Listening to some people is a treat. Even if they’re just introducing other speakers, reading passages at a wedding, or addressing a meeting, you want them to keep talking.
Such vocal competence can seem like a natural gift, but talk to top voice-over artists, and you learn that sounding good out loud is a skill like any other. You can get better at it with time. Here are some ways to improve your vocal tone and delivery so that others will find listening to you to be a pleasant experience.
Counterintuitively, if you want to sound better, don’t worry too much about your voice. “You can be stumbling, you can have the worst-sounding voice in the world, but you can still command rapt attention because of your story,” says Adam Verner, a voice-over artist who has recorded hundreds of audio books and commercials.
Since content is king, take some time to figure out what you’re trying to convey. Ask yourself: “Why did the author write this piece?” and “What is the conflict here? What is the motivation?” says Verner. “In theater, we call it the ‘stakes,’ as in, ‘what’s at stake here?’” he explains. Even if you’re reading a corporate memo to your direct reports at a weekly staff meeting, you can massively increase engagement if you convey that you’ve thought about what’s coming out of your mouth, and that you are using a tone that’s appropriate to the situation.
If you’re going to be reading (or reciting) something you’ve written, you’re in luck. You can proactively make the whole process easier for yourself by writing in the right style. “People don’t tend to write intending for speech,” says Verner. But they should. Even when people are reading something silently to themselves, they are actually saying the words in their heads. That means that writing that will sound good read aloud comes across as good writing, even if it is never read aloud.
Vary your sentence length, though in general aim for shorter sentences you can march through on one breath. “Clarity, simplicity, is everything,” says Donna Mac, a communications coach and broadcaster who has worked in radio for over 25 years.
It is quite simple to record yourself these days. Just do a voice memo on your phone. Of course, just because such feedback is easy to obtain doesn’t mean people avail themselves of it. Many people hate listening to themselves. That’s thanks in part to the structure of our heads that makes our voices sound different internally than they do to others. But “98% to 99% of all voices are in the normal range,” says Mac, and the point of doing this is not to sap anyone’s confidence.
“It’s kind of like looking at yourself in the mirror,” says Verner. Most of us aren’t supermodels, but “very quickly you come to terms with it,” and use the reflection as a chance to present your best self. By recording and listening, you can see if something comes across as particularly grating or, alternately, if one way of delivering a phrase sounds much better than another.
“Breath is highly important. What people tend to do is not breathe from their diaphragm,” says Verner. The result of foregoing deep belly breaths is that a person’s speech comes across as pinched and shallow. They’ll have to pause in the middle of phrases or sentences because they lack the air to make it through to the end.
Proper breathing is a skill like any other, and “most business people don’t have the benefit of three years of vocal and intensive breath training,” says Verner. And, let’s be honest, you’re not about to get that training. However, if you’re looking for an out-of-the-box way to invest in your career, a lesson or two with a good voice coach can help a lot in developing the breath support that makes a voice sound fuller and richer.
“We’re living in a world that’s so fast and furiously paced,” says Mac, that if you want a secret weapon for being heard, “more times than not, it’s slowing down.” Slowing down gives you a chance to articulate your words and emphasize the ones that matter most. Even if you’re reading something dramatic and exciting, you can convey that through shorter sentences, spoken at a measured pace.
Often, when people get something to read out loud, they “practice” by reading it silently. This is not actual practice, in the sense of making you familiar with what the words will feel like coming out of your mouth. “The more times you read it out loud to yourself, the better you’ll be,” says Verner.
This familiarity will also help you get closer to the key skill of “reading ahead while performing behind,” explains Verner. Top professionals are actually looking a few sentences ahead while conveying the meaning of what they are saying at the moment. This forward reading “smooths everything out,” he says. When you know what’s coming, it eliminates stumbles and pauses.
You can see this technique in action by watching a really good children’s librarian read to a group of kids. She can show the storybook pictures around without unnatural breaks in the story, because she’s read a sentence ahead and is repeating it back from memory.
“When you get to the end of a sentence, end that sentence on a down note,” says Mac. “Make sure you don’t end your sentence with a question mark,” she cautions (unless it is a question). Just complete your thought, she suggests, then, “stand in your powerful silence, and give your audience an opportunity to digest your information.” Whether you’re live or on a recording, that will help your message stick.