Speak up?
May 1, 2021 12:22 PM   Subscribe

My ten year old daughter has a naturally quiet voice. When she does a presentation, she consistently gets feedback from her classmates and the teacher that she needs to speak up. She's also sometimes hard to understand in loud environments. I'm conflicted.

Because honestly, I'm more and more inclined to say "dammit, some people just have naturally quiet voices, do we really have to force every kid to be exactly the same?"

She's not shy! Her voice is just low and always has been! When she practices her presentations, we emphasise that she should speak loudly, so everyone in the back can hear her. She told me she tried so hard, but is still getting unanimous feedback that it's not enough.

Her after school teacher, who's taken a liking to her, keeps playfully encouraging her to yell (while telling the rest of the group to quiet down).

I find this bizarre. I know that adult life may one day require her to hold business presentations. I also know how hard it is as a woman to be taken seriously and how much a carrying voice helps. But still, I feel like she (and I!) shouldn't have to worry that much about her voice.

So I don't know, what do you think, should I be doing anything about either her voice or the school's handling of this?
posted by Omnomnom to Education (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Speaking loudly is actually a set of physical skills of pushing air out of your diaphragm. It is something that can be practiced. Instead of focusing on her voice, something like choir or theater would actually focus on the skill set of projecting (there are plenty of tips on Google, if that stuff would never be her thing!) It is a thing you have to learn how to do and does not come naturally to all people .

Many teachers are awful about actually teaching the physical skill and just suggest be louder, which of course is confusing and frustrating and not actually good feedback.
posted by AlexiaSky at 12:29 PM on May 1 [76 favorites]

Breathing exercises, perhaps?

I keep hearing about "make the voice come out LOWER in your body" or something like that.

Not sure if you can hire a voice coach for a child for speaking, not singing, but may be worth looking into.
posted by kschang at 12:52 PM on May 1

I'd gotten that comment all my life too, and I was a training instructor for a while. I got a lot of volume (no pun intended. a large quantity, frequently) of feedback, both professional observers and student. Two tips to try:

Try to increase not volume, but average pitch. Not a lot, but just above your natural choice. Something about doing that does something, I'm not sure what, but I get a lot fewer of those comments when I do that.

Increase not average volume, but dynamics. Say some things louder than others. Exaggerate the natural pitch and volume changes in your sentences. It's one of those things that TO YOU feels really forced and unnatural, like you're voicing a kids' cartoon, but nobody else feels is weird at all. And that also cuts down the comments dramatically.
posted by ctmf at 12:56 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]

Being able to project your voice across a room is a useful skill and one your daughter should probably learn if she's having trouble with it. There's also nothing wrong with having a quiet everyday voice. Both of these statements can be true at the same time.

You are taking this feedback as though it is a criticism of your daughter's voice in general, but it sounds to me like it is coming up specifically in presentations. That is, it is feedback on a particular skill - public speaking. It's similar to telling someone who usually talks quickly to slow down when giving presentations so the audience has time to process.

I agree that "just speak louder" isn't helpful advice. If it was, she'd already be doing it. It might be worth looking into some lessons from someone who has to project or looking into how she can learn that at home with your help.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:56 PM on May 1 [39 favorites]

i was this kid, no one ever helped me figure out the physical things i should be doing to solve this so i didn't know what "be louder" meant, i would've greatly appreciated if someone had! i sort of kind of know how to make myself heard now but usually default to comfortably softspoken, so if she doesn't want to change that about herself, she won't have to. it rules that you value this about her, though :)
posted by gaybobbie at 1:04 PM on May 1 [11 favorites]

Yeah, seconding others that there's a ton that goes into speaking louder! It's about breath control and muscle control and not exhausting your voice. I sort of accidentally learned how to be loud because I was in choir in high school and got, like, the most basic of vocal trainings, probably mostly in how to project my voice. I'm able to be heard over long distances without yelling, at least. Perhaps it's worth finding a voice teacher or someone else to work with your daughter to improve projection and such during presentations.

