How to project your voice

by Olivia Mitchell

A reader has asked:

I always feel that I am not able to project my voice and articulate the words properly. Is there any material / information on how I can improve these areas?

Presenters often want advice on projecting their voice. They see voice projection as a solution to not talking loud enough. But when I work with presenters who say they want to project their voice, I hardly ever end up teaching them that – because we solve the problem in other ways.

So I want to backtrack. First, let’s look at whether there is a problem.

Is there a problem?

There’s only a problem if people in your audience either can’t comfortably hear you or can’t understand you.

Maybe you speak quietly. That’s your natural style whether you’re having a conversation with one other person or speaking to a group. As long as people don’t have to strain to hear you, that’s not a problem.

You may have a friend or colleague who has advised you to speak louder or project your voice. This advice is well-intentioned but misguided. They think that a public speaker should speak at a certain volume.

But they forget that it’s more important to be yourself, than to try and aspire to some “model” of how a public speaker should be. When you try and be something other than yourself – you lose something far more important than what you might be gaining. You lose authenticity – that feeling that the audience has that they are seeing the real you.

So get some feedback from a range of people in your audience. Do people have a problem hearing you or understanding you? If they don’t, that’s great. If they do, let’s go onto look at the cause of the problem.

What’s the underlying reason for the problem?

There are three possibilities:

1. You don’t know how to use your voice effectively to make it go louder.

2. Nervousness is subduing you, and as a result you’re speaking too quietly.

3. You’re not looking at the people you’re speaking to.

1. Can you use your voice?

Learning how to project your voice is obviously the solution to the first problem. The vast majority of people do know how to increase the volume of their voice. It’s a natural human skill. Sure, to be an opera singer you might need some technical training on voice projection – but not to be a presenter.

Most likely, you already know how to use your voice.

Have a play with your voice

Test this out in a large room with an honest, compassionate and playful friend. Stand at opposite ends of the room. Focus on your friend – can you make yourself heard across the room? Now have a play with your voice. Experiment. How soft can you speak? How loud can you speak? Can you make it boom? Can you make it squeak? Your voice is carried on your breath so experiment with your breathing – breath from your diaphragm (put your hand on your belly to check that you’re doing this) and see how your voice sounds.

Get feedback from your friend on how your voice sounds. In this stress-free environment, you’ll probably find you can use your voice just fine. If you are having problems (and your friend agrees ie: it’s not just your perception) then you might need more help from a voice coach or singing teacher.

2. Nervousness is subduing you

So you know how to use your voice, but when you’re in front of an audience that ability deserts you! Fear and nervousness are a normal part of public speaking for many people. And for you, it makes you go quiet.

Here’s what I speculate might be going on for you.

You might have a thought that goes like this:

“I must be approved by every person in the audience. If they don’t approve of me that would be awful.”

If you believe this thought, you defend yourself against the possiblity of disapproval by speaking quietly. After all, if they can’t hear or understand what you say, they can’t disapprove.

But this thought is untrue and irrational. I recommend using strategies from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to deal with thoughts like this. That means first challenging the thought and then replacing it with a more rational and empowering thought.

Challenge the thought

It’s not true that you must have everyone’s approval. Sure, you’d like it – but it’s not essential to your survival. Part of becoming comfortable with public speaking is becoming comfortable with the idea that you won’t always get approval from every person in your audience. I like this Bill Cosby quote:

“I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

Replace the thought

Here’s a more rational and empowering thought to replace it with:

“I’d like people in the audience to approve of what I have to say, but I’ll be able to cope if they don’t.”

Note that this isn’t a positive affirmation like “Everyone will approve of me”. That’s not necessarily true – sometimes people don’t like you or what you have to say. And as a result it’s not believable. The replacement thought that I have suggested is truthful and believable. And it will make you feel more confident.

Check out my post on the Seven Thinking Sins of Public Speaking for more examples on replacing unhelpful thoughts.

3. You’re not looking at the people you’re speaking to

There are some people – and maybe you’re one of them – who don’t look at their audience when they’re speaking. Maybe you look at the screen, at the floor, at the ceiling, or into the middle distance.

When we speak one-on-one to someone, we naturally modulate our volume so that they can hear us. If they’re close, we speak softly. If they’re across the room, we up the volume.

This natural ability comes into play when you look at the person you’re speaking to.

I’m not talking fleeting eye contact. Choose one audience-member to talk to and imagine you’re having a one-on-one conversation with them. Speak just to them. Make a connection with them. Look for their reaction as you’re talking. Then choose another person to talk to. When you talk like this – with the intention of connecting with each individual audience member – you will naturally project your voice so that they can hear you.

You may be uncomfortable with this sustained eye connection. But what you’re uncomfortable with may be just right for your audience. You can test this out by gathering together a range of friends or colleagues. Experiment with eye connection. Then ask them to tell you whether it was uncomfortable for them.

