How To Develop Your Speaking Voice: Exercises to Help Your Enunciation
Learning to speak well is an essential skill if you wish to be a performer unless, of course, you dream of following in the slippers of Marcel Marceau, the famous French mime. Anyone who wishes to pursue a career on stage, or in front of a class, would do well to learn how to use their basic instrument - their voice.
While thumbing through the course calendar one Fall looking for an interesting and useful class to round out my timetable, I was attracted to a description of a single term class in public speaking. At least that's what it appeared to be from the write-up. Offered by the Drama Department, the course purported to cover vocal production, presentation skills, group and solo projects, and, best of all, was open to all faculties. As an undergraduate student in the Education program, this was music to my ears.
"What a great course for a student teacher," I thought.
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It did turn out to be a great course for a student teacher, but it certainly wasn't at all what I thought it would be. There were quite a few Drama students signed up, far more than there were of us - lowly student-teachers-in-training from the Education Faculty - so the professor decided to slant the class more in the direction of "performance" than towards plain old public speaking, as advertised.
Several of my fellow teaching colleagues withdrew after the first week, but I was never nothing if not stubborn. I wasn't prepared to give up on the class.
I threw myself into the projects with dogged determination, logging many hours of after-class rehearsal and preparation to memorize speeches and help choreograph the multi-person movement pieces.
Mid-term interviews came and though my marks were adequate, I wasn't prepared to hear what the prof had to say.
She was concerned that I didn't seem to be "connecting with the material" and that I wasn't "enjoying the class".
Internally, I was dumbfounded but I had long since learned to school my features to reveal very little when dealing with faculty staff. They took it badly when a student fell on the floor hooting with laughter, or answered one of their suggestions with "Say, what?!" I dutifully expressed my gratitude for her enlightening remarks, and reassured her I would indeed endeavor to "have more fun" with the remainder of the class. She was pleased with my response.
She wanted me to enjoy the class? I was fully prepared to work my butt off, but this woman wanted me to enjoy myself.
It took me a while to sort out what she meant, but it finally hit me - I knew what I had to do. The expression "Go big or go home" became my motto. I stopped putting so much into preparation, and began to concentrate more of my efforts on the performance aspect of the projects.
"Well, of course - It's a performance oriented class," you might say...and you would be right. My training though, as a future educator, was on communicating content, with a heavy emphasis on the content, and not on the communicating part of the transaction. Changing this focus was a major paradigm shift.
In the end, I did get a lot more out of the class, and I did actually enjoy myself. It's all in how you set your mind.
One of the tools that helped me was watching the videos of the group projects. Most of my classmates were experiencing the shock of hearing themselves as others heard them for the first time - and it can be quite a shock. As a singer, I was already used to hearing my voice played back, from many rehearsal and recording sessions over the years, so I was able to concentrate on the visual aspect.
As well, because of not experiencing the first-hearing shock, I could listen to my voice objectively. I could hear where my enunciation wasn't clear, and where I needed to vary the pitch, the rhythm, and raise or lower the inflection.
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Really Hearing Your Voice
One of the first things you need to do to in improving your speaking voice is to actually hear how you sound. Others hear us mainly through their ears, and a very little through their head bones. When we hear ourselves speak, we are in fact hearing our voice resonating inside our own head - inside our oral, nasal, and sinus cavities - as well as hearing it with our ears.
Next time you have a cold, and your head is all stuffed up, listen to how different your voice sounds. That's because there is very little space in which your voice can resonate, so it sounds very different from what you are used to hearing.
To the rest of the world, our voices sound quite different from what we are used to hearing. We can easily verify this by speaking into a tape recorder and playing it back. Many of us are a bit mike-shy, so it is well that there is a way to reproduce this effect without sticking a microphone under your nose and pressing the "Record" button.
First, speak a sentence in a normal voice - say anything you like, but make it more than a few words. Read something from the back of a cereal box. Now, cup your hand around the back of your ear, and pull your ear forward with your hand. Do not flatten your ear, nor close off the opening entirely - leave a small opening. Speak the same sentence while cupping your ear.
Hear the difference?
That should give you a pretty fair idea of what you sound like to others. This is also very useful when you are singing, to check your pitch.
Hearing your voice as others hear it, once you get over the strangeness, allows you to hear changes in tone and pitch that you might not otherwise notice. If you can hear what your voice is doing, it is so much easier to change it.
One of the easiest ways to improve your speaking voice is to improve your clarity of speech. Often referred to as "diction", your enunciation, the way you form your words, says a lot about you. Regional accents aside, when you speak clearly, people can follow your message more easily.
This exercise from that long-ago class is still my favorite warm-up. It works equally well for speaking or for singing to help limber up your lips and tongue, and to clarify your speech. I have since taught it to many of my own students, and they swear by it, too. The only draw-back to the exercise is that it is best performed in private.
