Guide on the Side – Voice Care for the Occasional Speaker

Previous Articles by Marie Wallace

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O’Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries‘ highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute’s programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms “Life in Progress,” which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her “free” time to various non-profit and civic activities.

Professional speakers, along with trainers, teachers, singers, actors and others who use their voices on a regular basis for long periods of time, learn to care for their vocal instruments and to minimize possible problems resulting from a health condition or the physical environment. Unfortunately, professionals who speak only occasionally have several built-in problems:

Their speech muscles are out of condition
They are less likely to have learned proper vocal production techniques
They are tense from intuitively knowing the above two things.
The body recognizes when it is unprepared and responds with nervous symptoms which are reflected in the voice. Under stress, what normally resembles Martha Stewart can sound like a politician at the end of a long campaign.

What can an occasional speaker do to care for and condition their voice? Voice care advice can be summed up in two adages: one old and one new.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
Stuff happens.

An ounce of prevention

  • Start exercising your voice daily as soon as the speaking event is calendared. Ten minutes of vocal or singing exercises in the car or shower will do wonders.
  • Arrange for the speaking event to take place in a speaker-friendly environment, free from dust, noise and fumes.
  • Arrange the room with the shortest the distance between you and your audience.
  • Build body-memory and awareness of your voice by recording and listening to how you sound.
  • Join a Toastmasters club and get a voice assessment involving such things as speaking speed (normal rate is 120 – 160 words per minute), voice quality (pleasant, rich, authoritative or nasal, breathy, whinny), articulation, intonation and range of variation in volume, pitch and pace.
  • Warm up with some relaxation exercises before speaking to loosen up. Many voice problems come from tension and stress. A pain in your foot will be reflected in your voice.
  • Learn proper breathing and relaxation techniques. You may need to take a class or work with a coach (Guide #30) to get this type of instruction or you can learn it from singing, acting or athletic instruction. Power breathing is from the diaphragm and is also important for most sports and good health.
  • Learn Alexander techniques which many singers, actors and performers study.
  • Drink 6 to 8 glasses of water a day for adequate hydration.
  • Take water with you to the podium, lectern or your speaking site and sip it throughout your speaking event.
  • Avoid dairy products (includes most desserts), caffeine, liquor and smoking immediately before speaking. It’s best to give up smoking permanently.
  • Use alternatives to yelling and screaming at sports events. Substitute bells, noise makers and foot stomping.
  • Reduce the number of times you clear your throat by swallowing instead.
  • Arrange for sound amplification when speaking to larger groups.
  • Design your presentation/training with a portion that you do not speak such as interactive exercises, role playing, demonstration, or a video.
  • Take short but regular breaks.
  • Call the audience back from breaks with sound clips, music or whistles.

Stuff happens (real life examples)

The adjacent room is being remodeled.
The city is laying cable and tearing up the street with jack hammers outside.
The event is held outdoors under the flight path of the local airport.
There is a high pollen index from the flowers blooming or the cut grass.
There are particulates in the air from paint fumes, new rugs or construction.
You are dehydrated from air travel to get to the speaking destination.
You have not had enough sleep because of jet lag.
You get an asthma or allergy attack.
You wake up with a sinus, throat infection, bronchitis or laryngitis.
The microphone and public address system are broken or stolen.
You entered a hog calling contest the day before and are hoarse.

What to do when stuff happens

Remove the problem or remove yourself from the problem.
Look for help in your survival kit.
Refer to rule one, an ounce of prevention.
Apply sense of humor, laughter is a great relaxer. Use your natural voice pitch, don’t try to sound like Cicero.

If you get the laryngitis several days before the event, don’t use your voice and the problem may vanish as quickly as it came. Otherwise you can try sign language, flip charts, other written forms instructions or maximum audience participation but your best bet is to reschedule or get a substitute. If the condition persists, consult a speech therapist. Laryngitis is sometimes caused by improper speech habits.

Stuff happens survival kit

Water bottle (Room temperature water is better than cold).
Homeopathic cough lozenges
Your regular asthma/allergy medication
Laminated cheat sheet with this message
“No dairy products, caffeine, liquor or smoking before speaking”

Some voice conditioning and relaxation exercises

Slowly say or sing the following nonsense syllables on the same note, then follow by singing a short scale up and down with the same syllables. Repeat by altering the volume from loud to soft as you sing each syllable, finally vary the speed

nah, nay, nee, noo, now
ay, ee, eye, oo, you

Yawn and finish by saying “ho-hum” and turn the “hum” into a hum

Follow by saying words that open the throat and promote a loose jaw

home, wholly, lemon, hone, harem, lang

Exhale all the air from your lungs slowly and then slowly inhale. Repeat 5 times.

Exhale in a series of 5 short pants, follow with 5 short pants to inhale.

Sing at at your normal pitch, then go up two notes one at a time and then down two notes one at a time. Follow by humming up and down a scale. (Humming is a good way to find your normal pitch.)

Massage under the chin to increase saliva flow and keep vocal tract moist.

Swallow regularly to lubricate your throat.

Bite your tongue gently to help salivate and keep mouth moist.

Practice inflection by repeating a simple sentence, such as “What is that doing here?” changing the emphasis on a different word each time.
What is that doing here?
What is that doing here? etc.

To croak or not to croak

In Shakespeare’s time before HMO’s, physicians believed that the cure for a croaky voice was application of frog secretions to the throat. The secretions were administered directly to the vocal chords by placing a frog in the mouth until the condition was gone. Hence the phrase “a frog in your throat.” A drink of warm water is probably a more effective cure. Where would you find a frog on short notice anyway?

Posted in: Guide on the Side, Presentation Skills