Summary

You probably don’t need to learn how to project your voice. You can already do that. But do look at the thoughts that might be making you nervous. And use your natural ability to modulate the volume of your voice by speaking to each person in your audience.

Do you have a question?

This post was written in response to a reader’s question. If you’d like some advice on some aspect of  presenting or public speaking, write your question in the comments or send me an e-mail.

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{ 48 comments… read them below or add one }

Dr. Jim Anderson November 4, 2008 at 8:43 am

Olivia: don’t forget that the issue of projecting your voice can be quickly and easily solved by using a microphone. Today’s wireless mics can make any speaker audible from every seat in the house…!

- Dr. Jim Anderson
The Accidental Communicator Blog
“Learn How To Calm Your Fears, Wow Your Audience, And Get Your Point Across”

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John February 4, 2012 at 6:01 am

My problem is I am a teacher in a very loud classroom with poor acoustics, and a very loud AC unit on the roof above.

At the end of a two hour class my voice is almost gone. I can only talk in a whisper. Some times it takes a few days to recover. I have some hearing damage and tinnitus so I may be talking louder than I need to but people I talk to in my room often can’t hear me past about 12′ less as you get closer to the AC.
My room is about 50′ X 60′ all concrete with a concrete beam ceiling. Much echo. Help.

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Kate Peters February 4, 2012 at 6:18 am

John, Using a small sound system is highly recommended in this situation. You can find them at a reasonable price and it would really help you. As Olivia says, a mic is a good idea and you might not think of it in a classroom. Your profession is at more risk for vocal damage than almost any other profession (some 75% of teachers have chronic vocal problems which cause them to miss work!) and you might be able to get help from your school administration to get a sound system rather than cause physical harm as a result of your work. In addition, a study published in the Journal of Voice also showed that children’s learning can be affected by dysphonia in a teacher’s voice, so this is a serious problem. I encourage you to address it as such and get the help you need!

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Olivia Mitchell February 4, 2012 at 8:40 am

I totally agree with Kate. I think this is a serious situation for you and for the people you teach. Do ask for help from your school management.

All the best for resolving this situation.
Olivia

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Marcoz Pacheco July 10, 2012 at 6:02 pm

I love your quote or saying let me invent one and I promise I will send it to you here is one just came to my mind FEARS CAN SOMETIMES BE DEFEATED WITH YOUR INNER SILENCE……..god loves you

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Olivia Mitchell November 4, 2008 at 11:13 am

Thank you Jim, that’s a good point to add – although many situations that people will be speaking in may not have wireless mics available. However, if you’re offered a wireless mic, do always take it. Once you’ve got it on, you can forget that it’s there. Olivia

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Kate Peters January 7, 2010 at 5:46 am

First of all, I agree that the best use of voice is natural and that it is not a good idea to try to sound like someone else, and I totally agree with the idea of watching what you are thinking, etc. However, in response to your reader, there are, some great resources on projecting your voice and what that means, and these can be found by consulting a voice coach or reading info on how the voice works and the physical technique of using it. I strongly disagree that the only people who need to study voice are opera singers. (As a voice coach, I simply must add my two cents about this) when your voice is as important a part of your life and work as it is for speakers, trainers, presenters, lawyers, teachers…., why wouldn’t you learn enough to at least keep it in optimal shape, let alone to get through the challenges to vocal health caused by overuse, illness, or strains? Most people do not know their voice, as you suggest, and they need help getting familiar with it and all of the wonderful aspects of sound and effects that are at their disposal once they develop it. Like working out at a gym makes you LOOK better and be healthier, it makes you SOUND better when you develop those vocal muscles, and your voice becomes much less susceptible to vocal problems!.

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Olivia Mitchell January 13, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Hi Kate

Thanks for giving your perspective as a voice coach. I agree that it can be valuable for all sorts of people – not just professional speakers – to learn how to use their voice better.

Olivia

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Kevin Kane December 12, 2010 at 11:39 am

Olivia, this is off-topic, but could you tell us what WordPress plugin you use to display four related posts (including their thumbnails) at the end of your posts?

Thanks.

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Olivia Mitchell December 12, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Hi Kevin
That plugin is LinkedWithin.

Olivia

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Kevin Kane December 12, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Thanks. Linkwithin.com seemed to be down when I tried to download the plugin.

But I’ll try again later.

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Tumi March 21, 2012 at 9:36 am

When I get too excited or nervous my voice stutter what could be the problem.

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Olivia Mitchell March 21, 2012 at 5:19 pm

Hi Tumi

As Kate suggests, breathing deeply may help you with your nerves. However, as well as treating the symptoms of your nervousness, I would also look at what is causing your nervousness. You’ll find this post useful:

http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/nervousness/fear-of-public-speaking-causes/

All the best
Olivia

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Kate Peters March 21, 2012 at 11:12 am

Nerves can make you stutter all by themselves. However, the remedy for nerves is breathing. Make sure you are taking in enough air and that it is low and expansive as if you were breathing for yoga. It’s very grounding to drop the air in low and the oxygen you take in will help your brain function better which will also help you control the stutter a bit better.

