Are you a speaker at events? Have you been a guest speaker for a podcast? Have you delivered a speech at a seminar?
How often have you been asked to return?
If you are a frequent speaker, with the same events, chances are your voice is not an issue. But if you aren’t asked to return to speak, it could be that your voice is the problem.
What do I mean by this?
Some people are labeled as dynamic speakers. They know what to say. They understand their audience. They know how to motivate. And it’s likely they have overcome, in some way, the obstacle of their voice.
However, what can alienate an audience from a speaker whom they’ve opted to listen to is a distracting voice.
A distracting voice has one or many issues. Some examples include a voice that is cocky, condescending, raspy, Valley Girl (for those born post-1980s, click here for a good description), riddled with word whiskers, a speech impediment, heavy accent, too quiet, too loud, too fast and the list continues.
The issues with your voice could also tell your listeners you are unsure of yourself. You aren’t confident with the information you are giving. A strong voice, then, is important toward your goal of building trust.
But do not fear – voice challenges can be overcome with practice. Therefore, how can you avoid being the annoying speaker no one wants back?
Here are some tips to digest. Try the exercises at home or when you are able and see if you notice a difference in your speaking delivery.
Control your breathing
Believe it or not, the way we breathe affects our tone. Most people don’t realize they breathe from their chest, which restricts their voice. It comes out high-pitched, tight and raspy, which makes you sound tired.
If you consciously breathe from the diaphragm, this gives your voice power. Most important, it allows you to control your voice. When you practice your speech, remain cognizant of how you’re breathing. You can do this with the following exercises.
Try this exercise: Place your hands flat on your diaphragm with the tips of your fingers touching (you can do this lying on your back (best), sitting down or standing). As you breathe in, your hands should expand; when you breathe out, your fingers will pull together. If your hands are doing this, you’re breathing from your diaphragm. If they aren’t, you’re breathing from your chest.
Another exercise: Place one hand on your chest and the other on your diaphragm. Now try saying or singing an elongated “ah” sound – ahhhhhhhhh. Consciously sing this from your chest (your hand on your chest should move a little and your diaphragm hand should not). Do it again, only deliberately sing this from your diaphragm (now your hand on your diaphragm should move inward while the chest hand is stationary). You should notice a difference in the strength and depth of sound.
Stand in front of a mirror. Are your shoulders moving when you do the breathing exercises? Then you’re breathing from your chest. Breathing is a lot more choreographed than we realize!
Often, when people are given a time limit, they think this means they have to talk fast to cram in all the information they want to share. They have 60 minutes worth of information they stuff into 30 minutes. They slur their words and the audience feels as if they are at the Indy 500.
When you speak, your audience needs to absorb your words. This means you have to slow down. Pause. Breathe.
Don’t cram too much information into your time limit. Instead, choose the most important points and give a bit of information for each. You also want to allow time for questions, if the situation warrants. Then, if your audience needs more information, they’ll ask.
If you have so much information that you can’t fit it into one session, ask for an additional session. Or, put it in writing and offer it to your audience as a hand out.
Your goal is to make sure your audience walks away with new information they can use. And they can only handle so much. If you charge through your speech, they will walk away scratching their heads.
Try this: Practice your speech or read from a document out loud. Note the punctuation. If it’s a period, stop, then count to three. If it’s a comma, count to two. Do this for an entire page. Practice this method three times or more, depending on how well you do. The point of exaggerating your pausing will relax you and give your brain time to absorb this method. When you speak in front of the audience, you will speed up enough to talk normal, but your brain will remind you to pause at those periods and commas. You’ve created a pausing habit. You’ve also given space for your audience to absorb and think about each sentence thoroughly.
Avoid word whiskers
Word whiskers are the pesky words that creep into nervous speeches – um, ah, so, like, and, and so, and everything.
These are used because the speaker is unsure of him or herself and the information he is providing. He’s nervous. And each thought is interrupted with an “um” or something similar.
This is another reason to slow down and breathe. If your speech or interview or whatever you’re saying is interspersed with these word whiskers, you’ll turn off your listener for good. It’s distracting.
Therefore, know your speech. Collect your thoughts. If there are areas you need to research to understand what you’re talking about better and boost your confidence, do it.
Try this: Practice your speech. Record it and listen to how you sound. If you hear those word whiskers, concentrate on them when you speak again. Pinch yourself every time you say them if you have to. Or say, “excuse me.” Get into the habit of recognizing them so you can eliminate them.
Keep in mind: if you realize you use word whiskers when you’re not nervous (such as recording your voice), it’s a guarantee you use them more when speaking in front of an audience.
This will also help you avoid word whiskers. You know the adage: “think before you speak”? Thinking about what you want to say will guide your words. If someone asks a question, pause. Think about the best way to answer, and then respond.
