I won’t surprise you if I tell you that your voice, as a public speaker, is your most important tool. Sure, the rest of your body is important too, as you can communicate a lot through your body language: how you move your arms, how much eye contact you make with the audience, how you walk on stage, the mimics you do with your face, your hand gestures, and so on. But none of that is as important as your voice.
In this article, I’ll tell you why your voice is such a precious asset, and how to take care of it and get the most out of it when you speak in public. Because if you don’t use it correctly, you might suffer from serious issues in the long run.
Killing The “Communication Is Mostly Non-Verbal” Sacred Cow
Yes, it’s been said time and again that communication is mostly non-verbal, while verbal communication only accounts for a small percentage. As far as I know, this myth was first introduced in 1972, in an study from a researcher called Albert Mehrabian. The study was more nuanced than that, but it was popularised as the idea that “93% of communication is nonverbal”. So, you may think “since non-verbal communication is way more important, why should I care about my voice?”
Well, I have a ton of things to say about that. But long story short: the “communication is mostly non-verbal” myth is dead wrong.
You don’t believe me? OK. Then let’s make a thought experiment.
Let’s say you’re at a conference, as an audience member. A very technical, advanced conference about a topic you have expertise on. It could be anything: hedge funds leverage risk analysis, the importance of hyper-parameter tuning in deep learning, the concept of Dasein in Heidegger’s philosophy, or, heck, what team is going to win the tournament in the next few weeks and why. And you’re here to learn more about this very specialized topic.
And, let’s say, in this conference, there’s a weird tradition. As an audience member, you must choose if you’ll attend in room A or room B.
In room A, you will see the “speaker” on stage. But I’m putting “speaker” in quotes, because he won’t be allowed to speak. Because, you know, communication is mostly non-verbal anyway, so why bother with words? Of course, there will be no powerpoint either, but be sure the “speaker” will use all of his body language to enlighten you. The audience can ask questions at the end of the keynote, but of course, no word allowed either.
In room B, you will not see the speaker. There is no light, the room is completely dark. You will only hear the speaker, his words, and all the subtle nuances in his voices. As if you were listening to the radio, or to a podcast. At the end of the talk the audience will be allowed to ask questions too, but no body language allowed. Only spoken words.
So, if you really want to learn more about your pet topic, which room will you choose? Certainly not room B, I mean, you don’t even make eye contact with the speaker, how could you connect with him? Right?
Do as you wish, but I’d choose room B.
Actually, as I said above, in his study on non-verbal communication, Mehrabian was more nuanced. He said the actual words only counted for 7%, tone of voice for 38%, and facial expressions for 55%. Still wrong, because if that was true Mehrabian would have chosen to mime about his study rather than write about it, but at least it takes into consideration the importance of your voice.
So, how should you take care of your precious vocal organs?
Learning How To Breathe
The first thing you must learn, if you want to take care of your voice, is how to breathe properly.
“What?” I hear you yelling. “But of course I can already breathe properly, or else I’d aldreay be dead by now!”
Of course you would. But stop yelling (you’re hurting your vocal cords), and let me explain.
You see, as adults (young children don’t seem to suffer from this problem, for some reason) we naturally tend to breath from our shoulders, or more precisely from the upper part of our lungs. Meaning, we don’t take deep breathes. We don’t really fill our lungs with air. I’ll call this kind of breating shallow breathing. Which is OK in day-to-day life (it kept you alive for many years, after all), but it is far from optimal when you have to make use of your voice. Because, when you speak (or sing), you are breathing out. You are exhaling an air flow through your vocal cords, and that’s what makes a sound.
In day-to-day life, usually you don’t have to speak loud, so exhaling this way is OK. But things start to get more complicated when you have to speak louder, like when speaking in public, in front of an audience.
If you want to speak louder, you have to send more air through your vocal cords. And there are 2 ways to do it: the bad one, and the good one.
The bad one consists in tightening the muscles in your throat. That’s what you do, not consciously. You don’t even have to think about it, you do it naturally. The problem is, when you do that for a long period of time, you get a sore throat, because you basically over-used these muscles. Not only that, but you’re putting a lot of stress on your vocal cords, which can have consequences on the long run.
The good way consists in breathing from your diaphragm. The diaphragm is the muscle at the bottom of your chest. It’s that muscle that responsible when you have hiccups. By breathing from your diaphragm, you are filling your lungs with much more air than with the “traditional” way. And that, in turn, will let you exhale more strongly without straining your thorat muscles or your vocal cords. If you breathe this way, you can speak loudly for hours straight without losing your voice for the next few days! That’s why all professional actors and singers breathe this way, and that’s why you should do it, too.
Now, you may be wondering: how do I know how I breathe, and how can I fix it?
Look at yourself in front of a mirror and put your hands on your belly. Now inhale. Did you see your shoulders move upwards. If so, your doing shallow breathing. Try to breathe from your belly. To do that, try to push your hands with your belly, while inhaling. At the same time, your shoulders should not move. If you can do that, you’ll feel your lungs are really full of air. And now, try to say a long vowel, for instance try to say “aaaaaaaaaaah” for as long as you can, and as loudly as you can, while keeping your throat as relaxed as possible. Once you know how to breathe properly, you’ll be surprised at how easy this is.
Oh, and, the good news is, breathing this way will relax you, too. Because you’ll take fewer, longer breathes. So, if you suffer from public speaking anxiety, breathing from you diaphragm will help you with that, too.
The Importance Of Drinking Water
You know how to breathe, but there’s one more threat to your vocal cords: dehydration. Your vocal cords need to be hydrated to produce a sound. If you keep talking while they are dry, you’ll run the risk to damage your voice. In some cases, you might not be able to end your talk. It happened to me, and this is not fun.
So, a few rules to follow:
Before an important talk, only drink water. No soda or alcohol. Yes, I know alcohol can lower your inhibitions, but it might temporarily damage your voice. OK, just a drink, if you really want one.
Have a bottle or a glass of water on stage. If at some time during your talk you feel like your mouth is dry, just finish your sentence, and make a short pause to drink some water. Yes, I know what you think, you don’t want to look awkward and stop to drink, but don’t worry. Your audience won’t judge you because you’re drinking some water, so do it if you need. For the record, when I have to speak for an hour straight, I usually drink about 1L of water during the event.
That’s it for today. So, remember to breathe from your diaphragm, take a bottle of water with you on stage, and you’ll keep your voice for a long time.