Our voices tell a listener our history, whether we know it or not. Subconsciously we convey from where we hail, how we communicated with our families growing up, what our peers were like and what they are like now, who we defer to, how we express ourselves in stressful situations, and what we do to get what we want from those around us.
Our voices give a first impression to the people we encounter just as our physical appearance and demeanor do. The voice, like our bodies and our taste in clothes, can be trained to communicate our very best selves to the people around us.
Often it is not what you say, but how you say it. As attorneys, you are all trained to know what to say, and when to say it. But often HOW you say it can help you win or lose a listener.
An effective voice is pitched appropriately, is full sounding with appropriate volume for individual situations, and is positioned forward in the mouth.
Let me elaborate a bit on each of these and give an exercise for each to help open up and release your natural and true sound.
• An effective voice is PITCHED APPROPRIATELY.
This means that you are not speaking to high or too low. You aren’t forcing your voice to be anywhere than where it naturally should fall. Unfortunately, many women have learned to pitch their voices a bit higher than their true voice, and many men push their sound down into their chest to create a lower more authoritative sound. When in actuality by speaking on the pitch that is most physically appropriate for your body, you display a tremendous amount of confidence and power without really doing a thing.
EXERCISE – So how do you find your appropriate pitch? HUM. It seems like a simple thing to do and in many ways it is, but humming can do a number of things for the voice and for the speaker.
Humming is a natural warm up, it’s like warming up a car on a cold Midwestern morning, the longer you warm up the car, the easier the gear shift will move and the smoother your ride into town will be.
By merely humming, you give the voice a chance to wake up, vibrate and become accustomed to making sound for a sustained period of time. It also helps find your natural pitch. When you wake up in the morning, in the shower, or in the car on the way to work, begin to hum. Moving the hum up and down in pitch, find the one that feels most comfortable to make, and that you can sustain for a period of time.
When you feel that in the hum, open your mouth and let the “HUM” become an “HUMAAAAAAHHHHHH”. Letting the sound fly easily out of you – as you make the MAAAHHHH sound – move up and down in pitch just to test your range of sound and see what feels the strongest coming out of your mouth. Try not to listen to yourself, the ear is deceptive. Really try to feel in your body where the easiest strongest sound is coming from.
When you do that, bring the hum to some words or some singing – and stay in that strong centered vocal place. Now you are pitched appropriately.
• An effective voice is FULL SOUNDING.
This means that you are using your diaphragm and lungs to support your voice and give it the power and the fullness that will catch the ear of listeners. By supporting your voice with your breath, you create the sense that you are speaking with your full body and not just your mouth and throat. Once you are breathing fully, and completely, you will have more power and volume without any effort.
EXERCISE – STAND AND BREATHE – Stand with your feet against a wall, press your bum against the wall, as well as your shoulders and the back of your head. You may feel as if your belly is protruding a bit and that your chin is slightly tucked down. This is normal. Place your hands on your belly and exhale all of the air in your body. When you feel the need to take in oxygen, allow the breath to fly into your nose and breathe into your hands still resting on your belly.
Feel the belly expand even more (this is no time to worry about your flat stomach!) release the breath through the mouth (you can even hummmaaaahhhh a bit if you like!) and continue like this for at least five more breaths.
Feel the whole body breathing, the diaphragm moving down, the ribs opening, the belly expanding. Now you are filled with oxygen and can make sound with support and power. Now, take your right foot and step out toward the room, then do the same thing with your left foot, keeping your shoulders and head connected to the wall. You should feel as if you are holding up the wall as it were, and that you could stay in this position for a while.
Next, bring your right food back to the wall and then the left foot, as you do this you will automatically push away from the wall with your shoulders and find yourself standing up straight. Your spine is now aligned and you will feel a bit taller perhaps, or as if there were more space between your vertebrae.
Do the breathing part of the exercise again, this time definitely adding the humming, and feel your body take in a great deal more oxygen and feel your voice become more relaxed and yet stronger and clearer at the same time.
• An effective voice is POSITIONED FORWARD in the mouth.
You aren’t holding the sound in the back of your mouth or putting too much of your voice into your nose. By bringing the voice to a more forward position in the mouth your voice is clearer, louder, and more inviting to the listener.
Subconsciously the listener feels you have a personal relationship because your voice is coming forward to connect with them.
EXERCISE – RAISE THE SOFT PALATE, HIT THE HARD PALATE — First, stand in relaxed upright position and stretch and yawn – feel your soft palate lift in your mouth ( the soft palate is the fleshy part of the roof of your mouth, the hard palate is the bony dome in front of it).
Once you have felt your soft palate lift, you can recreate this on your own with the KAA inhale – let your jaw drop open, bring the back of the tongue up to the soft palate, inhale through the mouth and let the tongue drop away from the palate as you lift the soft palate on a KAAAAAA. Now feel how the palate is lifted and high in your mouth and how much space there is in your mouth for sound.
Lift the tongue to the now raised soft palate as if you were making a “k” sound (which in fact you are) and let the tongue come down again as you exhale and voice the KAAAAA sound and let the soft palate come back down. You will sound a little like a dying crow, and that is good. By exercising the soft palate you will find you have more space in the back of your mouth and that sound can travel up out of your body into this large cavity where it can reverberate.
Repeat the exercise 3-5 times. Now, you are ready to hit the hard palate. Stand in a relaxed upright position, allow the breath to drop into your body and as it flies out on a HAAAA, imagine that that HAAA is bouncing off of the hard palate in the front of your mouth. You will actually be able to feel the air of the HAAA bounce off of the hard palate and fly out of your mouth. When you feel this, then, try a few other words, “HELLO, MY NAME IS ______”, and feel the sound bounce off of the hard palate as it moves out of your mouth.
Your voice is now in a more forward position. Try to speak this way all of the time (it will take some practice and some getting used to), the rewards are worth it. Try practicing these three exercises daily for a month and you will start to hear the results and with a little more practice, they will be long-lasting.
Remember that the first impression you make with a client or a colleague involves all of the senses, but it is the voice that leaves the biggest and most enduring impression. If you so desire, you can always pursue the work on your voice and presentation skills in a deeper and more purposeful way.
Through On Trial Associates, Inc., Melissa Flaim offers a series of individual sessions which focuses on your voice and applying the work to your presentations. OTA, Inc. is offering a new class, “Applied Acting Techniques, Voice and Improvisation Workshop,” this Fall here in Washington, DC which will take a more improvisational, fun approach to applied acting techniques.
And of course, we can continue the one-on-one coaching on current or upcoming marketing opportunities, litigation or speaking engagements.
By Melissa Flaim and Gillian Drake