How to project your voice in presentations, conversations or indeed any situation where you need to be heard loud and clear is a question we all face at some point in our lives.
‘Speak up’ was a familiar phrase my grandmother - whose hearing failed her at the best of times - used on a regular basis in my company when I was a child. It didn’t help that I was a shy introvert and so the very notion of speaking up was completely alien to me. In fact ‘Speak up’ became a phrase that followed me around school corridors, social experiences and in almost all speaking situations whilst growing up.
Systematic bullying and an unstable home life didn’t help, but imagine the trauma of being told at the age of 14 that the GCSE in Graphic Design - on which I had pinned my teenage fantasy of becoming a freelance, hermit-like artist, free of the need to ever use my voice again - had too few applicants and therefore at that late stage in the year I had been signed up for GCSE Drama: the antithesis of hiding in the shadows.
But as I have come to recognise, life is full of these surprises. But this one dropped me deep into the lion’s den, face-to-face with the ‘Speak up’ monster and like it or not I could no longer hide.
I am 38 at the time of writing this post, and that monster still skulks around, occasionally flexing his muscles looking for any opportunity to oust the belief that I have something of worth to say. And of all professions I could have chosen, I found myself becoming a voice coach! Needless to say that having rubbed shoulders with the enemy, I have found strategies to sit at the table with the psychology of introversion and those limiting mantras and discover how to find your voice and how to project your voice with power and clarity. And now I help others to find theirs and therefore their self-worth and confidence when speaking.
Let’s get something straight, I didn’t share with you my story because being softly spoken or naturally quiet is always aligned with being an introvert or experiencing childhood trauma. The reasons for quietness are numerous. Nor does learning how to project your voice rely on unpicking psychology. You may be a confident extrovert, good with words and able to make stuff happen. But we might nod to the fact that it is the mind that controls our physiology, and your voice is a neurophysiological expression of self.
What does it mean to project your voice?
Just before I give you some simple exercises, let me give you some basic understanding. I could bore you with a hyper-technical explanation, but it won’t enable you to speak louder. So the grossly simplified story (if your voice is free of injury, pathology or severe tension) is that speaking louder is a combination of many things, three in particular:
You need more airflow to increase loudness. Why? Basically, the vocal folds (in your larynx) open and close very fast when we speak; they vibrate. The result is that the air that is passing through them is turned into what we hear as the sound of the human voice (sound pressure waves). When more air passes through the vocal folds, the folds stay apart for slightly longer which actually increases the amplitude of these waves, which we in turn hear as increased loudness. So, done right, more air flow can equal a louder voice.
However, excluding health complications, a lot of people struggle with breath capacity and so locating that extra breath might be a challenge in the first place. Also, even if you find that breath, you may be forcing the breath up with too much effort. The issue here is that the vocal folds don’t like too much pressure. It’s too complex to go into right now but getting just the right balance of airflow for loudness can take a bit of practice and awareness (I’ll give you some tips in a minute).
Resonance can again get very technical, so I’ll attempt to explain it simply. Consider what happens when you clap in a large concrete space. The sound waves of a clap bounce off the hard concrete surfaces and travel back into the room. This is acoustic resonance. In voice it is often referred to as primary resonance. When the sound waves of your voice travel up through your throat they bounce off the walls of your throat and the inside of your mouth. When they bounce off those surfaces they can make your voice sound louder.
But there is also what’s known as secondary resonance. To understand this consider how when you put a metal spoon in a cup of hot drink, the heat energy travels into the spoon, making it hot as well. In a similar way, the bones of your chest and sinuses in particular act as little resonating cavities because they are porous and the vibrations of your voice travel into those cavities. Try this: hum and place a hand on your chest. You might feel vibration in the ribs and sternum when you speak. Do the same with your hands on your cheeks (behind which are part of your sinuses) and you should feel some vibration. If you do, this is secondary resonance. When these secondary resonators are used to their full potential, your voice can again so fuller and stronger and therefore louder.
But the issue with primary resonance is that some people’s throats get very tight and closed which can affect the way the sound of your voice resonates. For example, some people’s soft palates hang heavily in the back of their mouths and so the sound becomes quite nasal or strident. Poor posture particularly through the neck can really affect the throat and therefore resonance.
And with secondary resonance, think of what happens when you put your hand on a ringing bell - it mutes and deadens the sound. If you have unwanted physical tension or poor posture, especially around some of the secondary resonators, that potentially strong, resonant sound suffers the same fate.
So resonance matters.
The human voice is capable of many different qualities: breathy, creaky, twangy etc... And it’s hard to speak loudly in some of these qualities: particularly a breathy or creaky quality. Try it. Even though it is possible to speak loudly with a twangy quality, it’s not that pleasant to listen to. So the quality of your voice is important. A voice that has a clear tone is most conducive to speaking louder without unnecessary effort.
So if you are wondering 'why is my voice so quiet?' these may be some of the reasons.
How to talk louder and clearer
Consider how an actor learns to project their voice: training, and lots of it. Why? Depending on how old you are and how unhelpful the habits are that you have developed, it can take time to learn different habits. And as I described above, the various things that can affect resonance means that there is no quick-fix.
However, try these voice projection exercises (if you experience throat pain when speaking loud or coughing when speaking loud contact a professional medical practitioner):
Sit in a chair that supports your back well. Place your feet on the floor about hip width apart, place your hands on your thighs and assume a posture so that your chest and neck are not collapsing.
Or, stand, with your feet hip width apart, knees unlocked, your arms relaxed to your sides, and assume a posture so that your chest and neck are not collapsing.
Take your mobile phone and open a voice recording app (most phones have this for free - I have ‘Voice Memos’ on my iPhone). Most apps show the volume of what you are recording visually. Here is a screenshot of me saying ‘one’ loudly and then quietly:
If yours doesn’t have this feature, don’t worry, you can still do the exercise and just audio record yourself:
Hold your phone at arms length and start recording.
Say ‘one, two, three’ at your normal speaking volume and if possible, observe the visual indication of the volume of your voice.
Place your other hand on your abdomen (around your belly button).
Take in a medium size breath and speak again.
Take in another breath and speak again increasing the loudness of your voice.
As you do this, increasing loudness each time, check in to the following:
Am a taking in enough breath before I speak?
Am I getting tense anywhere in my body, and if so, what can I do to release that tension?
Is my posture still good, and if not, can I improve it?
Is each breath going down to my abdomen and if not, can I encourage this?
Am I just speaking at a higher pitch, and if so, can I keep the pitch of my voice similar as I get louder? This is so that you learn how to project your voice without shouting.
Is my voice sounding breathy or creaky and if so, can I find a more clear tone of voice?
Can I feel my voice resonating in my chest and sinus areas, and if not, can I encourage this?
Then decrease the loudness over a number of and check back in to the above.
Why not change ‘one, two, three’ for a sentence or sentences? Whilst the content itself is in someways irrelevant, it could be something from a presentation that you’re about to give or a subject you speak about a lot. Making it relevant and achievable may feel more rewarding and useful.
Listen back to the recording and be honest about what you hear. If you tend to be hypercritical of yourself, why not share it with someone whose feedback you trust?
The first time you do this you may not be able to increase loudness whilst breathing to your abdomen, keeping a relaxed and open posture, and staying within a typical pitch range for speaking, but keep playing with the exercise. Remember, actors train for some time.
The first step is just to be become more aware of your challenges and habits. Then you can do something about them. And if you need some help, we can always jump on a Skype call and I can give you some coaching. Click here to find out more about voice projection lessons.