Help me develop a 'teacher voice'
July 31, 2017 4:23 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to be able to project my voice better when speaking to a crowd without a mic. I notice that most friends and colleagues who have been classroom teachers have an ability to make their voices sound loud and authoritative, without sounding bossy, shouty or shrill. Teach me how?

For a cis woman, my voice is not particularly high-pitched, but it's also not very strong, and I think that when I get loud I tend to get either shouty or shrill (yes, I'm aware of the gendered nature of that term). I also don't seem to be able to speak loudly enough to get the attention of a group of people who are chatting amongst themselves (e.g. to get a work meeting started). In general conversation I tend to speak very fast, but I know not to do that in these circumstances.

I'm participating in a series of events over the next couple of weeks where I may have to make announcements to a large and potentially distracted queue of people, so I'd particularly appreciate any suggestions for quick fixes. Longer-term advice also welcome, though realistically I won't be spending money on acting classes etc.
posted by une_heure_pleine to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm a teacher with a teacher voice as needed. You're right that it's a skill; I learned it on the job but there are certainly ways to practice.

Write a sample script and record yourself. While it's better not to read off a script at the event, it helps having some canned phrases. As you noted, speak a bit slower and a little deeper than usual. Hearing yourself on a recording is awkward and sometimes painful but it will help you see how you sound, and how many pauses and "ums" you say. You can see if you need to say please or thank you more or sorry less. You could also go to the venue or a park and practice the same speeches. It's really hard to replicate the experience of a loud room but you could even practice speaking with music or a TV show in the background.

Ask a friend or colleague to listen and give you feedback while doing the above: this is probably the best way to improve if the person is willing to be truly honest.

When starting, give everyone a few seconds to prepare to listen. "We'll be starting in a moment." Then pause and start talking. Generally, it's better to stop and allow people to listen rather than try to talk over them but this may not be an option for you. When I'm transitioning activities with students, I sometimes give a specific number "20 seconds" and even countdown. It works for students but would surely feel pedantic in your situation.

Repeat directions, not verbatim but say things again because many people don't listen or hear things the first time. "Please get into two lines for the buffet." Then you walk over to the buffet and say, "Please form a line here [point] and here [point] for the buffet now." If you're speaking to a rapt audience and people are hanging on your every word, this isn't necessary. However, most people aren't being rude but rather are distracted and busy and appreciate this reminder.

Enlist helpers who can go through the room to groups of people engaged in deep conversation to give them little reminders. "Hi, just letting you know that the next speaker will start in two minutes." You can do this, too.

Imagine you're a performer rather than yourself making these announcements. Sometimes it can be easier to feel you're playing a role. It sounds awkward but can help!

If you're at an outdoor rally of sorts, consider a megaphone. Yes, it can feel cheesy but certainly helps you project as needed.

Speaking to groups like this can be hard and frustrating. Despite all of my experience and prowess ;-) projecting in the classroom, it can be much harder with big groups of adults. I still occasionally find myself internally cringing as I speak and I've been told I'm an engaging public speaker. If people seem uncooperative or distracted, please don't take it personally as often people will be confused, distracted or simply can't hear you very well. However, they appreciate having someone take the lead. Good luck!
posted by smorgasbord at 4:47 AM on July 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: One of the best pieces of advice I've ever been given---by a former actor---is that volume itself isn't what people with 'authoritative' voices have. They've got presence, not loudness. You're not going to be able to develop the kind of lecturer's, actor's or preaching voice that can hit the back of a large room in the next couple of weeks, that's something that only comes with use, and in any case, audiences are just as likely to ignore loud but unauthoritative speakers.

* Body language really counts: chin up, look your audience in the eye.
* Introductory 'grab' sentences, even just 'attention please!', then actively wait, looking like you've got something to say. As the first people nearest to you pause, others will join them to wonder what's about to be announced.
* Repetition of key phrases! Repetition of key phrases.
* It isn't cheesy to stand on a chair or a box or on stairs, especially if you're short. Public speakers have done that for millennia, soapboxes have only gone out in the era of microphones.

And most of all, the advice I was given:

* If you're telling people something, say it like you mean it, as if you're telling every individual something they urgently have to know, and that you fundamentally believe.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:01 AM on July 31, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: This Voice Care for Teachers pdf has some excellent suggestions about developing and using effective voice techniques, including breathing for voice, posture, vocal fold vibration, and voice projection.
posted by Thella at 5:02 AM on July 31, 2017 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Practice speaking/singing/projecting from your diaphragm, not your throat. Also, a whistle is extremely helpful in getting the attention of a crowd.
posted by gnutron at 5:04 AM on July 31, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a short person of the woman variety who is also a teacher, so let me share what I've learned. The best PD (professional development) I ever did at university was a session on the voice! I've also adapted what I learned for my English classes when I'm doing public speaking- I notice a difference in how my students do when I skip these warm ups.

So: your voice has three components- your breathing, your vocal chords, and your mouth. Let's work through each one.

1. Your breathing. If you meditate you might know what I'm talking about- put one hand on your shoulder, one on your tummy. Which one moves as you take a breath? You want nice deep breaths were your tummy moves, indicating your diaphragm is pulling down and filling your lungs all the way up with air. Breathe for a bit, noticing your diaphragm. Stand relaxed. (When projecting very loudly you kind of EXPEL air by pushing in your tummy- visualise the words hitting the back wall and sliding down) (it's kind of weird writing this out!)

