To Speak Well, First Breathe Well
Talking: most of us spend many waking hours (and even some sleeping hours!) pouring torrents of language out of our mouths. Have you ever stopped to wonder how your body manages this amazing feat? Unless you have some vocal training – like many of the team at MSB Executive have been fortunate enough to have – the answer is probably ‘no’! But if we understand how the voice works, we can think about how to make best use of it.
How to Speak
Essentially, there are four stages to speaking:
- Voicing (via the vocal folds in the larynx)
- Articulating (in the mouth)
- Resonating (throughout the upper body and head).
Where It All Starts
I have deliberately placed breathing at number one: without breathing, there is no voice. No matter how cleanly your vocal folds vibrate, or how crisply you articulate, if the flow of air out of the body is weak, the voice will be too. It’s exactly the same principle as playing a recorder. If you blow weakly into it, no amount of deft fingering will make the sound strong. For our best voice, we want a strong, steady flow of air out of the body.
Supporting the Voice
To get that air flow strong, we have to be using our diaphragm. I’ll talk in more detail about the diaphragm, and its role in good breathing, in the third blog in this series. For now, be aware that the movement in and out of the tummy is the sign that we are using our diaphragm. Aim to ‘place’ your breathing down in your tummy. Think of your tummy as the place where the voice comes from. I remember the moment when I discovered this at drama school: it was life-changing.
Using good breathing to power great speaking is known as supporting the voice. At MSB Executive, we include work on voice support. Clients are often delighted to discover they can speak powerfully without forcing the voice. With the face, neck and shoulders free from tension, they look (and feel) relaxed and confident.
Good, strong breathing using the diaphragm, is the key to projection – the skill of maintaining a conversational tone even when you are filling a room with your voice. The biggest vocal challenge I have ever faced was playing Hamlet, not in a room but in an amphitheatre. Projecting outdoors was incredibly difficult: with no surfaces to bounce off, my voice would just dissolve into the air. Yet those long soliloquies had to be intimate, as though I was thinking aloud. Any tension in my face or throat would have resulted in a scratchy voice and a strained performance. I had to work very hard to keep the audience hooked, but all the work had to be done down in the tummy!
Steven working the abdominals as Hamlet.
At the end of each performance, that was the part of my body that really ached. Playing Hamlet outdoors was a serious abdominal workout.
To produce our voice we add sound to air. First we get the air bit right, then we work on pace, pitch, diction and all the other qualities of a good voice. Our voice work at MSB Executive always starts with breathing.
You already breathe when you speak. Could you breathe better? Start to include some conscious breaths. Breathe as you change to a new slide or topic. Breathe when you pause for thought (this will also help to avoid ‘umm’ and ‘err’). Breathe to give us all a moment to digest what you’ve just said.
You could start right now. Before you say your very next words, take a breath in. As you breathe out, picture your words riding out on that strong and steady stream of air. Send them confidently into the world.