Vocal Presence – Using your Voice to Own the Space
Our delivery style is crucial to getting a message across effectively to our audience, and one of the key factors in delivery is using our voice to create power, warmth and persuasiveness.
Our voice gives our audience clear messages about our confidence, energy and vitality. When we contract and mentally “turn away” from the audience, our voice follows; we swallow our words, mumble and rush, or become monotonous or ‘lifeless’ in our tone.
Of course, one thing which will always affect vocal presence is how much we trust ourselves and the value of what we’re saying. Every time we speak, we have the opportunity to come from history or possibility. We can choose to to project, to be powerful, and to be greater than our past speaking experience.
It takes courage to speak up and be willing to be heard, and depending on the starting point it will take time, patience and practice in a safe space; but the benefits are enormous. In any moment where we have an opportunity to speak up, we have a choice.
Let’s take a look at one of the factors which gets in the way of having a strong vocal presence. Today I’m going to focus on an issue which frequently causes my clients to have vocal problems:
Breath – lack of good breathing technique.
Breath is vocal fuel: sound relies on using our bones to create resonance, and breathing properly gives us that. Sound also travels on air: so steady breath and enough oxygen will help you to create a strong vocal presence.
Specifically, what works is low breathing (imagine you have a ‘belt of nostrils’) into the ribs – and into your back. Thinking of a ‘belt of nostrils’ will help you become more aware of your back, as we often think only of the front half of our body when we breathe.
Clients often say to me “well I can’t focus on my breath when I’m actually speaking, can I?” And of course it’s a challenge when you’re focused on what you’re trying to say, and wondering whether your boss’s yawn means that you’re doing a bad job. So your first goal is to become aware of how you breath normally, and then how you breathe if you’re anxious. (When we’re anxious, we naturally go into high, shallow breathing.)
Then, once you’re more aware of how you breathe, start to practise low, relaxed breaths (longer exhale than inhale) when you’re not stressed. If you can start to do this, you have a chance to do it when you are anxious or stressed out.
Once you’ve practised focusing on gentle, calming breaths, you can do them:
- while you’re waiting to present; maybe sitting at your desk before a meeting or virtual conference. Or while you’re being introduced just before you say your first words
- during a presentation: while you’re moving to a new point, new paragraph, or transitioning to a new slide. You can also take time to breathe while letting the audience read a slide with text before you start to speak.
Keeping the breath going across your vocal cords will also prevent another common vocal issue: swallowing or ‘grinding’ the ends of sentences (also known as vocal fry). ‘Grinding’ is particularly common in women. If you’re not sure what I mean, here is a recent article with examples of speakers with vocal fry.
When we breath in a new, stronger way, it’s easy to try to do too much. Don’t take deep breaths – if you’re nervous, that will just cause you to start hyper-ventilating (taking in too much air!). Just allow the air into your lungs, don’t force or strain.
Finally, remember: if you practise when you’re in normal, everyday situations, you’ll be able to access a calming breath when you’re under pressure.
If you don’t practise, you might try it when you’re stressed out, find it hard to access, and decide it doesn’t work.
If your body learns how to use low, slow breaths to calm yourself, it truly is a great tool for your public speaking events.