Some years ago, I was on my school's debate team. To be good at debate, you must be able to think critically on your feet, argue logically, and thoroughly research and prepare for the topic. But your most valuable commodity is your voice.
Whether it was memorizing and practicing speaking along to tongue-twisting rap songs or having my teammates lob erasers and pencils in my direction when I said “um” or “like,” I spent hours of my life learning to speak quickly, clearly, and effectively.
Of course, sales is a far cry from the world of debate, where speakers often blaze through their arguments at 200 words per minute. But clarity and the ability to communicate are critical in both settings.
Your voice is the foundation of successful communication. Keeping it in good physical shape and effectively harnessing it to speak in front of audiences ensures your information and insights are heard and understood by prospects and customers. Read on to learn how to keep your voice in tip-top shape and use it to your best advantage.
Keep it Healthy
First, some science. Your voice is produced by three separate body parts: your lungs, your vocal cords, and your larynx. Your lungs provide exhaled air -- your voice’s “power source.” Your vocal cords, which are located inside your larynx, vibrate when you speak. At this point, your voice mostly sounds like buzzing. Your mouth, nose, and throat are known as the "resonator system:" they take the buzzing and shape it into a voice.
Your voice, like the rest of your body, is a finely calibrated system. Some small lifestyle changes can make all the difference in maintaining it.
1) Don’t shout.
This probably doesn’t come as a shock, but the louder you speak (or shout), the more force is exerted on your vocal cords. Your vocal cords get stretched when you yell, and enough stretching will eventually stress the cords and cause hoarseness. If you’re constantly yelling, your vocal cords could suffer serious damage.
Of course, it goes without saying that you should never shout in a meeting with a client -- but you already knew that.
2) Drink lots of water.
Human beings are made up of more than 60% water, and there’s not a single bodily organ that can function without it. Even bones are more than a fifth water.
Besides the fact that drinking more water is generally good for you, it’ll also keep your voice in peak condition. Your vocal cords and larynx exist in a warm, moist environment. Maintaining that environment is important to keep your voice system at an optimal level of performance, so make sure you’re staying hydrated.
3) Avoid reflux.
Have you ever woken up in the morning with a hoarse voice even when you don’t have a cold? You may have mild reflux.
Gastric reflux can give you heartburn or chest pain, but laryngopharyngeal reflux, which occurs when stomach acid travels up to your larynx and throat, might not trigger any dramatic symptoms in your body beyond a hoarse or sore throat. Your larynx isn’t naturally protected against exposure to acid, so reflux can easily affect your voice. High-fat or high-carbohydrate diets and excessive drinking or smoking can all contribute to reflux.
To prevent reflux, avoid food or drink for three hours before you go to sleep. Foods that stimulate stomach acid production -- think fried, spicy, acidic foods, caffeine, and alcohol -- should be eaten sparingly. Antacids can also help.
Use it Right
Now that your voice is in peak physical condition, how can you put it to use? Whether you’re looking to speak more clearly or project better, a few simple tricks can help you become a more effective public speaker.
4) Talk with a pen in your mouth.
No, this isn’t a joke. In fact, speaking with objects in your mouth to improve speech clarity goes all the way back to the Greeks. Demosthenes, an orator and statesman, is said to have practiced his speeches with pebbles in his mouth.
Just as athletes train with ankle weights so they can run faster or jump higher when the weights come off, trying to speak around a bulky obstacle will make your speech dramatically clearer when it’s removed.
Bite down on a pen across your teeth and read out loud as clearly as you can for five to 10 minutes a day. Talking around the pen will force you to open your mouth wider and make exaggerated movements with your tongue.
If you find yourself garbling your words, this simple exercise can help clarify your speech. Your speaking won’t become automatically clearer overnight. But keep at it for a few weeks, and your enunciation will improve.
5) Breathe in, breathe out.
The fight-or-flight response is an automatic physiological reaction triggered by stress. When we enter fight-or-flight mode, our heart and breathing rate increase, our muscles tighten, and our blood vessels constrict.
If you tense up when making a presentation, it’s likely you perceive the act of public speaking to be “dangerous,” and your body is reacting accordingly. This might mean you speak breathlessly without taking pauses, or run through slides as quickly as possible.
The next time you’re slated to give a presentation, allot 10 to 15 minutes before to calm yourself. Merely taking deep breaths can help relax you and get you into a good mental space to present. Reminding yourself to keep breathing at regular intervals throughout your presentation will also help keep your heart rate and breathing under control.
And finally, this isn’t based on any science, but I’ve always found that being in meetings with a speaker who’s clearly anxious or tense makes me nervous as well -- sympathetic stress, you might say. If you keep your cool, your audience will come out of meetings happier as well.
6) Stand up straight.
Good posture can make a world of difference, both psychologically and physically. According to Amy Cuddy’s popular TED talk on body language, simply standing up straight or practicing “power poses” such as raising your arms above your head boosts your confidence.
But good posture will also help you in other ways. Standing up straight opens up your ribcage, giving your lungs more room to fill with oxygen -- and not being hunched over means air flow will improve. Your voice will also carry farther and clearer if you’re not mumbling into the ground. You’ve got great information to share with the world -- don’t whisper it!
Everyone can get better at public speaking. By paying attention to the little things consistently, you’ll set yourself up for a healthier voice -- and better presentations.
Originally published Apr 14, 2015 8:30:00 AM, updated June 11 2021