FEMALE VOICES: Common Speech Problems for Women

February 16th, 2012

I’ve often thought about writing a post on common issues with women’s voices, but hesitated, fearing I might bring the wrath of the gender police crashing down on my head. But then I thought, “Hey, as long as I write a companion post on men’s voices—which might actually be longer, why would anyone accuse me of being unfair?”

Then an article by Katrina Onstad appeared in the Toronto Globe & Mail, “Up High or Down Low: What a woman’s voice says about her,” and I thought, “Okay, it’s out in the open. People are obviously interested. Maybe it’s not the minefield I imagine it to be.” Ms. Onstad didn’t quote any experts, but she obviously did her research. The first problem she identified, having a high-pitched voice, would certainly make my Top-Three list of  speech problems for women, so let’s start there.

Having a voice that sounds high is a common problem facing my female clients. Consequently, they fail to project an image of authority and credibility. Listeners tend to associate high voices with youth, inexperience and even weakness. Opinions are dismissed and accomplishments are overlooked. Unfair? Absolutely. But remember, listeners aren’t acting rationally. They respond based on how that voice makes them feel. For strategies to enhance the perception of vocal depth, see the article, “Discovering a Deeper Voice.”

Having a voice that lacks strength or volume would be second issue confronting my female clients. It’s a serious handicap if your listeners routinely struggle to hear what you’re saying. The consequences are very similar to the one’s we’ve just discussed. Yes, there are many situations where a soft, quiet voice might be an advantage, but when the environment becomes more competitive and interactions become more assertive, a small voice is a big problem. For strategies to strengthen your voice, see the article, “Your Strong Voice.”

A third problem facing many female speakers is up-speak, a tendency to pitch the ends of sentences up instead of down. Since it’s a common characteristic of teenagers’ speech, it diminishes the perception of strength, confidence and authority in the communication of adults. In English, up-speak is appropriate for questions (e.g. “Did you like that?”), and for lists (e.g “I went to the store, the bank, the gym, and then home.”). But statements are generally inflected downward (e.g. “This is the way it’s done.”). When you catch yourself using up-speak, say the phrase or sentence again, deliberately inflecting the tone downward at the end. Notice how this makes your delivery feel stronger and more definite.

We could also talk about vocal fry, the tendency to speak with a slightly raspy or scratchy tone, especially at the ends of sentences. Men tend to do this just as often as women—maybe more often, but that doesn’t make it okay. Vocal fry is also very common among adolescents, so it can convey a sense of reserve and uncertainty for business professionals. Listeners might not be conscious of what they’re hearing, but they’re still left with the feeling that the speaker is holding back and not willing to engage fully in the interaction. See the article, “Vocal Fry,” for a more detailed explanation and recommendations for eliminating this trait.

Of course the four issues I’ve mentioned are not unique to women’s voices; they show up with my male clients as well, in varying degrees of frequency. But when I consider the vocal challenges confronting my female clients, over all the years I’ve been in practice, these few show up most often. The good news is, none of them are mysterious or difficult to fix. With a bit of technique and ongoing practice and awareness, every woman can cultivate a voice that’s strong, clear, resonant and effective.

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!

BEING PRESENT: Noticing the Details

July 27th, 2011

I was in the middle of a training session the other day, introducing an exercise I’ve been through hundreds—maybe thousands of times. Sometimes in those moments, I must confess, there’s a part of me that whispers, “Oh my God, gimme a frying pan. I wanna smack myself on the head, right now.” It’s so tempting to shift into AutoPilot and go through the motions.

Of course, the professional side of me whispers back, “Get a grip! This isn’t about you. This is about your client. It’s completely new for them. And besides, they’re paying for your undivided attention.” Oh, right…

You know what I do in those moments? I focus on the details. I raise the bar on my own performance. As I’m speaking, I ask myself, “Is every vowel sound vibrating fully? Is every consonant sound articulated cleanly? Is every word spoken with openness and connection? Am I practicing whatever technique I’m preaching at this very moment?”

Then something interesting happens. I get present. I get out of my head and into the room. I’m truly with my client again, fully available. Not because of the self-talk. Certainly not because of my discipline. Just because I focused on the details. Paying attention to details heightens my awareness, sharpens my focus and restores my capacity to be attentive to the person in front of me.

I realize I’m essentially talking about my own experience of mindfulness in the context of my work. Mark Williams (The Mindful Way Through Depression) writes that “slowing things down and deliberately paying attention to each aspect of our sensory experience can reveal things that we may have never noticed before.” That’s important for anyone who wants to experience life more fully. It’s even more important for those of us who aspire to any level of excellence and expertise in our work.

THE FIVE MOST COMMON SPEECH PROBLEMS

December 3rd, 2010

Every year, I consult and train with hundreds of people, and the five most common issues are

Speaking too quickly- caused by fast, shallow breathing, jaw tension and being too focused on content.

Not projecting- caused by a lack of grounding, breath support and resonance.

Sounding too high- caused by physical tension and shallow breathing.

Mumbling- caused by fast rate, jaw and tongue tension, and a soft voice.

Nervousness- caused by tension, shallow breathing, and inadequate preparation.

The solution? It’s always some version of

  • Grounding/Relaxation
  • Deep breathing
  • Resonance.

It’s not rocket science, but what appears simple is not always easy. It’s hard to stay open. Get a vocal coach.

FILLER WORDS: Streamline Your Delivery

September 28th, 2010

Filler words such as “uh,” “like,” “you know” and “basically” get a great deal of attention in discussions about communication. They occur in all languages. Speakers use them to signal when they’re pausing to think, but intend to continue talking. While I reject the assumption that filler words are like poison and need to be eradicated from our speech, especially from spontaneous speech, overusing these words in a mindless, habitual way can indeed make a speaker sound hesitant, unfocused and even less intelligent.