It can be used most successfully as a group warm-up as well, but everyone should be instructed to keep their eyes closed, and the leader should use a firm, clear tone and persevere to the end. Try the exercise once and you will understand what I mean.
To test your enunciation before doing the exercise, read a few sentences from a book, or from anything you have at hand - the text printed on the back of a cereal box will do.
- Open your mouth with your lips and teeth slightly apart
- Stick your tongue out as far as you can without straining - your tongue will remain stuck out for the entire exercise
- Beginning with the letter "A", pronounce the letters of the alphabet as clearly as possible, in sequence, adding a letter to the sequence with each repetition: "A", "A,B", "A,B,C", "A,B,C,D", "A,B,C,D,E", and so on 'til you speak the entire alphabet with the last repetition
- Retract your tongue to its normal position, and, as quickly as you can, repeat the entire alphabet once more, opening your mouth and stretching your lips to over-enunciate each letter in an exaggerated manner
Now that you have finished your warm-up, re-read the same passage. You will be amazed at how clear and crisp you will sound, compared to your first efforts.
Another way to accomplish this is to repeat tongue twisters and nonsense rhymes. Any simple poetry will do the trick, though, as long as it requires you to repeat similar words or phrases. Tongue twisters can be great fun to try and say as quickly and clearly as possible.
She sells seashells by the seashore, but the seashells she sells are seashells no more.
I'm not sure why the seashells are seashells no more, but that really isn't the object of the exercise.
Misty, moisty was the morn, dreary was the weather, when I met an old man dressed all in leather;
Dressed all in leather against the snow and rain, with "How do you do?", and "How do you do?", and "How do you do?" again;
With "How do you do?", and "How do you do?", and "How do you do?" again.
This second piece is for enunciation as much as speed - the repeated greeting is quite a workout for the lips, if the words are pronounced correctly and distinctly.
Another way to improve your speaking voice, is to make an effort to speak more slowly, especially when trying to impart information.
Most of us, especially North Americans, tend to speak very quickly - too quickly for ease of communication.
Speaking more slowly will have two effects - it will make you more intelligible, more easily understood, and it can lend more importance to what you are saying. Think about it - this technique is often used by actors to convey a significant plot point, or push home a particular feeling.
I don't recommend speaking slowly as a habit though, for you will begin to sound as if you are constantly making "pronouncements" rather than speaking, and, after all, it is only one of the techniques at your disposal.
Sing, Sing, Sing
Another technique to develop your speaking voice is to sing - that's right, sing! Singing opens your throat and causes you to listen to the pitch and rhythm of the sounds you are producing. This kind of exercise will also help you develop your ability to hear the variations, or lack of them, in your speaking voice.
Rather than singing a song though, go back to the sentence or two you spoke when you cupped your hand around your ear to really hear your voice, or grab that cereal box again, and sing the sentences. Use any tune you like or just chant the words on the same note.
This probably feels a bit silly because we're not used to bursting forth in song as if we were characters in a musical. Give it a shot though, and listen to your voice. Sing a few of the words more quickly than the rest, and then sing the next few more slowly. Sing the sentences again, first in a high voice, and then in a low voice.
Now, speak the sentences in the same ways that you sang them. Listen to the variations in your voice as you speak the words more slowly, and then more quickly, and again as you vary the pitch of your voice from high to low as if you were still singing the words.
This kind of vocalization stretches and improves your speaking voice in the same way as it does your singing voice.
Breathing - When and How
Singing not only stretches your voice, it can help improve your breathing. While singing, you take a deep breath to sustain each musical phrase to its end. Sustaining each phrase, or thought, to its end helps make sense of the song.
Sing a verse or two of a familiar song as you would normally expect to hear it. Now repeat the song, but instead of stopping to breathe at the end of each phrase, try stopping for a breath in the middle of each line. You can hear how this artificially breaks up the lyrics, the thoughts of the song, so that it soon begins to sound nonsensical.
You can also use this technique when you speak. Each sentence or phrase is a thought, or an idea. Pausing for breath at the end of a phrase or thought makes the sense of what we are saying very clear. Breaking your phrases in mid-thought can begin to erode the sense of what you are saying. As well, sustaining a sentence or phrase through to its end keeps your voice from trailing off before the thought is finished, which can make you sound vague or weak.
Breathing properly,especially taking a few deep breaths before you begin speaking, can also relax you. This will automatically drop your pitch and reduce any signs of nervousness such as voice tremors.
Of course, any program of self-improvement requires that you actually practice these exercises. They will feel odd at first - Oh, all right! Some of them will feel downright silly! They will, however, in the long run, help you to improve your speaking voice.
Not just for public speaking!
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