needs to happen when projecting your voice.
It is important to remember that a strong voice doesn't come from the vocal cords in the throat: they shape the breath from the lungs as it passes out of the body. Vocal strength depends on the power of that breath. The inhaled air is taken down to the diaphragm and released up and outwards over the vocal cords, into the mouth to be shaped into words before being released.
Put one hand on your belly and the other on your back, just like you are about to take a bow – now take a deep breath and try to allow the hand on your stomach to move as far away from the spine as possible. To do this, you are taking air deep into the lungs ensuring yourself a good supply of air on which to start speaking. This is called 'belly breathing'.
Breathe in deeply. When you exhale, say the first letter of the alphabet. Breathe in again and continue through to Z, one letter at a time, projecting each sound further and further away. Rest a little if you begin to feel light-headed, but by the time you reach Z your voice should be both loud and strong.
Lie down, knees and neck supported by a cushion, and put your hands on your belly, breathing in deeply and evenly. Make an 'S' sound when breathing out and keep it going as long as possible – aim for 15 or 20 seconds. Try different sounds like 'sh' or 'f'.
Also key to good speaking are the resonators in the head that, like speakers, place and pitch the voice outwards. The larynx, nose, mouth and throat are all resonating chambers helping to focus the sound, it is their differing shapes and sizes in individuals that make us each sound unique.
Discover how to control resonant focus by imagining the sound coming towards the front of your mouth. Try to feel vibrations in your lips or behind your top teeth. This will make your voice sound richer.
Explore head resonance by holding your nose, a finger on each side lightly, and hum to feel the vibrations of sound. The louder the hum, the stronger the vibrations and it is these vibrations that need to be recreated when you want your voice to cut across a noisy space. Hum louder, softer, say a few words and explore the resonators, a bit like tuning a radio, till you find a frequency you are comfortable with while projecting out.
Take your time
It is more than volume that is essential in projecting the voice, it's just as important to be understood as well as heard. Many people tend to speak too quickly, too low or just mumble the words so that meaning gets lost in a sea of bad enunciation. Practise speaking words or phrases that need to be clearly enunciated out loud – I eat ice-cream, effervescence, for example – stressing each syllable of each word. Try a few tongue twisters – red lorry, yellow lorry, or the sixth sick sheik's sixth sheep's sick – to improve delivery.
Having improved posture, breathing, placement, pitch and pronunciation, it is time to project. Take a 'belly breath' and pick a target to project your voice at – a wall, a chair, the dog/husband/wife – and practice.
Once you are shown what to do, then with repetition, the skills required to project your voice across a room and catch everyone's attention will become second nature.
Repetition is the most important tool in the art of voice projection: repeating new skills learned will eventually eradicate old habits and any inhibitions and a five-minute warm-up routine, involving the breathing and humming exercises, before any major presentation will increase vocal endurance.
But there is a word of warning. While it’s easy to read about vocal projection, it’s not always easy to achieve by yourself: “Projecting your voice should be simple and natural. But when you try new techniques without professional guidance it’s easy to pick up potentially damaging habits," says Helen Sewell. "The only way to ensure that you are ‘getting it right’ is to check with an expert. Then practice, practice, practice, and your vocal projection will become an everyday part of you.”
For more information:
Presentations training company Simply Speaking's website has some practical tips which are worth a look:
The British Voice Association also has lots of detailed information on its website, including a review of
the seminal book Finding Your Voice by voice 'guru' Barbara Houseman LINK to http://www.voicecoach.tv/coaches/BarbaraHouseman.htm - this book is recommended by TrainingZone.co.uk member Juliet LeFevre. The BVA celebrates an annual World Voice day in April each year.
TrainingZone.co.uk member Pilar Orti also recommends Patsy Rodenburg's book The Right to Speak. Patsy is the head of voice at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. http://www.gsmd.ac.uk/acting/people/staff_profiles/department_of_drama/directors_include/patsy_rodenburg.html
Patsy was interviewed by Jenni Murray on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour last year, and talks in particular about presence. At the time of writing, you can listen again to this interview by clicking here - well worth ten minutes of anyone's time, as she gives some goood tips!
The great Cicely Berry, voice director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, has also written several books, Your Voice & How to Use it amongst them. A documentary of her work 'Where Words Prevail' was produced by an American company, and appears to still be available from here:
Jodie Hawkins is a freelance journalist and feature writer. With great thanks to Helen Sewell (MA Voice), a voice training expert at Simply Speaking for her help with this article. Thanks also to Juliet LeFevre and Pilar Orti for their feeddback when this article first appeared.
Do you specialise in presentations training? Or perhaps you have some advice on projecting your voice from your own experience? Please let us know. You can post any comments below.