Communication is an essential human skill. We use it all the time when we work or socialize. And during this pandemic-enforced period of video calls and wearing face masks, the need to communicate effectively is even greater.
Much of communication involves non-verbal cues, and people often go to great lengths to use these as signals.
We curate our wardrobe choices and dress to impress. We brush our teeth daily and consult a general dentist, not just for good oral hygiene but for that confident smile. Even eating well and exercising regularly is part of expressing how much we care for our health and self-image.
But no matter how fit or well-groomed you are, when you open your mouth to speak, does your voice let you down?
The voice matters
We’re often told to think before we speak, implored not to shoot the messenger. “Three things cannot be retrieved,” Idries Shah once wrote, among them “the word spoken in haste.”
This constant messaging emphasizes the content of what we say. But the truth is, how you deliver it also matters. And many of us aren’t fully aware of how we sound.
This is why, for instance, you might feel disappointed when you hear a recording of yourself speaking. It could be your voicemail or the recap of a Zoom meeting. When you’re forced to listen to your speaking voice, you realize that it sounds nothing like the voice inside your head.
Contrary to cultural pleas to focus on words, we need to give the voice more attention. It has the power to influence others and make you more likable. Research even shows that listeners associate certain vocal cues with honesty versus lying.
Even if it’s just 10% of total communication, your voice could be the crucial element you’re missing when it comes to making the desired impact on your audience.
A skill to improve
The good news is that our vocal abilities are a sub-component of our overall communication skills. That makes them something we can improve upon if we follow the right training path.
To do that, you have to grasp that the underlying vocal mechanism is physical. Our body generates sounds using a combination of muscular action and conscious control.
At the foundation of this action is the diaphragm, a unique muscle that can be voluntarily controlled and functions involuntarily. This is why you obviously don’t need to think to breathe and can sometimes make sounds like hiccups without meaning to.
Professional singers, who use their voices to make a living, are well-aware of this voluntary aspect of the diaphragm. It allows them to practice and control how they breathe, generate, and sustain sound. They engage in vocal exercises just like any athlete might train their muscles.
What non-singers don’t realize is that they, too, can benefit from training their voices. This works because the singing and speaking voice are the same.
But if you’re like most people, you’ve probably gone through your life without consciously training your voice. Your diaphragm has been operating on autopilot. The physical foundations of breath control and vocal coordination aren’t in place to give you an effective speaking voice.
The vocal fitness regimen
Anyone can fall into bad vocal habits. Some are obvious, such as speaking too fast, breathing too heavily, or artificially modulating your voice to make it sound deeper.
Others don’t strike us as flaws until they’re pointed out. For instance, people aren’t usually attentive to the highs and lows of intonation. Just as a song’s melody can generate emotion, speaking with an inappropriate tone can have an undesired effect on your listener.
Practicing some vocal exercises normally recommended for singers will do wonders to correct those habits and optimize your speaking voice.
Treat your voice like a muscle because that’s where the mechanism has its foundation. Give it a regular strength training workout each day.
Practice your diaphragmatic breathing, and explore the highs and lows of your vocal range. Use tongue-twisters as a form of isolation exercise for the muscles involved in articulation.
If you have to deliver a presentation or speech, rehearse and record yourself so that you can listen and adjust ahead of time.
Much like any form of fitness regimen, voice training will also benefit when complemented with a healthy lifestyle. Drink plenty of water while limiting your intake of alcohol and caffeine. Avoid smoking, and make sure you get adequate rest.
Vocal improvement is a process, just like following a diet or workout plan. Commit those changes, and be consistent every day.