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.
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.