STAYING POWER: Cultivating Vocal Stamina

November 7th, 2011

I recently did a consultation with someone who worked as a corporate trainer, so she spoke frequently, for extended periods of time. She reported that her voice was usually gone by the end of the day, sore, raspy and almost inaudible.

What’s happening here? The most likely cause is that she’s overworking her voice, and that can happen in two ways. The most obvious possibility is that she’s consciously trying to “speak up” and “project” her voice, so she ends up pushing and straining. The muscles of the voice are not big, strong muscles, so they don’t perform well under a lot of pressure and fatigue quickly under those conditions.

Another culprit can be unconscious tension. Muscular tension creates resistance on your voice, much like friction creates resistance for moving parts in a machine. You have to exert more force to overcome that resistance and that wears on your voice.

One very common source of unconscious tension is the tongue. Many speakers unconsciously pull their tongue back and down every time they make a sound. The tongue is a fairly large muscle, especially in comparison to your vocal folds, which are about the size of your thumbnail. When your tongue pulls back and down, it’s like an elephant sitting on a mouse. It becomes a lot harder for your vocal folds to vibrate under those conditions, so you have to use more force to overcome that pressure. Once again, your vocal folds quickly fatigue and become irritated.

So what’s the right way to cultivate vocal stamina? To paraphrase Kristin Linklater, the strength of the voice does not lie in muscular effort, but in breath and resonance. You’re a wind instrument. Your voice is powered by breath. To find more voice, you must move more breath. (The tricky part is doing that without tension.) At some level, everyone knows this, but few people have actually experienced real breath support, as it relates to speaking.

While breath is the power of your voice, resonance is the amplification. Resonance takes the small buzz produced by your vocal folds and expands it into the unique sound that is your voice. In a perfect world, you want every open space and every square inch of your body vibrating with the sound of your voice. That way, you spread the effort around, rather than making your vocal folds do all the work. Not only do you strengthen your voice, you also make it deeper, richer and more expressive.

There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to speak all day, in a fairly large room, without frying your voice. You accomplish that by making sure your breath is doing all the work and your whole body is acting as a giant sounding board. In this way, you produce the maximum amount of sound with a minimum of effort. Your voice easily fills the space without you feeling as though you’re yelling. Your listeners are drawn into the experience because you are fully engaged, fully available and powerfully present.

SEATING ARRANGEMENTS: Presenting from a Chair

March 21st, 2011

Do you spend much of your working day in a chair? Is most of your presenting done while sitting at a table? If you’re not aware of what you’re doing, this can be a real trap. When you sit down, your energy tends to sit down, as well. It’s so easy to relax back and allow the chair to support you. Your body collapses, your breath is restricted, your voice doesn’t engage fully and you fail to make an impression in the room. How can you make sure you’re cultivating a strong presence and maximizing the impact of your performance, even when you’re seated? The essential principles for success are the same as for standing speech.

Grounding. When speaking from a chair, you still want both feet flat on the ground, but now, you have “a second pair of feet,” your sit-bones. (You can feel those bones under your bottom when you’re sitting erect on a very hard surface.) Your sit-bones become a second point of connection to the ground. If you’re on your sit-bones, your body naturally aligns and supports itself. Sit on the front edge of the chair. Allow yourself to fall back onto your tailbone. Notice what happens to your alignment. Now come back onto your sit-bones and appreciate how the rest of your body aligns. You don’t need to be rigid. There’s no need to look like stiff. But you do want to be in charge of your own support, not collapsing into the back of the chair.

Breathing. When your body is relaxed and aligned, you can still breathe deeply, even when seated. (In fact, some people find it easier to feel their breath in a seated position, than when they’re standing.) Keep your belly relaxed as you inhale through your mouth. Avoid lifting your chest. Feel the in-breath expanding your entire waistline. You can even imagine your in-breath flowing down and filling the seat of your chair. Now, fall back onto your tailbone. Notice how the area under your sternum tends to collapse. Come back onto your sit-bones. Feel how the belly area becomes open to the in-breath. Even when seated, you have access to the same breath power that’s available when you’re standing.

Resonance. When your body is grounded, relaxed and expansive, and when you’re breathing deeply, you have all the basic ingredients for cultivating sound vibrations. Look for torso vibrations (chest, sides and back) and skull vibrations. Allow your body to collapse backward into the chair. Notice how sound vibrations feel muffled. It’s like laying a bell on its side. Come back onto your sit-bones. Feel how every surface of your body is now free to transmit sound vibrations, like a bell suspended from its center. When your whole body vibrates with the sound of your voice, you’ll be speaking with real impact.

Of course, you don’t want to be conspicuous and look like an over-eager student when the rest of your colleagues are relaxing back in their chairs with their legs crossed. But when you have the floor, there’s no reason you can’t come forward in your chair, feel the ground under you, sit up to your full height, breathe deeply and speak with your whole body. You’ll feel strong, look confident, speak with authority, and make a real impression.

If I Had To Choose Only One

November 25th, 2010

The Situation:

My clients say they don’t have time for a full warm-up before a meeting or presentation.

The Reality:

  1. Warm-ups are important to a speaker. Without them, you might get by, but you won’t be at your best.
  2. If you can’t warm up right before you speak, do it the morning of the event.
  3. Do something. Even a brief warm-up is better than nothing.

The Objective:

  1. Relaxation- Tension anywhere in your body inhibits and distorts communication.
  2. Breathing- The quality of your voice will never surpass the quality of your breath.
  3. Resonance- You won’t engage others if you’re not fully engaged yourself.

My “Silver Bullet”

If I had time to do only one exercise, I would do a series of spinal rolls.

The Spinal Roll:

Release your head forward and begin rolling down toward the ground, as though you were going to touch your toes. Imagine a rope going over a pulley. You’re not reaching, just relaxing downward as far as it feels comfortable. Let go of the back of the back of your neck, your shoulders, relaxing your upper, middle and lower back, until you’re hanging from your waist, head downward. Keep your knees loose.

Now take a deep breath and sigh some tension out of your body. Notice what happens to your body as you let go of the breath. Sigh out several deep breaths and with every out-breath, invite your body to relax even more. You might feel yourself getting closer to the ground with each out-breath. Enjoy that feeling.

Slowly, begin rolling back to an upright position, without lifting your head or tensing your neck and shoulders.  Just unrolling until you find yourself upright again. Take a moment and notice you’ve done to your body.

Repeat this process, trying to notice something new or do something better with each repetition. No two spinal rolls should ever be exactly the same.

The Effect:

  1. Relaxation- As you roll and unroll your torso, muscles start to let go. You become more efficient as you grow more familiar with the exercise. You use fewer muscles to do the same task. You feel more free.
  2. Breathing- With every spinal roll, you open more of your body to the breath. You breathe more fully and easily, into your belly, your sides and even your back.
  3. Resonance- Sigh out sound while rolling up and down your spine. You notice the feeling of sound vibrations shifting as your body changes position. You feel the body-voice connection. Your whole body vibrates with sound.

The Benefit:

  1. Relaxation- You feel at ease, grounded and expansive. You move with freedom. You put your listeners at ease.
  2. Breathing- You relax from the inside out. You think clearly. Your voice feels clear, strong and deep. Your pace is deliberate and your delivery is fluent.
  3. Resonance- You speak with your whole body. You communicate with your whole being. Your message has impact.

The Truth:

I’m not recommending shortcuts or condoning laziness. You should allow time for a 20-40 minute warm-up before any important meeting or presentation. But if the circumstances make a full warm-up impossible, this one little exercise, done with awareness and attentiveness, can cover a few of the bases.