Does your voice need training?

When's the last time you taped yourself and listened to the way you sound when you are teaching? Bruce Maples shares some evaluation tools and tips for improving your speaking skills.

“Listen, pal—I hate to, uh, be the one to tell you this, but….No, no, your breath is fine. It’s your voice, pal. It needs some work.”

If your training manager said something like this to you, would it surprise you? And what would you do about it?
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at aspects of the teaching craft: how to use small groups, how to lecture, how to handle slow and fast students; all of these, and maybe more, will be covered. But first, let’s look at the number one teaching tool for trainers: the voice.
How do you measure up?
The first task, of course, is to find out what you really sound like. To do that, you need a tape recorder. As you’ve heard me say many times, all trainers should record their classes on a regular basis as a means of self-examination.

“But I hate my voice on tape!” Well, guess what—everybody hates their own voice on tape. We all sound better to ourselves than we do to others because of the extra resonance provided by the empty spaces in our head. (Fill in your own joke here.) So, get over it, and listen to the tape as if you were a student sitting in your class.

What do you hear? Is your voice high-pitched, or low? Whiny or temperate? Screechy, muffled, strong, fuzzy? Sing-songy like a bad Mr. Rogers impersonation? Gruff like a bad Hulk Hogan imitation? Are the words distinct, or swallowed? Are you dropping whatever consonants typically get dropped in your part of the country? Are the vowels twangy or pure?

If your voice is irritating, fails to communicate, or is so different that the students become fascinated with it instead of the subject matter, you’ve got a problem. Here are some of the attributes of a well-trained teaching voice:
  • Pitch: Not too high or low
  • Pacing: Not too slow or fast
  • Enunciation: All consonants spoken, not dropped
  • Tone: All vowels pure, not altered
  • Volume: Loud enough to be heard, but not shouting or irritating
  • Variety: Highs and lows in pitch, volume, and emphasis are varied enough to keep listeners’ interest
  • Authority: Enough weight to the voice to command attention (usually a combination of all the above elements)
Having heard myself on tape numerous times, I’m fairly confident the ratings would fall thusly:Pitch: A little high (I’m a tenor)Pacing: Usually okay, although tends to speed up when class is behindEnunciation: Very good to excellentTone: Usually very good. Some Southern drawl apparent, especially when watching sports events with friendsVolume: Sometimes too loud. No problem filling a room.Variety: ExcellentAuthority: Very good to excellent, except when excited.
Practice makes perfect
If you have a problem with your voice, what should you do about it? Your course of action depends on two things:
  • How serious the problem is
  • How serious you are about your voice

If your problems are minor, you may be able to fix them yourself. Many speakers have done just that, simply by continually recording themselves, analyzing the recordings, and practicing improvements. Pick out a paragraph, read it into the recorder, then listen to yourself critically. Once you’ve isolated the problems, record it again while focusing on improvement. Listen again to see if you improved. You’ll be amazed at what an hour a week of practice will do for your speaking voice.

Occasionally, though, speaking problems are either so severe, or so complex, they require outside intervention. If you have tried to fix things yourself and have gotten nowhere, or if your speaking voice is so bad it causes you to get bad evaluations in your classes, consider engaging a speech coach.

How a speech coach can help
A speech coach can help you improve such things as the pitch of your speaking voice, your pacing and volume, or the variety and authority in your voice.

A good speech coach will want to know what type of speaking you are doing, who your audience is, and what size room you usually speak in. The coach will work with you on your use of your air, and on the fundamentals of vocal production. In addition, a coach will have you do exercises specially designed to enhance the speaking voice. If your problems are severe, it may take a good while to see permanent improvement, and the process will likely be frustrating. Hang in there—worse voices than yours have been fixed.

Does all this sound like a lot of work? Sure, because it is. In the end, though, you will be glad you took the time and “paid your dues.” So will your students.

A word to training managers
As you are planning your in-service times for this year (you do schedule regular in-service with your trainers, right?), it would be worthwhile to plan a session with a speech coach. Almost all of us can improve our speaking and teaching voice, but only if we are challenged to do so. Such a session would be especially helpful if your trainers travel a great deal; we tend not to hear our own regional dialects, but I can assure you that students in other regions pick up on such things immediately. And, if you don’t have a good tape recording setup with a good wireless lavaliere mike in your own classrooms, as well as a good video recording setup, there’s no time like the present to put these items in the budget.

Bruce Maples is an author, trainer, speaker, and consultant living in Louisville, KY.

If you have, we’d like to know what techniques you used and how they helped your overall training presentation. If you would like to comment on this article, post your comments below or write toBruce .

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