Thinking about what you want to say, being clear ahead of time, means you’ll also avoid repeating yourself. Avoid the “like I said” phrases, because repetition isn’t necessary in every sentence or thought you deliver. Some speakers begin a sentence, backtrack a few words, then finish the sentence. And they continue this method throughout their delivery. That kind of repetition is difficult to follow, unnecessary and annoying.
But by the same token, don’t be a robot by giving a memorized speech. Be conversational and comfortable with your thoughts.
Try this: When your co-worker or family member asks you a question, count to three in your head. Acknowledge the question by repeating it back to make sure you understand it. Give yourself a few seconds to absorb it. Then respond with a clear answer. If you don’t know the answer, admit it, but tell that person you will find the answer and then get back to him or her. The purpose of this exercise is to help you get into the habit of gathering your thoughts before you open your mouth.
If you find yourself apologizing while you’re speaking, then an adjustment needs to be made. I once listened to a podcast where the guest speaker kept apologizing for talking too fast. Well, if she knew she was talking too fast, then she should have slowed down! If you apologize for inundating your audience with information, then stop inundating them. It’s that simple.
Most of us are aware of ourselves. Be honest. If you know you need to make an adjustment, if you know you’re doing something that might be driving your audience crazy, then stop doing it.
Apologies are made when your thoughts are unclear and you talk anyway. You’re nervous. You’re cramming in too much information.
If so, you need to pause. Take a deep breath. Sip from a glass of water. Regroup your mind.
Adjust your pitch, tone and volume
This also goes back to how we breathe. Our pitch or tone is affected by our breath control. We talk too high, too low and emphasize the wrong words, which is also due to nervousness.
On the flip side, you want to avoid being monotone. This is when your voice stays the same without any variation in tone or pitch. Nothing says “boring” like a monotone speech. If you say something exciting, smile and increase your pitch (be excited!).
Adjust for noise. The size of your audience, the layout of the room and surrounding internal and external distractions will dictate your volume control. When you begin, address the back of the room and ask if they can hear you. If they can’t, speak up. Even if you use a microphone, outside noises – such as an ambulance – means you have to speak louder. If the noise is so distracting you can’t possibly speak above it, then wait for it to pass. Your audience will understand because they hear it too.
Don’t lower your head or it will restrict your voice and contribute to that raspy sound. Look at your audience. Don’t shout, but continue to be mindful that the people in the very back need to hear you.
Try this: Record some of your speech or read a page from a book. Does your voice change in tone? Do you sound squeaky? Are you too quiet? Make adjustments where needed. You might try reading a page from a book that requires a variety of rise and fall in your voice because of dialogue or various emotions. Read in front of someone and get his or her feedback.
Some challenges with speech are sensitive and cannot necessarily be adjusted with practice. And not everyone realizes they have a speech impediment. Speech impediments, such as a lisp or slur, might need speech therapy to correct it. This is usually noticed and corrected when we’re young, but not always. However, if you are in a position or are planning to do a lot of public speaking, a speech impediment is distracting and could hinder others from understanding you.
Other obstacles could be stuttering or stammering, which is heightened under stressful circumstances. However, with a lot of practice, these impediments can be overcome.
And still another challenge is a heavy accent. This is not your problem if you speak a different native tongue than the majority of your audience – it’s your audience’s problem. But this will require more mental attention from them.
When we’re nervous, we speak faster, as noted above. And when we do this with a speech impediment or an accent, the audience has difficulty following along. If our volume is also too low, our audience is struggling. A struggling audience grows tired fast. We can only open our ears so wide and allow our brains to absorb so much. If we’re concentrating on trying to understand the speaker, we are not benefiting from the information.
Try this exercise: Stand up as if you were in front of an audience. Practice reading aloud, either from a book or newspaper. Choose something with difficult words. This will force you to slow down in your reading. Sound out the syllables. Remember phonics in school? Same idea. Record your reading and play it back for someone else. Or practice your speech in front of someone who will give you honest feedback, preferably someone who is a good reader.
Get honest feedback
Finally, ask the audience what they thought of your speech and your delivery. It could be a few people in the room on an individual basis (or in a survey). You could ask trusted friends who are not afraid to give you constructive criticism. Listen to the feedback without becoming defensive. Tell them you are always open for improvement and would like to know what they liked or didn’t like and why. Ask them if they could understand you when you shared the information.
Speaking takes a lot of practice. And since we’re not always the best judges of our own actions, we need to ask for guidance. Practice reading aloud. Record yourself. Play the recordings for your trusted advisers. After you deliver your speech, podcast or interview, ask those trusted advisers for specific feedback. Did you talk too fast or too slow? Were there a lot of word whiskers? What was your pitch or tone like? Write down specific areas you need to focus on to improve.
It takes time, but your delivery will progress with determination, conscientious criticism and practice.
Want more? Download my two-page quick guide: 7 tips for speech delivery