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!

THAT BODY-VOICE CONNECTION: Finding the Magic

September 19th, 2011

Well, it happened again, this morning. I was in the middle of a consultation, comparing someone’s before-and-after speech samples. After just 15-20 minutes of work, the person’s voice sounded, well, personal. Same words as before, but a completely different experience for the listener. Beyond the words being spoken, I could hear the person behind the voice. The effect was rich, engaging, and powerful.

The human connection makes communication alive and powerful. Time and again, in my own office, I’ve heard clients produce simple sounds such as “hay”, “hoe” or “huh”, with such openness, such authenticity that it makes the hairs stand up on my arms. It’s as though the sounds become alive. It’s like I can hear the person behind the sound, even though they’re not using words and sentences. I believe this dynamic has potential to raise ordinary communication to extraordinary levels. It’s the difference between your listeners understanding what you’re saying and being moved by what you’re saying.

And the cool thing is that it starts right in your body. You don’t get that result by pretending, or trying to make it happen. You just cultivate the right conditions at a physical level. If you find that grounded, open, engaged state of being, it will happen, naturally, effortlessly and authentically. You will be compelling.

BE THE CHANGE: Embodying Skills

September 6th, 2011

During my holiday, I tried to finish a book that’s been on my shelf for some time, The Anatomy of Change, by Richard Strozzi Heckler. This is one of those books that contains really great insights and resonates so well with the concepts I teach, but sadly I can’t recommend it because it’s so difficult to read. (Kristen Linklater‘s Freeing the Natural Voice is another one in that category.) Now, I’m no book critic, but when a smart guy who likes to read, and loves to learn, struggles to get to the next page, something tells me it’s the writing.

Now that I got that off my chest, I’ll share one quote from the book that keeps resurfacing for me in the middle of lessons.

“At the time of the race, the runner must let go of the [training] and concentrate fully on the race. He must be in union with the things he has practiced, because he is no longer practicing. He now needs to be those things.”

I love this concept, and of course it’s true for any kind of performance, including public speaking and presentation. It’s not enough to know what you’re supposed to do. It has to be in you at that point, part of your being. Yes, “conscious competence” is one stage of learning, and there’s nothing wrong with being at that stage. But it’s not the end of the road. You aspire to “unconscious competence”. When you’re at the front of the room, and all eyes are on you, it’s too late to be thinking about grounding, breathing and resonance. You have to be grounded, breathing and resonant.

How do you embody skills?

  • Practice. Time and repetition help to change muscle memories.
  • Feel what you’re doing. Don’t just think about it.
  • Go slowly. Give your body a chance to absorb what’s happening.
  • Focus. Pay attention to one thing at a time.
  • Enjoy it. If it feels good, you’re more likely to retain it and return to it.
When I’m in the middle of a breathing lesson, and my client asks, “Do you breathe like this all the time,” I can only smile and say, “When I’m thinking about it, yes. When I’m not thinking about it, I hope so.” Embodying skills is the journey of a lifetime.