BY JOYCE NEWMAN, THE NEWMAN GROUP, INC.
An interview with Marjorie Feinstein-Whittaker, owner and principal consultant at The Whittaker Group
What kind of vocal issues do corporate executives have when they retain you for coaching?
A little girl voice
After ruling out any voice conditions that require medical assessment and/or intervention, many corporate executives seek voice and communication training for subjective, personal reasons. Speakers may complain that their voice doesn’t convey the emotions behind their words, they talk too fast, or they just don’t like the sound of their voice.
Often managers express concerns about sounding boring or monotone. People have conveyed to me that they consider their voices to be whiny, nasal, abrasive, immature, or too loud. Others want to minimize a strong regional accent, because they believe it will make them sound more credible or professional. There are many, many reasons people seek out this type of coaching.
Does voice coaching help when someone has an accent that is impeding understanding of his or her communications?
Absolutely. Sometimes my clients who don’t speak English as a first language have difficulty thinking of the exact words they want to say, or the best way to phrase something. They tend to fill the void with empty fillers and stereotypic remarks such as uh, er, um, you know, it was like. These interjections are distracting and detract from the speaker’s professionalism.
We work on using well-placed, brief pauses to give speakers time to think and organize their thoughts in a more meaningful and concise manner. Another challenge is appropriately using the “music” of North American English to help communicate effectively. Learning what to stress in a word or sentence can make a huge difference in how well a speaker is understood.
For example, clients learn how to effectively use a higher pitch, louder volume, and longer vowels to make the desired word “stand out.” I believe the suprasegmentals (stress and intonation) are a critically important aspect of training for nonnative English speakers. Many people rush through their talks, in an effort to get them over with with as soon as possible.
It is important to learn how to phrase things well, and pause in appropriate places for maximum impact. Learning how to pay attention to punctuation can help, in addition to marking up notes with reminders as where to pause and take a quick replenishing breath.
Speakers also need to learn how to read the audience’s non-verbal messages, and make adjustments in rate, voice projection, or vocal variety to keep them engaged. Due to cultural differences, this area may need to be explored in greater detail with non-native speakers, or English speakers addressing an international audience.
What are some tips that people can use to calm down and get their voices ready before a speech or presentation?
A Vocal Warm-up
Your voice can immediately reveal to the audience that you are feeling nervous. Common telltale symptoms include a “frog in the throat,” shortness of breath, a weak, soft voice, nervous giggling, a cracking voice, and more.
I encourage my clients to do a 5-10 minute vocal warm-up before a speech or presentation, just as athletes stretch before a race. Some simple activities include humming a simple song aloud (this “buzzing” feeling around your nose and mouth helps to develop rich sounding resonance); going up and down a musical scale making “siren” sounds; lip trills (raspberries); a yawn followed by an audible sigh, etc.
Generally, it’s important to relax the speech muscles. Undue tension in the mouth and throat can make it difficult to speak freely.
Other helpful techniques to calm down before a talk include:
- Breathe! Take a few slow, easy inhalations and exhalations, as if trying to make a candle flicker.
- Visualize. Imagine a receptive and smiling audience.
- Use positive self-talk. Repeat a phrase such as “ I am relaxed and prepared.”
- Practice progressive relaxation/meditation. Yoga classes are great.
- Exercise. Loosen up your shoulders, neck, and back with gentle stretches or take a quick walk to channel nervous energy.
- Rehearse. Practice out loud as much as you can before the presentation. Use audio/visual feedback; ask trusted colleagues or a trainer for input.
Many women aren’t taken seriously because they have “little girl” voices. How can you help them to build more authority in their voices?
This is a common problem for many women. We often work on learning how to end statements with a downward pitch, as in a standard declarative sentence. When speakers use “up-talk,” the ubiquitous teenage style of raising pitch at the end of a statement, they can be perceived as immature, inexperienced, or insecure.
Another area of concern is voices trailing off at the end of a remark. This implies what is being said isn’t very important, so why bother listening? It is best to project your voice, and make sure that you maintain the same volume for the duration of a thought. Think of a scale from 1-5. If you start out with a strong, loud “5” don’t end with a barely audible “1″.
This is where breathing techniques come in handy. I spend a lot of time working on good standing and sitting posture, focusing on abdominal breathing. Shallow, quick breaths (you can see someone’s shoulders hike up when they do this) are not going to give you the power you want. It is also helpful to speak at the peak of exhalation, and not when you are almost out of breath. Imagine a balloon almost out of air. That is not when you want to begin talking! Take replenishing breaths when you need them, and use shorter words and sentences if you typically find yourself running on empty at the end of a sentence. Open your mouth wide when speaking to project more effectively.
Are there foods a speaker should avoid before presenting that would affect his/her voice?
Yes. I recommend avoiding dairy products because they can generate phlegm and thicken saliva, causing the speaker to smack or lick his/her lips or swallow frequently, and often audibly.
Hard and crunchy foods such as popcorn and nuts are best to avoid as they can get caught and cause excessive throat clearing or coughing. Carbonated beverages should be avoided for the obvious reasons. Stay well hydrated by drinking plain lukewarm water, or decaffeinated green or herbal teas. Eating a crisp, green apple before a talk to cleanse your mouth is helpful as well.
Consuming well-balanced, nutrient dense meals will benefit not only your voice, but also your energy, mental clarity, and mood.
Marjorie Feinstein-Whittaker is owner and principal consultant at The Whittaker Group in Boston, MA, and is co-founder of ESL RULES. Her companies provide assessment and consultation services to both native and nonnative English speakers.
Marjorie develops and delivers specialized foreign and regional accent modification programs and customized workplace communication programs for those seeking to improve the clarity and effectiveness of their speech and communication. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.