Help me find my voice
January 9, 2009 3:30 PM   Subscribe

How can I transform from a low talker into someone people can hear?

I have a very quiet voice and people like to joke about me being a "low talker." The thing is, I can't speak up and my voice just doesn't project across a room. I usually prefer talking to only one person at a time because if I'm in a group I have to either wait for eye contact to speak or wait for a definite pause in the conversation to avoid being talked over. Recently I was talking to a friend at a party and she walked away because she didn't hear me. I'm used to this but it's pretty embarrassing when there's someone else there and they notice.

I used to lose my voice at bars all of the time trying to "speak up" so even the person next to me could hear. Now that there's no smoking in bars it's a little better but it's still happening at times. A group of about six of us were waiting for our table in a noisy restaurant and after a little while I started to speak and felt a sharp pain in my throat from straining so hard to talk at a normal volume. Water helps a little but after it's started I can't speak much the rest of the night.

The searches I've done for this don't seem to help my situation, the advice seems to be to speak up (so people can hear me) or talk less during the day to not strain my voice. I work from home and go for long periods without talking at all so I doubt overtalking is the problem. And, like I've said, my shouting volume seems to be normal volume for most people.

My close friends and family are pretty good about understanding me and even if they ask "what?" they usually realize they understood me before I repeat myself. The biggest problem I have is in noisy venues (bars, restaurants, concerts) or in groups larger than three people. I used to mumble a lot too but when I'm around people that I don't know I've become pretty good about annunciation and speaking clearly so now it's just the volume that's a problem.

How can I make myself heard better (projection or increasing the volume of my voice) and not strain my throat/voicebox when I do try to speak up?
posted by Bunglegirl to Human Relations (17 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I've never really had a problem being a quiet talker (rather the opposite, actually), but I did work in a loud-ass bar for some time, and I found that the trick to being heard in a loud place without straining your throat/vocal chords is to project from your diaphragm, not your throat. A lot of the resources available online for practicing this will have to do with singing rather than speaking, but the techniques they'll teach you for comfortably and consistently access your diaphragm, rather than your throat, may prove useful.

It worked for me, and I had to work for 5-8 hours a time where I had to basically speak at a near-shout to be heard by absolutely anybody.
posted by baphomet at 3:47 PM on January 9, 2009

The anecdote about your friend literally not even knowing you were talking to her -- and the fact that this happens a lot -- suggests there's more going on here than just decibel level. You need to make eye contact with the person you're speaking to, don't just talk near them and hope they notice. People read lips, even if they aren't aware that they're doing it, so if you get them looking at you they'll be better able to 'hear' you even if you aren't quite audible.

Also... is there any chance that you get kind of anxious in social situations? I know, armchair psychoanalysis sucks, but the fact that you work from home, go long periods without talking at all, "used to mumble," all point in this direction. (I say this as someone who also works from home, goes long periods without talking, mumbles, and can be painfully shy.) A tight, tense throat will get strained more quickly than if you're relaxed.
posted by ook at 4:05 PM on January 9, 2009

Response by poster: ook, I suppose I do get a little anxious but I am also very good at small talk with strangers. I know, it's strange. I purposely started practicing talking to strangers randomly about 10 years ago to become less shy and now it's easy. When I think about it, it's when I'm in social situations meeting new people that I have the worst problems with straining my voice.

I have realized that people read my lips so I do try to get their attention. I recognize that I should look them in the eye more though and will work on that.

baphomet, I'll take a look at the diaphragm training. When I've tried to think about it I end up holding my breath so it's definitely something that I need to work at.
posted by Bunglegirl at 4:30 PM on January 9, 2009

Response by poster: When I think about it, it's when I'm in social situations meeting new people that I have the worst problems with straining my voice.

I guess I wasn't clear, what I meant by that was that talking to a total stranger that I will never see again (someone on the bus or in line) is fine but in a social situation when I'm at a bar, with friends and meeting new people that way makes me a bit more anxious and that's when I have voice problems.
posted by Bunglegirl at 4:34 PM on January 9, 2009

Have you considered training in public speaking? Dale Carnegie or Toast Masters or the like? It is unpossible to be a good public speaker and not be heard.
posted by trinity8-director at 4:52 PM on January 9, 2009

Best answer: I have this problem. I have a naturally high voice and for a long time no matter how loud I tried to speak, I'd still have people asking me to repeat myself or straining to understand what I was saying, especially in a loud setting like a bar or club. Like you, my shouting volume was probably what would be a normal volume for most people. In my head, I would think I sounded obnoxious and loud but it might as well be a whisper to everyone else.

To combat this I try to lower my voice (in tone). Notice how guys with a deep baritone can be easily heard in pretty much any environment, even when they're speaking in a calm manner? I'm not saying to try to sound like a guy, just put a little more bass into your voice -- I do this especially when I'm trying to speak across a room, and it doesn't make my voice any manlier, it just gives my voice more 'oomph'. This might be easier said than done, but I think it's worth learning.. Baphomat's advice is spot on -- try to project from your chest and not just your throat/head.
posted by anekona at 4:56 PM on January 9, 2009

Yes, the diaphragm thing is definitely it. I would suggest going to a vocal coach, like they have for actors.

