Using the voice: top tips from acting

I attended a session run by the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (part of the University of London).  The speaker was voice and executive coach Susan Room, who is studying at the School.

The School uses content from its MA in Voice Studies and BA in Acting to develop communications courses – NHS, Twitter, Santander and many others have been clients.

Susan said you need to grab people’s attention – that’s the first thing.  We’re all bombarded with messages. How can you make a big impact when you get that rare face-to-face opportunity?

She proved her point by starting with the first lines of The Gruffalo.  I don’t think she’s recommending this per se. I see synchronised banana-munching has been used elsewhere today at the CIPD Show.  Frankly it’s whatever you can manage to compete with the thousands of messages we get bombarded with every day, and every other potential distraction.

Actors use body, voice, words and “para-language” (intonation, tone, pitch, pace, volume) to convey meaning.  Actually we all do, but actors are more professional about it.  Work limits us our range slightly but there’s still lots of room to improve our impact.  Here are the key points.

Intonation: this is the musicality of the voice.  Babies and dogs can recognise different intonation.  There are at least 5 ways to say “I don’t want this job” – putting the stress on different words.  Try it (not at work). And try saying “really” four ways – rising, falling, flat, rise-fall-rise.  It’s not just Mandarin that’s a tonal language.

Key tips: rising intonation implies uncertainty and that there’s.. more to come. So if you want to hold the floor, keep your intonation high.  Conversely, falling intonation suggests command, finality, certainty and closure.  People will think you’ve finished.

Whatever you do, avoid a monotone. Monotone is boring. You lose people.

Tone. This is about the quality of the voice. “I don’t like your tone”.  Tone can suggest sarcasm.  Conflicts are caused more often by tone than content (and if you’re a medical professional, your tone of voice is correlated with your likelihood of being sued).  Tone can be warm, deep, mellow – think airline pilots trying not to panic their passengers – or chatty and businesslike – think call centre operators. Be aware of what you prefer, and the impact of your own tone.

Pitch. Pitch is affected by the vibrations of vocal folds in the larynx. High and low pitch can conveys a huge amount about your emotional state. High pitch comes across as nervous, tense, excited- low pitch is seen as authoritative and confident – be careful it doesn’t drop into boring.

Should women lower their voices or not? There is a big, unresolved debate. But NB pitch drops naturally for women as they get older, but the reverse  is true for men, whose pitch tends to rise.

Pace.  120-140 words per minute is your average conversational speed. Higher speeds will lead to higher pitch. Slow speed suggests knowledgeability and authority, but too slow suggests you are lacking confidence – or even that you have something to hide

Key tip: mirror people’s pace, in the same way that you should mirror their body language.

Pace is a great rhetorical device. Martin Luther King went from 92 words per minute to 145, during his I Have a Dream speech.  And pauses are also great for holding attention- as long as people were paying attention in the first place.

Volume.  “Mustn’t be too loud” is something that’s conditioned into us from a young age (this is likely to be culturally specific!)  Nerves will drop your volume, especially at the end of sentences, which is where the key meaning often resides – so if you’re nervous, force yourself to raise your volume.

And take a tip from actors, who study safe increases of volume. Don’t use your voicebox to increase volume – it’s the quick way to go hoarse and damage your voice.  Use “belly breathing” – tighten from the diaphragm for a natural increase.

Articulating really well, especially your consonants, is another way to increase audibility without straining your voice – eg in a crowded reception or restaurant.  Consonants tend to carry the meaning of words, and vowels the emotions..

And finally, tips on..

Body Language. Stay open. Don’t shrink up (negative). Mirror the other person to get on same wavelength. Make eye contact- it makes a huge difference. Have a look at Virginia Satir’s five gestures and understand their impact.

Facial expressions. We tend to be quite unaware of them. Ask for feedback. For instance we might be frowning when actually we’re concentrating, or smiling (which makes your pitch go up and also increases the likelihood of interruption) when we’re serious.
Susan finished by demonstrating a couple of warm-up exercises for the voice ahead of public speaking :

  • Feet firmly on floor. Stand up straight. Imitate a World War Two siren, swooping up and down, using a closed lips “mmm” sound and then singing “ng”
  • Do silent (mouth closed) yawns to improve resonance.
  • Massage your jaw. It gets very tense and affects the quality of sound



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