4 things to do before you speak publicly

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Influential speakers seem to be able to hold your attention with no effort whatsoever. But is it really just the sound of their voice that draws you in, or is it something more?

The human voice can tell listeners an enormous amount about your personality, emotions, confidence and feelings about yourself, as well as what you’re really thinking.

The way you use your voice also has the power to make you interesting or deadly dull.

So have you ever wondered how Cate Blanchett got those honeyed tones? How Barack Obama learned to command such presence? How Judy Dench or the late Alan Rickman developed their individual tone? It’s no accident. Nor is it a trade secret.

It takes practice.

Actors in training at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) spend three to four hours every day working on their voice and in some form of physical training.

The voice is a whole body experience – not just something that comes from your mouth. It involves your posture, as well as your lungs, diaphragm, vocal folds, teeth, lips, tongue, soft and hard palates, and the resonating spaces in your skull.

The good news is that almost anyone is capable of producing the type of vibrant and engaging voice that gets your message across. It occurs in daily life at times when we have to make ourselves heard. Think of that time you needed to call across the football field or the roar of traffic to get the attention of someone in possible danger.

Actors’ voice training techniques can enable you to harness that power and draw on it at will. Here are four ways that actor’s training can help with public speaking:

1. Warm up properly

One thing that I have learned in my 30years on stage and screen is that a daily warm up is paramount to consistent delivery. This will enable you to get through those nervous starts and give the speech or argument without suffering from nerves or lack of breath.

Anyone who presents regularly should develop a quick and thorough breathing and articulation warm up to do in the car, the office, foyer or even a nearby park.

2. Remove the flow-stoppers

‘Fillers’ are what we call those ‘ums and ahs’ – the little words such as ‘like’ and ‘you know’ and ‘so’ which surreptitiously creep in to everyday communications, inhibiting your ability to flow from sentence to sentence seamlessly.

Removing these from your professional speech pattern actually requires you to remove them from your vocabulary altogether.

However, it’s not as easy as you might think.

Try this exercise: ask a friend or work colleague to clap their hands when you use a filler in a short conversation. As well as bringing some hilarity to your life, it will certainly highlight the challenge.

In fact, if you’re practising this at work, get the whole office to join in. That way the practice happens without even trying. Gradually you’ll become more aware of when you use fillers and have more control over consciously trying to remove them from your speech.

3. Devise appropriate content

Speaking a well-made text takes much less effort than words that are clumsily put together.
The speeches that flow ‘trippingly on the tongue’* are the most sought-after.

To ensure your next public speaking opportunity flows off the tongue, write your speech with shorter sentences, choose more accessible language, and generate a good story around your key points. All of these are great rules to follow when developing your speaking content.

4. Practise

Truth is – there is no quick fix. Our wonderful voices all have the same secret: regular practice, warm ups and articulation exercises.
There’s an old actor’s joke along the lines of: Question: ‘How do you get to the Opera House?’ Answer: ‘Practise, practise, practise!’

*Hamlet, William Shakespeare, Act 3 Scene 2

Diane Smith is the Corporate Senior Course Manager at NIDA, and is also a trained actor with years of experience in delivering drama-based courses to enhance business people’s skills in presentation, communication and public speaking.

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