(Just to kind of give some encouragement from the other side -- I have an auditory processing disorder, and if I can hear someone clearly and loudly when they're giving a presentation, I'm much more likely to grasp what they're saying, or even to put in the effort to listen and understand. Someone who's soft-spoken in normal conversation is fine too, and actually really soothing to be around -- I mean, assuming we're not in a busy bar -- but for a classroom setting or whatever, it's so, so much easier if folks speak loudly and clearly. She doesn't have to change the default of how she speaks, but it's helpful to her and everyone else to be able to hear her present.)
posted by kalimac at 1:04 PM on May 1 [4 favorites]

This is a thing a speech therapist or voice coach could help with and is useful, especially in large spaces, loud areas, bad phone connections, around people that are hard of hearing. Often it can just be a few sessions to learn the skills. Not learning how to project properly could cause strain, losing your voice, and injury.
posted by Crystalinne at 1:45 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]

Aaaargh, it seems like best of intentions here from after school teacher but encouraging her to yell is emphatically not what's needed... speaking loud and quiet is different from speaking soft and hard is different from speaking near and far... and it's the last one that makes the difference in the context of presentations.

Seconding the above about dynamics, emphasising the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables and words is a big part of voice projection.

Another is pacing and enunciation; what seems in other situations like the stereotypical "Anglophone.. talking to... a foreigner..." mode of communication is actually a really useful model. Slowing down and over-emphasising mouth shape is what we do instinctively when we're talking to someone who's struggling to understand us for a very good reason.

Related to this, there's a much larger than most people think component of listener comprehension which is entirely visual; lip-reading is something we all do much more than we consciously realise. Making sure that you're always looking up and "presenting your mouth" to the back of the room is an easy win.

If voice coaching seems like too drastic of a step for a 10 year old, are activities in singing or amateur dramatics a possibility? Either of these could be a fun way to work on this to the side.
posted by protorp at 1:47 PM on May 1

How about signing her up for singing lessons, acting classes, or maybe even a toastmasters for kids? Even a camp for acting or a summer program would be great!
I had stage fright (and fear of public speaking in class presentations) really badly until high school where I got over it by joining the drama club. I wasn’t a low talker though, but if she gets quiet due to shyness letting her be in an environment to work on being comfortable in front of her peers will help so much in the long run. And no, not every kid needs to be aggressively boisterous, but having your kid feel comfortable in a public setting and being heard and understood will be such a gift in her life that I can’t see any downside to addressing this issue in a positive way :)
posted by Champagne Supernova at 1:56 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]

I agree that the teacher simply telling her to "be louder" is unhelpful. I have a naturally husky, bit raspy voice and although I can project well for a presentation (I have to increase both volume and pitch as someone noted above, and it is a deliberate thing, but with time it feels pretty natural to the ear), I sometimes struggle with being heard in conversations with more than one person.

I get comments like "are you sick?" on a frequent enough basis that for a while I stopped speaking with my natural voice in public/work settings. So, I can relate to wanting to push back on feedback that implies that something is wrong with her voice, but I don't think that's what this is.

I think one thing that helped me develop an ability to speak more loudly and clearly was playing wind instruments, if that's an avenue of interest.
posted by sm1tten at 2:07 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]

As a singer and actor I second everything above, and just wanted to add one thing I didn't see mentioned. Many, many people, especially North Americans (not sure where you're located, just leaving that in because it's true) have a tendency to barely open our mouths during conversational speech. It makes both clarity and volume suboptimal. I have one friend whose mouth I swear to God I've never seen open more than about half an inch. And I know, I know, it can feel really weird when you first try to break that habit. (Probably because mean kids do that thing where they overenunciate to imply that the listener is too dimwitted to understand them.) One of the tricks my first drama teacher used was the old practice-speaking-with-a-pencil-between-your-teeth trick.

And yes, the emphasis should be on "this is a skill you should develop for certain specific situations where large numbers of people need to hear you clearly" and not "there is something wrong with your everyday manner of speech."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:26 PM on May 1 [15 favorites]

This was me at ten, and it’s still me at 40. People tried different things with me - I was in theatre in high school, I led trainings as an adult - but none of it stuck. I... yeah, I just don’t care. I did some self-examination a few years ago, and I think some of my adult resistance is due to skepticism of people who are a little too oratorical. Like, ok, what are you trying to sell me? Maybe people won’t think of me as slimy and full of it if I speak softly, and maybe I won’t *be* slimy and full of it.

