Hillary Blair of ARTiculate: Real&Clear was a keynote speaker at
the CWBA May 2022 Convention: Bold Voices. Bold Visions.
Using your voice more effectively, efficiently, and easily allows you to be more authentic and fully yourself in expression and connection with others.
Your speaking voice is a powerful element of your expression of ideas and leadership. That’s obvious, especially in the field of law, where legal arguments are spoken aloud and verbal negotiations are an essential part of the process. What’s not so obvious is the perception of our voices – how people feel about what we say and how we say it – is critical to the success or failure of our communications.
Fortunately, we have control over our voices in a way that is authentic, not manipulative.
Yes, how our voices are heard by our listeners greatly impacts what message they do or don’t hear. If that seems a bit of an exaggeration, take a moment to recall a time when you turned off a recorded book or podcast because the voice or voices bothered you. Or think about a newscaster you always turn off because you find their voice grating, immature, pretentious, you name it…
Is your voice helping to convey the content, emotion, and details of your message, or are you sabotaging your attempt to connect and not even realizing it? Your voice portrays or betrays you, and you have far more control over your vocal choices and outcomes than you may realize. Tension, breath, placement - all are under your control in order to share your voice more effectively and honestly.
We often hear this:
“That’s just the way my voice is.”
“If you ask me to change the way I speak, I’m not being authentic.”
Take a moment to consider that there may be more effective and authentic ways to use your vocal instrument. With additional skills and understanding, you may be MORE you, not less. You will claim who you are, not create a false front or cover.
Presence and Voice
If presence is about how you connect to others and remain in relationship, then your voice is directly connected to your presence. Voices are the place where most people disconnect from others. We have found this to be mostly due to four misguided beliefs:
Feeling overly vulnerable is perceived as unprofessional or awkward. The voice is fueled by breath, and free-flowing breath feels more exposed. You instinctively hold your breath to protect yourself.
The self-talk that “this is your voice and there’s nothing you can do to change it.” Not understanding the basics of how your vocal instrument works and assuming that you’re stuck with how you sound.
Lack of awareness that misplaced tension causes your voice to shift - which is most often in stressful work situations when the full use of the voice would be more helpful but overly vulnerable.
And more profoundly than you may care to admit, the avoidance of the poochy belly. There tends to be an idea that your belly needs to pooch to be connected to your breath, and most folks are not into an extended belly in a work or exposed situation. But, no, you don’t have to pooch your belly to breathe properly or efficiently – quite the opposite.
The Poochy Belly Myth
The idea that proper breathing involves an extended belly area is one of the most overused and often misused breathing suggestions. Breathing for speaking and breathing for relaxation are physically different. And misplaced tension can interfere in all breathing situations.
If you pooch your belly and suggest that is necessary for a diaphragmatic breath, you are misinformed. If you feel you have to pooch your belly in order to breathe properly for use of your voice, you are misinformed. If there is no paralysis, then you can’t breathe without your diaphragm - it works without your consent or control.
What we do have control over, is where we hold tension.
Your belly area may pooch (not your stomach as that is an organ, and if you breathe in your stomach you will burp). Your belly area may pooch as one of the most relaxed ways of breathing! For instance, you may find the happy poochy belly position of sleeping on your side which allows your belly to pooch as you inhale.
But a poochy belly is not the most efficient for speaking - because speaking is an athletic endeavor. It takes full breath and muscle engagement to share your voice with enough volume and energy that others hear it. Speaking is not about coming from a relaxed place, but instead a place of properly engaged muscles. This is very distinct from misplaced tension of the shoulders and neck.
Ward off self-consciousness
As professional women, we know that we’re capable of being present, and we can also become aware that our presence isn’t as effective as it could be. When this happens, we need to know what to adjust. Without tools available, professionals can spin in place and think, “Whatever. That’s just the way it is.” Without the opportunity for adjustment, our self-awareness becomes undermining self-consciousness, and we shut out or dismiss what is available to us in the moment.
Our voice is one of the most dismissed tools of communication. We either ignore what may not be the most effective tone or, when others suggest an adjustment, we loudly defend how we speak and use our voice.
“This is how I speak. This is me.”
It can be like claiming ownership of a familiar posture: a slouch of the shoulders or a hand over the mouth. Yes, it’s what you’re doing right now, and you also can sit up and remain open. You can remove your hand and speak your opinion or observation. You’re not less yourself for opening your chest or aligning your head. You might even be more of yourself. You can always slouch when you want, and you do have another option for how you show up. Are you less yourself when you have good posture? Are you less yourself when you allow your voice to flow freely?
What you may be doing to diminish your voice:
The biggest problem is muscling your voice from your throat and neck – pushing your voice instead of letting it flow on the exhale. The result is often your voice will have a tight and/or exaggerated deeper or husky sound. It will feel a bit forced.
Talking to yourself – imagine how you talk when you’ve had onions or coffee. You speak, keeping the breath flow minimal. Instead of sharing your voice out into the world, you keep it close - and it’s almost as if you are speaking to yourself inside your own mouth.
Limited flow and balance result in a tighter and often higher sound. Without the stereo balance of your full-flowing voice, you can land as harsh or shrill. Or, on the opposite spectrum, it can land as muffled and hard to understand.
There are other vocal habits such as vocal fry or uptalk that have been and will continue
to be the subject of other voice articles.
Your voice is an instrument that you get to play.
It matters how you use your vocal apparatus – it impacts how you are heard and understood or not. Learning to use your instrument does not mean you will be manipulating yourself or others or that you will be inauthentic. In most instances, letting your breath flow more fully permits you to show up more fully.
Three techniques to understand and implement, to allow your voice to connect
and communicate better:
First exhale. Yes, your breath. Your voice is vibrations carried on your exhale. When you hold your breath, you hold back your voice. When you breathe shallowly, your voice doesn’t get fully powered. So, exhale. Yup, exhale or sigh out, and then allow your breath back in. You’re essentially a vacuum, so mastering the exhale increases the fullness of the following inhale.
Release the tension in your shoulders and neck. The breath carrying the voice needs the freedom to flow out. Be careful not to cut off the sound or flow with a tightness in the neck or throat. Roll those shoulders, allow your neck to be easy and your voice to ride on the exhale.
Allow the music of your message to flow forth. Sharing your voice can feel a bit messy. Sometimes you want to organize your sound and words, and it feels tight — as if it’s all happening inside your mouth and throat. Instead, let your voice be shared out and freely. Some clients have said that it feels messy to let it go! Allow the prosody, the musicality of your voice, to shine.
Monotone may feel professional, but it’s not your friend if you want to be heard. Musicality helps your audience find the meaning and passion in your message.
Sharing your voice may be vulnerable and uncomfortable. And sharing your voice fully, openly and with intention can be joyous and powerful for both you and those listening.
We encourage you to take the risk and own the awkward so you can show up connected, authentic, and in relationship with your audience.
Hilary Blair is the cofounder and CEO of ARTiculate Real&Clear. Hilary is obsessed with communication, presence, story, and the sharing of voice. She works across the business world guiding, and challenging, the enthusiastic and reluctant alike to share their voice while communicating more powerfully. Clients include Maersk, Maxar, ACLU, and AWS. Hilary is a professional voice over and stage actor who has been teaching for 35 plus years. You can hear her on many training videos, narrating the Planetarium film at the Museum of Nature and Science in Denver, and her recent TedX Talk. She holds a BA from Yale University and an MFA from the National Theatre Conservatory.