Articles by Max

Improve Your Voice, Improve Your Story

After fifty-one years of coaching speakers, I’ve concluded that the most overlooked resource is the training and improvement of the speaking voice.  Other aspects of the speaker’s presentation are of equal and sometimes more deserving of attention, but they are also usually more often a part of that speaker’s conscious program for development.

My most recent coaching was this last Friday for the six members of a wonderful local political action group whose mission was to assist low income families that had challenges in housing and health care.  For all of those members some of my suggestions were for adjustments in how they spoke, how they breathed and how they used their voices.

At various times in my career my primary focus has been on actors, college students in voice and diction and public speaking classes, then professional speakers, financial advisors, attorneys, executives and anyone who valued their message and whose career depended on that message being received and believed.  So here are some of the most effective suggestions from throughout the years that brought dramatic results, often immediately, in improving their vocal performance:


Most people have heard of diaphragmatic breathing but so many don’t do it.  Here is where we have the most control and where we can support our voices most efficiently for the richest quality.

To experience diaphragmatic breathing, lie on your back and allow your waistline and lower torso to rise as you inhale.  Perhaps put a book on your stomach and make it rise as you inhale.  Your diaphragm is the large muscle that is the floor of your thoracic cavity.  As it moves your body out, it brings the air in through your mouth and nose.  Gradually, slowly sit up as you maintain this same action.  Eventually with attention and practice, this will become your natural way of breathing.  The upper chest will move less and the shoulders and arms will be more relaxed.

Gradually you will notice you have deeper breathing and the necessary control that allows you to project more content without running out of breath.

Also, you can do appropriate work on flexibility to let your back and sides to expand as well, thereby accomplishing three-dimensional breathing for the absolute best results!

Rivers and Banks…Vowels and Consonants

Develop your elegant noticing as you listen to others.  You will notice how many people give short shrift to either the vowels (rivers) or the consonants (banks).  On Friday one dear young woman was talking softly and fairly clearly but not giving adequate attention to the consonants.

I whispered to her (coaching is private so the audience can’t hear.  Otherwise I find the speaker concentrates on proving they can follow the suggestions rather than focusing on the people.) to pretend that her entire purpose was to make certain that every consonant was emphasized, just as an exercise, and absolutely nothing was more important!  The result was astonishing.  She did precisely that.  When asked what difference they heard, the others said “She was so much more polished.” and “She sounded so professional!”  She lost none of her gentle quality.

Another fellow was a very intense young man who was determined to come on strong.  His speaking was in fast spurts…very insistent.  I suggested he pretend his success was depending on how well he spent all the time needed to emphasize every vowel…just as an exercise.  He came across less anxious and less rushed…hence much more like a confident leader.  The others were very impressed and he lost none of his deep urgency.

So do this for yourself.  Take any two or three sentences.  Chose some for their hard sounds…consonants…and some for their vowel sounds.  Play with them to become adept at handling a.l.l…of the sounds in the words.

Notice how it will carry over to your speaking.

Next I asked her to write the words on the back wall with her projection.

Her command of the room shot up immediately.  This leads me to our next area of focus…

Volume and Projection

Sitting or standing in your house…or anywhere you won’t feel self-conscious,  speak to objects of different distances from you.  Some will be no more than a foot or two from you.  Others may be thirty-forty-fifty or more feet away.  Vary your volume to project the exact distance of your target.  Listen to yourself.  Sense how you feel with that variety of targets.  Then notice how that sensitivity is available to you the next time you find yourself giving a speech…and how that varies depending on the size and distance covered by your audience.

It’s fun, too.

With another person you can stand at a conversational distance apart and one can move the other one backwards with an increase in volume.

I have used this in programs for every NSA chapter and the results would blow you away.  The participant sees an actual physical result of their variation in volume and it stays in their behavioral repertoire!

Voice Quality

Many of us don’t realize that we have too much nasality in our voice at times.  The sounds of n, m, and ng  are nasal but we often carry it beyond that which is necessary and some people have it as a constant challenge.