I will say, you find an ability to speak louder when it matters. Like, I can speak loud enough for my kids to hear me on the opposite side of a busy playground, you know? But most stuff isn’t that important, and so I turn it down accordingly.
posted by kevinbelt at 2:28 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]

I think that what you want the teacher to do, is not expect this to be something she ought to be changing in a week or two. Firstly, she doesn't *really* need to be doing presentations at this stage in her life, and secondly if she is going to learn how to project better, she's better off doing so not as an emergency project, but as part of a longer term process so that she doesn't damage her voice. I do second the idea of doing something like a choir or theatre thing that teaches about voice control, it's both useful and enjoyable.

There's nothing wrong with being softly spoken, but it is helpful to have a range of speech volumes at your disposal.
posted by plonkee at 3:12 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]

Have you considered just getting a portable mic and clipping it to her collar? A ten year old does not need to be doing business presentations. If she have to do business presentations, she would have access to a portable mic. It is actually a huge advantage for a person to be a quiet talker. People listen more, in regular conversation, to the soft-spoken person. I suggest considering the advantages of letting her speak the way she naturally speaks. I hope she is not traumatized by the repeated and unhelpful criticism of her natural way of speaking.

"Just yell" and "just be louder" are sure ways for her to end up unhappy and possibly damage her voice. Take it from a person who can easily project to the back of a theater or courtroom, it is much harder to learn to consistently speak softly than to speak loud. Cherish her soft voice.
posted by KayQuestions at 3:52 PM on May 1 [7 favorites]

A ten year old does not need to be doing business presentations.

Learning how to project your voice is not just a skill for the boardroom, it's a skill on the playground too. Learning how to express yourself forcefully, is important for expressing boundaries, especially for young girls.

"Stop doing that!" "Come here quickly!" "Watch out!"

If the teacher wants the students to be doing presentations, then they should be explicitly teaching presenting which involves voice projection, body language, etc.
posted by Thella at 4:54 PM on May 1 [14 favorites]

There are about six wrong ways to try to be loud. Forcing it could make the problem worse and make her be a less powerful speaker, ultimately (I'm not saying she'd necessarily damage her voice, but rather that looking/sounding like you're straining as hard as you can doesn't connote power or confidence).

I'd really recommend Alexander technique. This is good for a lifetime of posture and neck/back comfort, confident physicality, and strong controlled speaking. It was invented by an actor, and is loved by singers too. Since she's young, she'll probably master it a lot quicker than an adult would.
posted by amtho at 5:17 PM on May 1 [3 favorites]

Just wanted to chime in to say sure, teach her different techniques because it's a useful skill, but make sure to not make it weird for her. If she is not shy, that is great! That is often more important for presentations than actual taught skills, at least up until she is in college or pursuing a career. Then, if she wants to or needs to, she can look for more help herself. Is she able to yell loudly to call for help if she needs to? As someone else above said, is she able to assert herself if she needs to get a point across?

Also, does puberty ever change someone's voice and how they speak? Maybe this is something that will fix itself over time anyway.
posted by never.was.and.never.will.be. at 5:26 PM on May 1

I had to project my voice for a job. Now I can speak very loudly with little effort and no strain when before talking for longer than 20 minutes made my throat hurt.

There are zero negatives to learn this ability. You can be soft spoken in your day to day life and still have the knowledge on how to project when it is called for. She's not going to start screaming at everyone, I promise.
posted by Dynex at 5:31 PM on May 1 [7 favorites]

Projecting your voice is a useful, often necessary skill that your daughter deserves to be taught and coached to use. If I were you, I’d call/email around to a few different singing/acting teachers to ask if they’d be able to help get her started.

At the same time, if the school isn’t teaching her this skill, it doesn’t seem reasonable to expect her to perform the skill in class. So, I’d approach the teacher to say, “we’re working with a voice coach to build up her speaking skills, and in the mean time could she use a portable microphone, pre-record her presentation, or have another accommodation so she can focus on the important elements of any given project? It hasn’t been helpful for her to get repeated feedback to just yell, and I don’t want her to hyper focus on her voice, so what can we do?”
posted by theotherdurassister at 6:01 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]

Does she have a grandparent or any elderly friends? People with hearing loss feel very left out or frustrated when the person talking to them speaks very softly. Talking with a low hearing person she cares about regularly may help her be more mindful.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 7:06 PM on May 1

I was soft-spoken as a child and frequently told to speak up. It sucked! Servers couldn’t hear my order in restaurants, family with hearing loss had trouble conversing, and yelling is a different thing entirely. Nobody wants to yell their normal conversation, and it’s also exhausting. Choir didn’t help because I’m not a gifted singer and nobody encouraged me to sing more loudly. I’d talk to your daughter about whether it bothers her and offer a voice coach if you can afford it and look for other options if you can’t.
posted by momus_window at 7:18 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]