Assume, for the moment, you really do overuse filler words and phrases. What can you do to reduce the clutter in your speech? The key word in that question might be “do.” I believe it’s very difficult, and ultimately ineffective, to practice not doing something. How do you reinforce a non-action (e.g. Don’t talk too fast. Don’t rock back and forth. Don’t say, “Like.”)? If you are serious about eliminating an undesirable behavior, you must implement a new behavior that displaces the first. (I just discovered psychologists call them “competing behaviors.”)

In my opinion, the most effective competing behavior for filler words is breathing. I believe there’s a connection between breath holding and the use of filler words. Poor breathing habits increase tension, induce fast speech and inhibit clear thinking. That creates a perfect breeding ground for filler words. When you’re searching for the right idea or word, just pause and allow a breath to enter your body. You won’t vocalize while you’re inhaling. The rate of your speech becomes more deliberate and your brain functions more optimally. You become more conscious of the core of your message and how that can be best expressed. Filler words diminish.

I get a little crazy when people start counting the number of times a speaker uses filler words, especially in spontaneous speech. (Using frequent filler words in a prepared speech probably does reflect, well, a lack of preparation.) Great communication involves so much more than the absence of “um.” But when it reaches a point where the filler words become a distraction for your listeners, you do need to take action. “Just stop doing it,” is not an action. Competing skills, like breathing, are an effective solution for a stubborn problem.

What Did You Say?

June 7th, 2010

“I get so tired of repeating myself. Why can’t people get what I say, the first time?” Remember, you have the advantage of knowing what you’re going to say, before you’ve said it, so it’s easy to overlook the clarity of your delivery. Communication isn’t just about content; it’s about caring for the listener and making sure they get the message. Addressing potential obstacles to clarity ensures you are consistently understood.

Fast rate is one of the most common causes of unclear speech. Vowel sounds are shortened and words become a jumble of consonants. Slowing the rate of your speech gives you time to form sounds accurately and gives your listeners time to absorb what you’ve said. Learning to breathe while speaking is one of the most effective strategies for slowing down, naturally.

Mumbling often goes hand in hand with fast speech. When you speak quickly, your mouth doesn’t have time to open very far. Speech sounds get distorted while being squeezed through your teeth. Practicing jaw and tongue relaxation creates more openness in your mouth and encourages more precision in the formation of vowels and consonants.

A soft voice often contributes to a lack of clarity. Sound is the medium for verbal communication. When you’re not putting enough sound out there, your listeners have nothing to work with. Using more breath, feeling sound vibrations in your body and allowing your voice to fill the room will generate more power, without straining. Remember, your voice will seem louder to you than it sounds to your listeners. Get used to it.

Speaking with an accent can make it difficult for others to understand you. Most accents lend character and personality to communication, but sometimes they lead to confusion and even frustration. Learning to improve a few strategically selected language skills will often produce dramatic improvements in clarity. An experienced speech coach can help you identify those critical elements that will give you the most leverage for progress.

Failure to speak clearly is not a minor inconvenience; it has serious implications for your personal image and professional success. Addressing the underlying causes enables you to communicate fluently and distinctly. By effortlessly connecting with your listeners, you increase your confidence and make others more responsive to your message.

For further details, please contact Jay Miller, Toronto Voice and Speech Coach at:
http://voiceandspeech.com/contact.html

Slow Down, Please

June 5th, 2010

Many business professionals speak too fast. Do you? It might be your natural energy, and it’s often intensified by nervousness. Regardless of the cause, it’s a serious impediment to effective communication. It makes you difficult to follow. Worse, you can be perceived as lacking steadiness, presence and credibility—not the impression you strive to create!

You already know telling yourself to slow down works for about 30 seconds—then it’s back to the usual “rapid fire.” There is a solution! Four characteristics common to fast talkers provide clues for genuine, lasting change.

If you speak too quickly, you’re not breathing well. Speaking fast makes it difficult to take a breath. Racing through your sentences forces you to grab very short, shallow breaths. Sound familiar? Remember, it takes time for a deep breath to sink into your body. Cultivating the ability to breathe while speaking will automatically slow your speech. You won’t have to think about it all time.

If you speak too quickly, it’s likely you have jaw tension. This prevents your mouth from opening very far and tends to distort your speech. Speaking fast and “mumbling” usually go hand in hand. The fact is, it takes time for your jaw to open. When you speak with a sense of relaxed openness around your jaw, you won’t need to worry about speaking too quickly.

If you speak too quickly, you’re not harnessing the power of your whole voice. Resonance is largely connected to vowel sounds, and it’s something you can feel. Speaking quickly shortens vowel sounds, so resonance suffers. Your voice becomes shallow and one-dimensional. Developing vocal resonance automatically slows you down. You actually begin to enjoy the feeling of sound vibrating throughout your body, like a massage!

If you speak too quickly, you may need to pay more attention to your listeners. As a quick-thinking individual, it might be difficult to articulate thoughts as quickly as they occur in your head. You become focused on the content of your speech, and less focused on your audience. Be attentive to your listeners, committed to delivering the message effectively, and you will instinctively find the right pace.

Mastering your speech rate takes time. Learning to breathe, relax your jaw, discover resonance and shift your focus won’t happen overnight. But if you practice these basics, you will enjoy the benefits of relaxed and confident speech patterns. You will transform your ability to communicate well.

For further details, please contact Jay Miller, Toronto Voice and Speech Coach at:
http://voiceandspeech.com/contact.html