A lot of public speaking tips are about emotional intelligence or creativity – how to read an audience, how to write a speech, how to craft a great PowerPoint slide. But there are also ‘hard’ techniques based in a lot of research and even biological science. In many ways, these skills are the public speaker’s ABCs.
The voice, of course, is a function of a set of physical properties of the body: the vocal chords, the chest … and the diaphragm. This last one is crucial. It is a muscle that sits at the bottom of the ribcage. Its primary role is in breathing, since when it is contracted it increases the volume of the thorax and so inflates the lungs. This, of course, makes it indispensable to public speaking.
Why? Because breath technique is fundamental to proper voice projection – the means by which speakers make themselves heard. Voice projection allows a voice to be heard loudly and clearly. Where in normal conversation we may speak using air only from the top of the lungs, a projected voice utilises air flowing via proper expansion of the diaphragm.
Learning how to use the diaphragm to control and support the flow of air is therefore very important if you’re going to need to fill a room with your voice. Even modern microphones only solve the problem of volume to an extent – and they certainly do not provide the confidence and authority that comes from a properly supported and projected voice. So mastering good breathing pays real dividends for any speaker.
Good breathing is the start of good voice projection, so it’s worth doing right.Place one hand on your chest and the other beneath your ribcage: breathe in so that your stomach moves out against your hand, but the hand on your chest doesn’t move. Now tighten your stomach muscles, letting them fall inward as you exhale through pursed lips. Keep that hand on your chest still!
What you’re trying to achieve here is control of your breath using only the muscle that sits just below your ribcage, the diaphragm. You’ll have more control of your breath this way – and that means a better speaking voice. Once you have control of your diaphragm muscles, you will be able much more easily to vary the volume of your voice without shouting or straining. Try saying ‘ah’ out loud, starting quietly and getting very gradually louder. You’re not aiming to be shouting by the end, but to have very fine control of varying levels of almost conversational volume.
Then do it the other way – from loud to soft. Once you’ve mastered that sound, try the same exercise with numbers; try going from soft to loud to soft again and vice versa. In other words, take control of your voice by mastering your breathing. The great news is that good breathing technique is a superb way to calm nerves, too.
Voice projection is, though, complex. It requires good breathing, but also relaxed vocal cords, good resonance and excellent diction – and those last three require separate skills to those involve in controlling the diaphragm. I will cover these topics, too, in future weeks – so keep checking back.