So many people come to me saying things like “I feel like my voice is too thin”, or “I feel like people don’t hear me in meetings”, or “I don’t sound as authoritative as I’d like”, or “I don’t have enough power or depth when I sing.”
While there are many physical and emotional layers to each individual person that contribute to their ability to speak up clearly, I’ve compiled this little ‘starter pack’ of a few simple, but meaningful steps anyone can take in your daily life to help build a little more vocal strength, projection and confidence.
Let’s dive in.
1) Find Your Feet
Bringing awareness to the bottoms of your feet touching the ground is a simple and effective way to upright your posture, while also gently activating your leg, abdominal and lower back muscles, and releasing your neck, chest and shoulder muscles. This coordinated action creates more space in the body to allow for deeper inhales, while also creating the strength and support needed on the exhale to create a more steady, clear, and robust sound.
Additionally, when we stand up straight and connect to our low body it automatically helps us to feel more calm, balanced, open and fluid. Compare that to the anxiety, doubt, hurriedness or stress we feel when we are stuck up in our shoulders, check, neck and throat. Periodically noticing your feet touching the ground throughout the day will help you begin reset your mind/body connection, notice where you hold tension and help you release it, as well as help you feel more generally grounded and confident. Finding your feet right before you have to speak or sing allows you to create a solid foundation and a strong voice from the ground up.
Try This Exercise:
Step 1: Bring your attention to the bottoms of your feet touching the ground.
Step 2: Distribute the weight evenly between the balls and heels of your feet. Notice how you’re already standing up a little straighter.
Step 4: Push your feet into the ground a little bit. Do you feel a little bit taller? Did you shoulders relax a little? Does your spine feel a little more spacious and less compressed?
Step 5: Keep some of your attention on your feet while you take 2 or 3 slow, deep breaths. See if you can inflate our belly a little when you inhale to encourage your shoulders to stay relaxed. Doesn’t it feel good to stand up straight and breathe?
Step 6: Keep some of your attention on your feet while saying a sentence or two. If you’re not sure what to say, just read this sentence out loud.
How did it feel to speak in this posture? Was it a little easier? Did you forget about your feet once you added in the speaking part? What happened to your posture by the end of the sentence? Did it go back to its original more slouchy shape? Go back to step 1 and repeat the sequence a few times and notice what changes to the ease of speaking and the quality and strength of your voice. Then move on to the next section.
2) Open Your Mouth
Although the sound of our voice originates in the throat, we do not project the voice from the throat. It sounds crazy and counterintuitive, I know, but hang in there with me while I explain.
You see, inside your mouth there are the hard surfaces like the teeth, jaw and hard palate, and there are squishy surfaces, like the tongue, the back of the throat and the soft palate. If we try to project the voice by pushing or squeezing our way through the squishy surfaces, it doesn’t work. The voice will quickly get tired, start to crack, feel weak or gravelly, quit working altogether, or otherwise do something to embarrass us or undermine our confidence or authority. Rather, to create a clear, rich tone of voice, we need to essentially bounce the sound off of the hard surfaces in our mouth, so it can launch out into the world. This requires an open mouth.
That’s not to say that the throat and tongue don’t have jobs. They change shape and move around depending on the consonant, vowel, volume, pitch, etc. This also doesn’t imply that the mouth will be open the same amount all the time. Different vowels require different amounts of space in the mouth, but we’ll talk about these details and nuances in a later article. Since most people don’t realize that they’re barely opening our mouth at all, for the purposes of what we are trying to accomplish today, simply noticing when and if your mouth is open will be enough.
Try This Exercise:
Step 1: Stand in front of a mirror.
Step 2: Find your feet like you did above.
Step 3: Say “Hello, My Name is [ ___________].”
How fast did you say it? Did you mumble or were you clear? Did you feel lots of vibrations, squeezing, or activity in your throat?
Step 4: Say the phrase again, this time half as fast.
Did it feel easier? Did it sound clearer? Did you feel fewer vibrations, work or activity in your throat?
Step 5: Open your mouth approximately 2 inches from top to bottom.
Notice how weirdly big your mouth feels.
Step 6: Say the sentence again, very slowly, opening your mouth that big on every syllable: “HEH-LOW, MAI, NAYM, ES….”
That feels even weirder, right? Totally awkward and uncontrollable, yeah? Hang in there…we’re going somewhere good, I promise.
Step 7: Say the phrase one more time without thinking about how big your mouth is. Go nice and slow. Maybe smile a little.
Did it feel nice and easy and extra clear? Was your throat fairly relaxed and did it feel almost effortless to make the sounds?
In this exercise that practice was opening the mouth way too big in order to counteract the fact that we usually open our mouths way too small. Play around with this exercise a few times in the mirror, and see what it feels like when you try opening up different amounts.
3) Inhale More Often
Breathing is a long and lengthy subject that we’ll dig into in later posts. For this article, we’re going to focus on one simple aspect of breathing that will have an impact on the quality of your tone:
Inhale More Often.
