DROPPING PHRASES: Strategies to Prevent Trail Off

September 7th, 2012

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VOCAL FRY: Get Out of the Gravel

December 7th, 2011

One of the qualities I look for, in a good voice, is clarity of tone. I want to hear a voice that’s free of noise (e.g. breathiness, hoarseness, wheeziness). One of the most common sources of noise is vocal fry, or glottal fry. That’s the slightly raspy, scratchy or gravelly quality that often sneaks in at the ends of phrases. It’s called vocal fry, because it sounds a bit like food sizzling in a frying pan.

Tension, a lack of breath support—or both, usually cause vocal fry in the speaking voice. Speaking at a pitch that’s too low for the voice can also cause it. So you’ll often hear fry on downward inflection, when pitch falls below frequencies in the normal range.

Vocal fry is a common trait in the untrained speaking voice. While it’s not considered pathology, it does have consequences for your effectiveness as a speaker. It causes your voice to feel irritated and fatigued over time. People find it difficult to listen to your voice due to the rough quality. And perhaps most importantly, you diminish the impact and effectiveness of your message, because the tone of your voice makes listeners feel you’re pulling back and not fully committed to what you’re saying. So how do you eliminate vocal fry in your voice?

The first strategy is, you guessed it, breathing. Learning to breathe deeply and fully before speaking, and releasing breath generously during delivery will provide power to engage your vocal folds fully and get rid of vocal fry. Just 15-20 minutes of coaching often noticeably increases tonal clarity. (Of course, such a brief period of exercise doesn’t change the habits that created vocal fry in the first place.)

Another strategy for eliminating vocal fry is supporting the ends of phrases. As you approach the end of a phrase or sentence, your breath is tapering off and the inflection of your voice is dropping. All of that is quite natural, but those tendencies conspire to rob your voice of the energy needed to vibrate fully. As a result, words at the end of the phrase lose tone, get scratchy and sometimes become inaudible. Then listeners have a problem understanding what you’ve said. As you’re speaking, notice whether your voice is as strong and resonant on the last word as it was on the first word. Make sure your listeners hear the last word as easily as the first.

Raising the pitch of your voice, very slightly, will often make your tone stronger and clearer, eliminating vocal fry. Your speaking voice operates a lot more efficiently in the middle of your range than it does at the bottom of your range. So practice starting sentences a tiny bit higher than your habit dictates. The change need not be noticeable to your listeners, but you’ll feel a big difference. The funny thing is, you’ll often get more deep resonance in your tone by moving into the middle of your range.

Start eliminating vocal fry by practicing breathing techniques, speaking in the middle of your range and supporting the ends of phrases. Your tone will improve, as well as the comfort and stamina of your voice. Best of all, as you engage your voice fully, you engage your self fully and ultimately engage your listeners.

SAY AH! Finding More Space

September 23rd, 2011

You wouldn’t believe how often I see people who don’t open their mouths enough, when they speak. Yeah, I can hear you saying, “Gimme a break! My grandmother could have come up with that.” But the consequences of this pervasive little habit are quite profound, including

  • Weak voice- because less breath flows out when your mouth isn’t open far enough
  • Mumbling- because speech sounds get distorted being squeezed through your teeth
  • Speaking too fast- because your tongue can move really fast when your jaw isn’t moving
  • Lacking credibility- Have you ever heard someone say, “He’s lying through his teeth!”

What can you do about it? The best approach would involve jaw relaxation exercises, and that’s what I recommend. But since most people just want to jump to the result, here’s what I suggest. Look in a mirror. Normally, you want to have at least one finger-width of space between your upper and lower teeth, on average. Some sounds will be even more open, some less. But on average, a finger-width.

For practice, you should go for two finger-widths. Very open. Use a mirror. The visual confirmation of openness is very important. You’ll be surprised at how easily your mouth starts to close up. If you’re not watching, you don’t even know it.

Start with single words, such as “spa,” “fad” and “high.” When that isn’t so hard, move to phrases, such as “father’s spa,” or “jazz lab,” or “fly high.” When you have the feel of that, try sentences, such as, “My father travels in style,” making sure you’ve got a least a thumb-width of space between your teeth, on the stressed vowel sounds. When sentences are easy, try reading paragraphs in front of a mirror. Remember, you’re looking for an average of one finger-width of space between your teeth. When that doesn’t feel so strange, try speaking with more openness in everyday conversations.

If you haven’t been speaking with a relaxed sense of openness, this might feel very strange and unnatural. You’re not used to allowing sounds to emerge from your body with so much space. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong; it’s just different. So play with it until the feeling is familiar, until it feels like you.

When you are able to speak in public with a relaxed sense of openness around your mouth and jaw, you will reap some significant benefits.

  • Your voice will be stronger- more openness leads to more breath support
  • Your articulation will be clearer- more openness encourages more precision
  • You will speak at a relaxed pace- more openness means your jaw has to move a bit further, slowing you down
  • You will appear strong, confident and credible- take my word for it

Those are all major elements of successful communication—and all have a connection to opening your mouth. You know I hate gimmicks, shortcuts and superficial techniques, but this is something that anyone can understand. And it’s not hard to practice. So open up!