2. Your vocal chords. This is an important organ to protect- you don't want to SHOUT as this can/will hurt your voice and make you useless later on in the week. Each day it's important to warm up (even for 5 minutes in the car is better than nothing!) The warm up I was taught was to take a deep breath, (remember, tummy!) and then as you let it go, hum. (mmmmmmm) do this a few times (or once, if you're rushing) and then transition to 'mmmmmmaaaaa' and work your way through the other vowel sounds as you feel- I usually just run through a few maas as that's all I've got time for. (Hydration is important for your vocal chords too!) A loud voice comes from your tummy, not your throat.

3. Finally, your mouth. Enunciation (forming your mouth to make letter sounds clearly) is important to being understood. First, stretch your mouth. Run your tongue around your teeth, yawn, make faces, etc. Then, try a tongue twister. One I learned in a drama class in highschool is: "He thrust his fist against the post but still insists he sees the ghost"
If you mumble, it becomes "he thrush 's fis gains the post but still insish he sees the gos" - focus on saying those t's clearly- He thrusT his fisT againsT the posT etc.

You do need somewhere private to do this- I do it, non ideally, in my car on the way to work- a few breaths, a few mmmms, a few mmmmaaas, then a few repetitions of the tongue twister in a dramatic, clearly spoken voice. It helps!

A lot of these tips come from the world of singing or theatre- if you have a singer or actor friend who can run you through their warm up in person, that may help more than what I've written out here!

Some other things- hydration. So important. Make sure you rest your voice.
Don't shout or yell unless something very wrong is happening (stop! car coming!) This saves your voice.

Things that classroom teachers do that might help:
have a signal for attention grabbing. "Thank you" tends to be standard in our school, as in "hi everyone, thank you, settling down, thanks." Some people use a whistle or the finger in the mouth whistle in a big group.
As mentioned by smorgasbord repetition is important.
When you have people's attention, only speak as loud as you need to- you want people to have to focus on you to hear.
Body language- power poses! (for the warm up.)
Don't 'hug the wall' or 'walk the cliff edge' (some beginning teachers get trapped on a narrow ledge at the front of the classroom) - stride out confidently into the space if practicable, take up space, be noticed.
Confidence - do things that make you confident.

Time wise, I'd go through my three steps in an afternoon to get started- try recording yourself saying something important (in our training it was 'hi I'm Ms Freethefeet') and then again after you've done the warm up. Once you've done it for a longer session, you can do a cut down version each day before you get in to the announcing situation.
posted by freethefeet at 5:10 AM on July 31, 2017 [12 favorites]

Best answer: The key is to project from the diaphragm. It helps to try it while singing -- then you are motivated not to change the note you're singing as you increase your volume, just as you don't want to change the pitch of your speaking voice when you project. Remember that scene in "Sister Act" where Whoopi Goldberg teaches the little shy nun to project? She's holding one note. And IIRC Whoopi's character kind of prods her in the diaphragm area. It's exaggerated, of course, in that she gets it right away without practice, but you get the idea.

Breathing exercises like those linked above will help you become aware of engaging your diaphragm.
posted by snowmentality at 5:11 AM on July 31, 2017

Voice projection is the general term for what you're talking about, so it may be helpful as a search term.
posted by lazuli at 5:45 AM on July 31, 2017

Surely you're not the only teacher you know with these concerns. I might either 1) ask around to other teachers (particularly but not only women) to find out if they'd be interested in a vocal coaching session, or/and 2) talk with the music or drama department of a local university to locate a voice coach who might be willing to conduct a group session or a private one for you alone.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 5:58 AM on July 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Came to make the suggestion that Emperor SnooKloze did. Haven't tried it myself, but I've heard that vocal coaches can be very helpful, and aren't just for singers.

Also keep in mind that you're there for a reason, you need to be heard, and it's OK to ask people to be quiet, or even to single out individual talkers if necessary. Even if the talkers don't care, their neighbors do, and those neighbors may look to you as the one in charge of shutting up the talkers. You can still be polite about it. It may not take more than eye contact and a raised eyebrow. Just, do it somehow.
posted by floppyroofing at 8:38 AM on July 31, 2017

Best answer: My high school drama teacher of yesteryear taught us this One Weird Trick to engaging the diaphragm and forcing projection.

Stand holding a book (or similar object, easily gripped, not more than a couple pounds) out in front of you, with your arms and the book all parallel to the floor. I failed to find an example photo, but this gentleman is pretty much doing the pose. Hold the book however you like, as long as it stays parallel with the floor, held by both hands, and your arms stay stuck straight out.

Practice your lines (or whatever) like this. Or sing. It's hard. At the beginning I remember only being able to do a few lines at a time like this, but it really does make the diaphragm kick in, and over time it made my projected voice way louder. I have no idea if this works more by strengthening your actual core, or by making it more clear where the diaphragm is and how to engage it while speaking, but it works and it's easy to try. Good luck!
posted by jessicapierce at 9:53 AM on July 31, 2017 [6 favorites]

I'm a teacher of small stature (ha, maybe dual meaning?) but I learned to project in my own high school drama class. Gendered or not, people respond better to 'lower voices' for commands (I think) so you need to consciously try to speak in a lower but louder voice with a sense of authority. (Not wavering/asking). Hmm, I am explaining this badly. But in drama class, you are trying to reach the back of the room. You want low, clear and loud. But calm and authoritative. Easy, right?:) It just takes practice.
posted by bquarters at 4:58 PM on July 31, 2017

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