Try this.  Take a sentence that has no nasals in it, ex. “Everybody at the office is very effective today.”  Say it first normally.  Then pinch your nose closed and say it again.  They should sound virtually the same…unless you are closing your nasal resonance.  If it sounds “nasally” when pinched, keep your throat open and support your voice from diaphragmatic breathing and you’re on your way to getting rid of a very distracting quality.

Articulation…Tongue Flexibility

Sometimes someone has what we call a “thick tongue”.  They slur sounds together and lack effective use of the tongue.  Young folks, especially, have a tendency to slur over words as they speak swiftly.

  • Anchor the tip of the tongue behind the lower front teeth – push the mid/rear of the tongue forward out of the mouth-keeping the jaw stationary and the throat open, say “yah, yah, yah” as you pull the tongue back into the mouth and flatten it.  Keep the tip of the tongue touching the lower front teeth at all times.  This will add flexibility to the rear of the tongue.
  • Anchor the tip or the tongue behind the lower front teeth.  Raise the mid tongue to the roof of the mouth and produce the ng sound, as if you were making the final sound in the word “song”.  Drop the rear of the tongue and say an open ah sound.  Repeat it three times and it will sound like ng gah, ng gah, ng gah.  The g sound is hard as in “good”.
  • Work this until it is a firm clean action and you will be increasing the flexibility of the mid-tongue.
  • Anchor the tip of the tongue behind the upper front teeth this time and with the mouth easily open, pull back the tongue gently to make the t sound.  Now say ever-so-gently tippity tee, tippity tee, tippity tippity tippity tee.
  • Keep the throat relaxed.  This is a very delicate activity.  Avoid letting the sound be ts or th.  Make it a definite but gentle t.  You will be developing the flexibility and sensitivity of the front of the tongue.

Voila!!!  You’ll be surprised over time how this begins to add clarity to much of your speech.

It also helps to massage your facial muscles, especially your jaw.  Make your self available to yourself with a minimum of unnecessary tension.

Another fun Time exercise

I’ve told a speaker who speaks in a rushed fashion to pretend they will receive $1,000,000 if they take ten seconds longer to say the last three sentences.  And we must believe you i.e. not be aware that you are doing an “exercise”.

They always pull it off and the response is always that they seem more in control and less anxious.  They are surprised and I hear often how it has changed the impression they make. 

This is particularly advantageous in a corporate setting.  (“Don’t let ‘em see you sweat!”)

Pitch Variety

This is so very important.  Few qualities turn off an audience faster that a monotone delivery.  It robs the speech of emotional life and that takes away an important connector to the learning brain.  Meaning, feelings and visual clarity are necessary for keeping the brain awake and a lack of vocal variety,  pitch being primary, is one of the most deadly thieves of those ingredients.

Men have more of a tendency toward monotone as the sound conduction internally through the facial bones is usually more resonant in men than in women and hence it is very comforting to our feeling of importance.  Or…uh…so I’m told.

I began using this exercise many years ago from a handout I received from I-know-not-where-nor whom.  “Say each of these words: oh, yes, well, really, possibly…conveying each of these emotions:  happiness, pride, fatigue, fright, anger, suspicion, innocence, pleading, sorrow.”

Add choices of your own.  Listen to yourself.  Own it.

From the same hand-out:”Reproduce the tone color of these words by making your voice sound like the meaning of the words: bang, crackle, swish, grunt, tinkle, roar, coo, thin wheezze, bubble, buzz, splash, clang, gurgle, kick, miserable, squat, hissed, grab, jump, sprang, dream, little.”

Add your own.

So these are just a few of hundreds of exercises we can use to expand our range of vocal variety.

As storytellers we must capture a wide range of qualities in describing characters, setting, the gritty conflicts, the amazement and wonderment at something…a host of colors and sounds.

This is only a beginning and it is limited only by our imagination.

What character can you make come alive because of the way they sound when they speak, or shout, scream, whine, command, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera?!

Develop your voice so it serves you and, yes, ultimately your audience.

They’ll remember you…and hire you again!!!