It's the morning of the big call. You prepared your material and went to bed early--even if you didn't get much sleep. Now you hover near the phone, waiting for it to ring, thinking about everything that might prevent you from establishing a great rapport. Maybe he'll sound like Elmer Fudd. Or, worse, maybe you will.
Either way, an important connection is about to be made, sight unseen. And your voice will play a big role. How can you prevent your voice from sabotaging everything from business calls to presentations? Use these tips for working your voice, instead of letting it work you.
1. Rise and try to shine. After getting out of bed, head to the bathroom for some warm-ups. Look at yourself in the mirror and take deep breaths. Are your shoulders rising as you inhale? Don't let them. Stand straight, relax and let your breath come in down low. It should feel like it's entering your body around your waist, not being pulled down your throat.
2. Keep it up. Not only does slouching look like you couldn't care less, but it also prevents your lungs from filling up. Full lungs keep your voice from cracking, make you sound more powerful and keep you from running out of air. When you realize you're hunched over while on the phone, sit back and straighten your spine to allow more energy to come across.
3. Support can be beautiful. Some people are blessed with resonant voices like James Earl Jones or Lauren Bacall. Most of us aren't. But rather than throwing in the towel, try wrapping it around your waist. Breathe in low and gently expand your abs and obliques. Relax, let go and pretend the towel is like the waistline of your sweatpants. You can feel it grow a little wider.
Then open up and say "Ah." Now repeat. This time, use your abs to expand your waist. You'll also feel the downward push of your lower abs. Say "Ah" once more, and as you expand, you'll hear the sound get stronger. Use this technique for more volume and a stronger sound.
4. Open up. When you get nervous, your voice gets squeaky and high. Not the confident image you want to project. And the more you try and control it by force, the more you start to lose it altogether. The cure: breathing low, gently using your lower abs to push down and relax. And always let your throat be open and free of tension. An open throat protects your voice and produces a richer sound.
5. Variety is key. Want to control your whole audience? Speak in a monotone voice, and you can send a group of 2,000 people off to dreamland. Especially when working by phone, that dead air may not be your client pondering. Try listening for snoring. To prevent this, remember the "four P's" of vocal variety:
- Pace: Speak too fast and it sounds like you're nervous or a used car salesman trying to pull a fast one. If the pace is too slow, you're going to sound like the village idiot.
- Pitch: Pit your voice too low and nobody will hear you. Speak too high and you sound nervous.
- Pauses: Build them into your speech--sparingly. If pauses are too short, it'll sound like you're scrambling for words. But a few well-timed pauses create a sense of intrigue and curiosity.
- Passion: This all-important quality will be the biggest selling point you have. Love your topic.
6. Get rid of nasality. There's a problem if your voice sounds disturbingly like Fran Drescher's. If you're a whiner, try this: yawn. Feel your mouth open wide. You won't feel that kind of space if you're nasal. The soft palate--a flap of skin on the back of the roof of your mouth--lifts and allows air to float up into every chamber of your head, resulting in a full, resonant sound. It's like a little trap door that can open and close. Conversely, when the soft palate lowers, the air stream is blocked off from the head, and the air can only pass out of the nose.
For a quick fix, say "Ing--Ah." Elide the "Ing" right into the "Ah," and don't break them into two sounds. Feel what's happening inside your mouth. On "Ing," the back of your tongue is pressed up against the soft palate and no air can get into your head. It's nasal. When you say "Ah," the tongue peels down from the roof and allows the sound to lift.
7. Modify your accent. How boring the world would be if we all sounded the same. But if your native tongue gets in the way of communication, you should correct it. The process used to be called accent "elimination," but "modification" is a more accurate term. Spend a few sessions with a voice coach who can give you the basic sounds of English, help you pronounce its most confusing words and model them for you, face-to-face.
8. Tune your tone. Being able to adjust your tone to any situation is paramount to successful business communication. If you do sound monotonous, ineffectual or annoying, you may lose a client. If your tone is lackluster, they think you're bored. If you sound angry or bullying, that aggressive style can put them off. But if you're able to suit your tone to any occasion, you'll win the day. Learn how to sound passionate even if you'd rather be anywhere else.
9. Leave it at the beep. Leaving a great voice-mail message is essential. If you sound positive, polished and professional, people will get a wonderful "first vocal impression." Leave your name clearly. Spell it if you have to. Leave your phone number, twice. Tell them briefly what you can do for them. Let them know when you can be reached, or ask them the best time for you to call back. Be brief, but not vague.
10. It is, actually, about you. The most important tip is to be authentic. Take time to find what's unique about you--your sense of humor, your newfound confidence, your persona. Stop trying to sound like a phony announcer.
Mastering these tips for voice power will soon become second nature. And if your potential client does sound like Elmer Fudd, well, know that your newfound vocal skills will make an excellent first impression. Weally.
Douglas Anderson is president of Your Voice Coach, a consultancy whose clients range from startups to Fortune 500 companies. His detailed programs and list of services can be found on his website,www.yourvoicecoach.com.