For elocution advice, I suggest encouraging clipping hard consonants more, rather than just being louder. This makes a soft voice impact in a more persuasive manner. Instead of mumbling.
posted by ovvl at 7:40 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]

Outside of the box suggestion: Watch Sister Act together, focusing on this scene where Sister Mary Clarence takes over the choir and shows Mary Robert how to project her voice. Note that Mary Robert remains a soft spoken person—her everyday voice doesn’t change, but she masters the skill of projecting in certain situations. Even just seeing the visual might be enough to help your daughter grasp the concept, but if not, then theater or choir or working with a vocal coach could be a big help.
posted by timestep at 7:41 PM on May 1 [3 favorites]

I agree with all who suggest singing/acting/drama club - but it may be enough to ask a drama teacher or someone with community theater to help her with "warm up" exercises designed to help projection. In the community troupe which I am part of (and we are _not_ professionals, this group is very inclusive and makes room for anyone who wants to have fun) we have an exercise where we face the back wall of the theater (any semi-distant wall will do) and we count from 1-10 starting with a 'stage whisper' and increasing in volume until we are at our loudest, and then from 9-1 decreasing in volume. It gives a feel for volume, and helps with projection.

Another thing: does she have siblings? If so she might try practicing at home while imagining they are playing with her things; imagining in her mind how she would say: I. TOLD. YOU. NOT. to. touch. my. stuff! If she wanted to be firm with them but not screaming enough to get in trouble.
posted by TimHare at 8:08 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]

I had formal oration class because it was something my slightly posh boarding school offered and it is probably my most useful skill retained from high school. Learning to project, read aloud with emphasis and make presentations is very valuable. I don’t think this is a speech therapy situation - her voice is fine - but something a one-on-one acting or voice coach could teach her relatively quickly. In the meantime the microphone would be a good work around.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:32 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]

She needs breath control, a learnable skill. Haranguing her to speak more loudly will do zip, at best, what is her teacher thinking? Bah.
posted by Coaticass at 1:09 AM on May 2

Nthing that this isn't a "yelling" thing. This is a physical skill, one that we got taught in my acting conservatory in a class that also covered diction.

Vocal/singing training will help with the physicality of this. I'm pretty much the opposite - I'm naturally on the loud side - but there's still a bit of a physical difference in the way I speak normally and the way I speak when I do the full-on "voice of God" voice; it's become kind of instinctive so I can't really point to everything I do, but there's definitely a tightening in the lower chest, about where the diaphragm is, that helps "support" things.

For starters. A proper teacher in voice can help her with the physical technique - this is a distinct skill.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:26 AM on May 2 [1 favorite]

Vocal projection is not yelling. It's also not being 'oratory' or sales-y. It is literally your normal voice, pitch, and cadence amplified by contracting your diaphragm to increase the air pressure, which makes the volume of your voice increase without straining your vocal cords or throat.

It does take practice, but a signing or acting coach will easily be able to teach this skill.

I agree a loud, carrying voice is vital (sadly) for a young woman in case of uncomfortable or potentially dangerous circumstances.
posted by ananci at 7:37 AM on May 2 [3 favorites]

She might try experimenting with twang:

This is a slight constriction in the back of your mouth (the areoepiglottic sphincter) that increases high overtones. It makes your voice sound silly to yourself when you first try it (kind of ducklike), but it's an element you can add more or less of to project your voice. It does not require more air or diaphragm pressure.
posted by xris at 7:35 PM on May 2

I was super quiet in school, have learned to be louder. You don’t literally need to yell but you do kind of need to yell. I’d just practice with her— sit in a classroom-sized room as far apart as you can (go somewhere loud and sound dampening if possible) and have her read out of a book. Give her feedback on volume until she hits the right balance and just practice enough that she’s comfortable & relaxed speaking at that volume. Other people have covered the physical aspects of how to increase volume, sometimes you just need to practice until it’s second nature.

Giving presentations or speeches is one potential reason she’ll need this skill but simply speaking up in a meeting can be challenging for the quiet-talker too. Lots of reasons to learn to be louder.
posted by stoneandstar at 8:33 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]

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