Speaking Up: A How-To Guide

by Casey Brant


This is the written version of a talk I gave at Adorable. My slides are shown here next to expanded speaker notes. The interactive portion of the talk doesn’t translate that well to text, but I did my best to explain the exercises. If you have questions, feel free to reach out to me at casey@adorable.io or send me a tweet!

Thanks for joining me! Today I want to talk about something that—even though we don’t think about it much—affects us constantly: our voices.

Here’s the plan: first, I’ll give you a bit of background information to prepare for the second section. After that, things will get a little weird as we do some vocal exercises together as a group.

But first, let’s talk about the goals for this talk. I want to be clear that, though the title may suggest otherwise, this is not about public speaking or communication skills. It’s much simpler than that. I’m also not here to change anything about you or your voice. Quite the opposite, actually: I want to help you share your natural voice more effectively.

My starting point when putting together this talk was very simple: sometimes we are not loud enough! We’ve probably all had the experience of being in a meeting—especially one involving conference phones or voice chat applications—and getting interrupted by someone saying they can’t hear us. So I want to help you become more aware of your voice and give you some tips on how to address that feedback. The focus today is on voices, but it’s just as important to make sure you understand the equipment and software you’re using for calls. It doesn’t matter how loud you are if your microphone is misconfigured!

This doesn’t apply so much for a blog post, but for the live talk I made sure to note that, since everyone has a different level of comfort with their own voice, it is totally OK to sit out the interactive part of the talk.

In this first section, I’ll go over some background information. We probably all know this stuff at some level, but it’s worth bringing it up here so that we’re on the same page.

Voices are a kind of sound, so let’s start with sound. For the purposes of this talk, you can think of sound as being composed of three main parts:

  1. Vibrations, traveling through a medium such as the air.
  2. Ears, receiving those vibrations and converting them into input that we can use.
  3. Brains, turning that input into meaningful information.

If you’re missing any of those three components, you don’t have a meaningful sound. This isn’t exactly what physicists mean when they talk about sound, but it’s a useful model for us.

A few other tidbits about sound that we should keep in mind while speaking:

Now let’s talk more specifically about voices.

  1. Air Flow from your lungs is what powers the voice. No air, no voice.
  2. Vocal Folds (also known as vocal cords) in your larynx, when set oscillating by the air from your lungs, create the vibrations needed.
  3. Mouth Shape (along with lips, nasal passages, soft palate, teeth, and other stuff) adjusts the harmonics from the vibrating vocal folds, which is how we have the ability to create different phonemes.

Without any of these three components, there’s no voice. In the second part of the talk, we’ll be doing exercises to improve our use of each of them.

We have a lot of conscious control over our voices. If we didn’t, spoken language would be impossible. However, there are also lots of unconscious things that happen when we speak. Many of these things are the result of us responding to perceived pressures and expectations in the world around us. It’s a huge topic—much too big to give appropriate attention to within this talk—but it deserves mentioning, because it affects everyone.

Teleconferencing is a big part of our lives, so I want to briefly mention microphones. When speaking with someone in the same room, we have a lot of extra information available to us that microphones do not. Microphones strip a lot of context, so it is much more important to make sure our voices are clearly heard when speaking with someone remote than with someone right next to us.

Now for the fun part. When I gave this talk live, I was able to demonstrate the following exercises in front of everyone and then have them try it. Since I can’t do that here, I’ll do my best to explain exactly how to do them and what their purpose is.

We’re going to do three simple exercises. Enjoy the super snappy names I came up with for them.

The first exercise is called “Use your lungs,” and it’s all about helping you notice your breathing process.

  1. First, clap your hands together above your head with your arms straight up.
  2. Second, with your arms still extended up, rotate your hands so that the backs are touching.
  3. Third, gently lower your hands until they’re resting on top of your head, still together.
  4. Lastly, from this position, take several nice, slow, deep breaths in and out.

Pay close attention to the physical sensations that come up while breathing in this position. This exercise is not about making anything happen, but about noticing how it feels to take deep, full, relaxed breaths.

  1. Once you’ve taken several breaths like this, lower your arms back to a neutral position.
  2. ke several more deep breaths. Try to notice some of the same physical sensations in your ribcage, chest, stomach, and shoulders that you felt with your arms up.

The point of this exercise is that we have a tendency to not gas up properly before speaking. Remember: without air, your voice can’t get anywhere. We also tend to trail off at the end of sentences. Make sure every word of your sentence is heard by remembering to use your lungs effectively.

OK, second exercise. This one’s called “Let your voice out.”

  1. First, relax your jaw. This can be pretty difficult, because we tend to carry a lot of tension in our jaws, necks, and shoulders, but give it your best shot.
  2. Use your lungs. Take a nice deep breath just like you did in exercise 1.
  3. Now say “wow” several times with a wide mouth. Notice how much space there is in there.

The thing to notice with this exercise is how it feels to really open up your mouth. A lot of us (myself included) tend to keep our mouths almost closed while speaking, which means your voice can’t escape out into the room where others can hear it.

The joke I made in the live talk was “I call this exercise The Kate Bush,” which played about as well as you’d expect.

A few more tips for this section. Make sure that there isn’t anything in between your mouth and your listeners. If you’ve got a hand over your mouth, that will block almost as much sound as not opening your mouth wide enough.

Remember that your voice sounds different in your own skull. You might not realize that you’re being quiet, because to you things sound normal. But if your mouth is closed, those vibrations can’t get out of your skull into the air.

An easy heuristic: if you couldn’t get a bit of food in, your voice can’t get out.

For a variety of reasons, be they social, physical, or just bad habits, most of us wind up speaking with something other than our true, natural voice. This often manifests as speaking at pitches higher or lower than the ones at which our voice is most comfortable. This third exercise, “Speak With Your Voice,” will help you become aware of this discrepancy and take your first step towards finding your true voice.

  1. First, take one of those deep breaths we’ve already practiced.
  2. Next, with your mouth gently closed, hum a sliding pitch, up and down. This will sound like you’re making exaggerated yummy sounds.
  3. Pay close attention to any buzzing sensations in your lips, nose, nasal passages, and teeth. You’re trying to find the pitch that causes the most buzzing feeling.
  4. Once you find that buzzy pitch, open your mouth à la Exercise 2 and speak any sentence on that pitch. You may be surprised that this pitch is quite a bit higher or lower than what you think of as your normal speaking voice.

So what do I mean by “finding your true voice?” In short, I mean a voice that is as close to the sound that your body is built to produce naturally with the least physical effort or interference. When we can completely get rid of muscular tension, posture problems, and subconscious alterations, we’ll find our true voices.

Besides being the most physically easy sound to produce, a true voice communicates strength and confidence to others. When our vocal apparatus is relaxed, it is able to vibrate and resonate much more richly than when it is restricted by self-imposed tension.

Unfortunately, finding your true voice is challenging. People spend years working at this, and there’s no way I can do anything beyond just hint at it in the space of a 30-minute talk. It may seem counterintuitive that something supposedly “natural” could take a long time to learn, but it really can be that hard to overcome bad habits. In my opinion, it’s worth the effort.

We covered a lot of ground today, so I dealt with all of these topics at a necessarily high level of abstraction. If your interest is piqued and you’d like to find out more, I highly recommend finding a vocal coach in your area and exploring these ideas one-on-one with a specialist. You will probably be surprised at what you find out about your own voice!

Finally, I’d like to encourage you to do two things: become more aware of the sounds around you, and get more in touch with your own voice and the sounds it can produce.

Just as each of us brings a unique personality to the world, we each bring a unique voice. Sharing that sound with others enriches the world around us.

Thanks for your time.