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Paco Supreme April 11, 2012 at 3:11 am

Thank you for the very useful perspective.

As you mentioned in the article people are telling me that I am not loud enough. Yet when I speak the audience doesn’t seem to have a problem hearing me.

I like the suggestion to play around with the volume of your volume in a large room with a friend. I think this is what I need to do to get a better perspective on how quiet I really am.

Thank you for the suggestion.

Jacob Colegrove

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Jack May 5, 2012 at 5:38 pm

I can’t seem to be able to project my voice loud enough no matter how hard I try. People at the back of my school auditorium can’t hear me, and it’s easily 1.5 times smaller than normal auditoriums. Last time I could project in a classroom, but recently I did the same thing and found myself straining my voice-and being sick after that. Im still recovering and cant speak as well. What can I do to project my voice for everyone to hear?

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Jack May 5, 2012 at 5:41 pm

Oh, I’d like to add I’m a “quiet speaker” and don’t talk loudly (or use my voice) often.

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Kate Peters May 11, 2012 at 6:55 am

Hi, Jack. First of all, if you were ill and still trying to project your voice and have had issues ever since, you may have done some damage to your voice. I urge you to go see an otolaryngologist and have your cords checked out. If you get clearance from them, the next step is to strengthen your larynx with exercises, much as you would if you were strengthening any other muscle in your body. Here’s link (with your permission, Olivia.)http://sixminutes.dlugan.com/voice-strength-training/. Meanwhile, you can’t expect your voice to be strong if you never use it. It’s made of muscles and they atrophy without use, which makes them weak. Use it more (carefully since you’ve hurt yourself in the past) and it will get stronger. Finally, be sure to speak directly into the mic and ask the technicians to crank up the volume if you can’t be heard. There is no point in straining if you have a mic, but you may need to ask for a boost!!

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Jade July 10, 2012 at 5:33 am

hi, my voice is naturally low and this creates huge problems for me as people always tell me they are trying their best to hear me or my voice is too low. so i have to be aware of my voice almost all the time so that people can hear me. but iam not always able to stay aware of raising my voice. is there a solution that can make my voice as loud as everyone else?

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Kate Peters July 10, 2012 at 6:14 am

Hi, Jade. Everyone’s voice is different. Some are bigger and stronger just as some people are bigger and stronger. Some are lighter and smaller. You may have been given the latter. In my answer above, I suggested a voice work out to Jack. You might try that. Mask resonance is the answer to a vibrant voice that carries well. I have some articles on that (http://katepeters.com/blog/2011/05/11/how-to-create-a-voice-with-executive-presence/) or you can search online to find out more about it. Briefly, the sound has to resonate in the front of your face, not in your throat in order to carry and also for a voice that stays healthy. You will need to approach your voice like an athlete approaches their body and do some training to strengthen it and to create habits that you can sustain. Hope that helps!

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leon September 13, 2012 at 10:55 pm

my voice could be heard most of the time,but why people can’t hear me on some occasions?

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Osta September 27, 2012 at 11:08 pm

The reader also asked if there is “any material / information on how I can improve these areas?” What books/reading material coming from somewhere else than your own homepage would you recommend?

I’ve been looking around myself, and it seems like there is no English school of voice and no books on healthy speaking in English, if you ignore books about speech impediments or voice-over and acting (which usually spend no words on bettering your normal speaking voice or vocal health in daily life). I can find a ton of books in other languages, so why can I not find any in English?

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Matt T October 12, 2012 at 10:19 pm

“It’s not true that you must have everyone’s approval.”

So, so true. Not just in public speaking, but in life in general. Thank you for pointing this out!

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Could you please answer me for these question?
How will the environment and audience will affect My voice projection, articulation, voice modulation, pace and tone?

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Sammy July 19, 2013 at 4:28 am

Projecting your voice is a crucial part of public speaking! Really enjoyed reading you article :-)

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Sam September 11, 2013 at 7:44 pm

I talk very fast when talking… Please how can i talk normally… Am not happy!!!

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Kate Peters September 12, 2013 at 3:54 am

There are two practical approaches you can take to slowing down. Both require retraining with awareness on your part. First, you can create a piece of about 200 words that you can read. Set the timer for one minute and read in a normal conversational style. When the timer goes off, count the words you’ve read. That’s the approximate speed at which you are talking. If it’s greater than 140-160, it’s too fast. Slow down and try again until you get in the correct range. You need to get a feel for this speed before you can make it a habit. Practice this several times a day.

The second helper is an app called Tick Talk. It’s a metronome for speakers .. You set it at the speed you want, and set it to vibratet, and put in your pocket. No one else knows it’s there but it keeps you aware of pace.

Hope these help!

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