I took singing lessons for a long time but was never really able to translate that to speaking until I became a teacher, and then suddenly I was able to project my voice, no problem!

So that could be a solution, but maybe a little more trouble than it's worth.
I think the vocal coach is a better option.
posted by exceptinsects at 5:26 PM on January 9, 2009

I mean to say, I was a classroom teacher, not a singing teacher.
Somehow, having to project my voice over a bunch of noisy kids made it much easier to switch into that "diaphragm voice". And once you get the knack, you'll find that it doesn't stress your throat at all.
posted by exceptinsects at 5:34 PM on January 9, 2009

I used to be a very quiet speaker before I started acting. The diaphragm is definitely key to projecting your voice; enunciation also helps. Here's something that really helped me:

Pick something to memorize. I like Shakespeare, but anything's good. You can do The Cat In The Hat if you want. Learn enough that you can recite for a minute or two and then do that piece, over and over. Get to the point where you can spit it out without even thinking about it. Once you're there, listen to your voice while you do it. Practice controlling it, getting louder and softer, bigger and smaller, putting emphasis on different words, doing funny voices. Concentrate on making sure you pronounce words clearly. Hit all of the consonants deliberately.

This technique did wonders for me in terms of being conscious of my voice as an instrument. It might be helpful for you, too.
posted by EarBucket at 5:51 PM on January 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

Try taking voice (singing) lessons. A good teacher will be able to give you tips on how to get more volume without hurting your throat.
posted by decathecting at 5:56 PM on January 9, 2009

Raise the pitch of your voice, just a bit. Not only will it cut through the background noise just a bit more, but it will also make you project a bit more as well. Works for me, anyway. I seem to have a voice that's easily drowned out by background noise, even though everyone seems to hear ok outdoors, or in quieter locations.
posted by ctmf at 6:52 PM on January 9, 2009

It's hard to alter your usual manner of speech. I am hard of hearing, and when I ask people to "speak up," they will do it for a few sentences, then drift back into however they were talking before.

I applaud you for wanting to change this.
posted by Danf at 8:31 PM on January 9, 2009

Yeah, it's going to take a lot of practice and active attention on your part to really change this. It'll be a pain in the ass for a while, but eventually, as exceptinsects says, you'll just be able to do it subconsciously depending on the situation.

anekona has it right as well-- bass frequencies have larger wavelengths than other frequencies, and thus can travel further (this is why, at a large outdoor concert, you can hear the bass from the furthest distance). The trick here is for you to access those frequencies to assist your projection, and training/"reaching" your diaphragm will be key to that.

I just realized that the advice about looking for an acting teacher or voice trainer is perfect-- I didn't even think about that, but theatrical actors will have to employ the exact techniques that are going to help you accomplish this. Definitely look around for sites and resources that focus on diaphragm training for actors.

I've only given it a cursory look-over, but this might be right up your alley: Finding Your Voice: A Step-by-Step Guide for Actors. Some other resources I skimmed suggested that abdominal strength is important for projection; while you're not going for opera-level or anything, that may also improve your capabilities.
posted by baphomet at 7:15 AM on January 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

What works for me is air. Using lots of air and actually picturing the air flowing from my belly up through my vocal cords. Make sure you're breathing easily (hard to do if you're anxious about being heard) and let lots of air flow while you're speaking. It feels a little weird and, well, breathy at first, and you may find yourself taking more frequent pauses to breathe back in. But it really helps boost the volume of your speech. Try to keep your throat relaxed; the sharp pain in your throat may indicate that you're straining from the throat, thus constricting the sound, instead of vocalizing from the diaphragm.
posted by bassjump at 8:06 AM on January 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

You say you can't speak up. Has it always been like this, or was there a time you could (that you recall?) Is your voice a bit husky or raspy?

I went to a public speaking course taught by a speech coach, and she listened to my attempts at increased projections and recommended I see an ENT. I did so, and discovered that I apparently have partial vocal fold paresis - hence the quality of my voice (low and a bit raspy) and complete inability to project without focused concentration.

I did do some speech therapy, as I wasn't yet interested in surgical options (that would only be a mod, not a fix), and it did help - but I still can't be heard in loud bars. Which is pretty much okay by me overall.

So, if your voice has any of those qualities, or even if it doesn't, you might start with an ENT to rule out any physical causes.
posted by canine epigram at 4:17 PM on January 10, 2009

Response by poster: Really great suggestions everyone, thanks. I don't know if I can afford a coach at the moment but I'll try out the self help-type voice stuff to get started.

To answer some questions... I have a normal to high female voice, not raspy at all. I've never smoked but was raised by smokers who didn't believe second hand smoke was real.

I've always felt like I can't speak up, at least since I was in high school (I'm 31) but I don't remember when I was younger. I used to be really shy back then. I guess its gotten worse from my mid- 20s on but I might just be in more crowded situations as I've gotten older. The funny thing is I was a cheerleader in high school. My voice wasn't loud so I often just mouthed the words to the cheers. I guess that's kind of odd. Maybe it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.
posted by Bunglegirl at 10:32 PM on January 10, 2009

Best answer: You might consider dropping ten bucks on this book. It's got a lot of really good exercises you can do to work on your voice.
posted by EarBucket at 8:35 AM on January 12, 2009

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