To create a rich and clear tone, there are 4 good reasons why you’ve got to inhale more often:
Reason #1: Your body creates sounds by moving air through your vocal cords. If no air goes in, no air comes out. Ergo, no sound is created.
Oftentimes, when we feel we are running out of air as we sing or speak, we speed up and try to get all the words out as fast as we can. The problem with this approach is that not only do we end up running out of breath anyway, our words also trail off or fade away so we aren’t heard.
Reason #2: On top of that, we start gripping the sound in our throat in an effort to regain control, which, as we learned above, will fatigue our voices, minimize our resonance, and completely undermine our strength, stamina and control. The answer is not to rush through with what little air we have, but to instead give ourselves permission, time and space to take another breath.
Reason #3: Breathing calms the nervous system, which helps us stay more relaxed and present. Every time you inhale, you get a little boost of “I’m fine. I can do this.” This makes us more confident going into the next sentence. Each inhale also gives us a mini opportunity to reset our posture and reconnect with our feet on the ground, which creates and maintains additional space and muscle support for the next breath.
Reason #4: Pausing for inhales helps us set the pace of what we’re saying, allowing us extra time and space to enunciate, as well as providing us with the time and space to be authentic and intentional with what we’re communicating.
Try This Exercise:
Step 1: Find your feet.
Step 2: Read the following quote aloud:
“To find one’s center, and one’s own rhythm (of breathing, of moving, of being alone, and of being together with others) is the purpose, and the purpose is found in the process. This means the dropping of defenses, of body armor, of character armor, to become soft and pliant in one’s own inner being.”
Did you take a breath before you began? Probably not. Did you run out of breath somewhere along the way? Probably. Did you feel rushed or nervous? Maybe. Did you open your mouth? I doubt it.
Step 4: Find your feet again.
Step 5: Read the following paragraph aloud, and breathe where prompted. (I suggest inhaling through your mouth for this exercise.)
[Inhale] “To find one’s center, and one’s own rhythm [inhale] (of breathing, of moving, of being alone, and of being together with others) is the purpose, [inhale] and the purpose is found in the process. [inhale] This means the dropping of defenses, [inhale] of body armor, [inhale] of character armor, [inhale] to become soft and pliant in one’s own inner being.”
It changes things to inhale more often, right? How did it change for you? Did you have more power? Were you more clear? Did you sound more confident or authoritative? What did you notice about the way the emphasis shifted? How hard was it to remember to inhale, even with the prompts? Did you feel more calm, relaxed or confident when you got to the end? Did you notice you were opening your mouth a little more without really thinking about it?
4) Slow Down
Our brain thinks at a rate of about 4 times faster than our mouth can speak. Imagine what might happen in a scenario in which you are nervous or uncomfortable. In one of those crazy situations in which time completely warps and you feel intense pressure to blurt out something really clever and important, as fast as you can.
Believe it or not, when you slow down, you can say more. Why? Because it ties together all the things we’ve already covered:
Find Your Feet:
When you slow down, you can take a moment to set up your posture and relax any muscles that are tight. You being from a place of feeling grounded and calm, while also creating more space to breathe. Because you’ll be nice and calm, you won’t fish around for filler words, like ‘uh’, ‘um’, ‘like’, etc, and you’ll get to your point in a more concise manner.
Open Your Mouth:
When we speak more slowly, we have more time to enunciate each syllable of each word. This allows the sound to resonate clearly out of our mouth and into the room. It also helps us pronounce everything more clearly, which enables the listener to understand us better.
Inhale More Often:
Simply put, when you slow your pace, you have more time to inhale, and you don’t rush to the ends of phrases. You feel more calm and in control of what you are saying, and your voice comes out with less effort, and more authenticity, intention, spirit and color. Inhaling more often encourages us to slow down. Slowing down encourages us to inhale more often. Inhaling also reminds us to stand up straight. When we stand up straight, we have more confidence for opening our mouth. When we feel more confident, we speak a little more slowly and articulately. As these things continue to work together more and more, you will notice that your tone will continue to get clearer and richer.
Try This Exercise:
Step 1: Set a timer for 20 seconds and read the quote from the exercise above, while trying to take the entire 20 seconds to do so.
Were you able to fill the 20 seconds? Did 20 seconds go by quickly or feel like an eternity? Did you breathe? Did you open your mouth? Did you maintain your posture?
Step 2: Play with different lengths of time, and move the inhale prompts to different places.
How does the emphasis change? How is your posture affected?
Remember: Consistency Creates Consistency
To really develop vocal clarity and confidence, you’ll want to practice these steps regularly until they become muscle memory. Owning your voice is an ongoing practice, and to be fair, we could spend days and days digging into each one of these steps individually. I hope that this little starter pack has provided you with a simple, yet meaningful way to begin thinking about and practicing these concepts so that you can confidently speak up and be heard.
This is an updated version of an article first written by Sam Whitehouse and published Sept. 13, 2018.