Create Vocal Presence

Your vocal quality can have a huge impact on your podcast.  It can lend credibility to the topic or distract your learner.  In this article, we look at how to improve your vocal presence.

Article in Brief

  • How to add warmth and authority to your presentation style.
  • Basic tips for improving clarity and credibility.
  • How to use your voice to create interest in your audio content.

When people ask me to coach them to sound better on the microphone I focus on three things.  First is their breathing, second their enunciation and third expression.

If you work on these three areas, you can improve your vocal presence and develop a great podcasting voice.  Add a well-written script and make some electronic adjustments (EQ and vocal compression) and you’ll sound a million dollars.

I believe that with very few exceptions, everyone has a great voice.  We were all born with the toolkit to sound great.  However, over the years we learn bad habits which effectively pour water over what should be great sounding voices.

As you focus on the following tips, be conscious of the fact it will take time to develop your vocal presence.  But work on it and you’ll make it.

Breathing: Warmth & Authority

Proper breathing adds depth and authority to your voice.  It also adds warmth and tone.

There are a number of common causes for poor vocal quality.  In my experience, stress and nerves are the biggest culprits.  Coming close behind are bad posture and learned bad habits which are often caused by … stress and nerves.

To exude warmth and authority, you need a clear open airflow so your lungs can project air up over your vocal chords.

However, we often don’t have an open clear flow of air because our muscles restrict the opening.   The smaller the opening, the smaller and squeakier your voice will sound.

A restricted throat is very often caused by nerves.  No doubt you know the feeling.  As you get more stressed, you tighten your shoulders and all the interconnected muscles at the back of your throat tighten up.  This causes your throat to close in, hence less tonal quality.  And with a smaller opening for the air, the voice sounds squeaky.

This is why you can often tell when someone is nervous by the squeakiness of their voice.  The key to sounding authoritative is to be relaxed and encourage easy air flow.  This creates warmth and authority.

Improving Air Flow

So what do we do to open up our throats, increase the tonal quality of our voices and sound more warm and authoritative?

First thing is to relax the muscles around your shoulders.  Unless you have had some trauma in your shoulders or upper back, roll your shoulders.

Not only does this feel good but it starts to loosen your shoulder muscles which are connected to your neck muscles.

Next, review your posture.  Are you slumped or your shoulders hunched?  Make sure your spine is straight and you are not slouching.  If you slouch you crunch up your abdomen and lose room for the lungs to deeply breathe into.

Don’t force your posture – make sure you are either sitting or standing comfortably straight.

Now, take several deep breaths and allow the air to flow out normally.  Breathe deep into your diaphragm.

I find yawning helps too.  It has the added advantage of opening up your breathing and also releasing saliva in your mouth to help get rid of that dry mouth experience.

As you project, focus on the exhalation

Diction: Clarity & Credibility

Clear diction is essential if you want to be easily understood.  Diction also offers the added benefit of making you sound more credible.

Have you ever noticed how people who clearly enunciate their words get more attention and respect?  These people pronounce each individual syllable with precision.

Diction also contributes to clarity.  If you are careful in how you pronounce each word your listeners will not be scratching their heads trying to decipher what you just said.  It reduces the cognitive load.

Improving Diction

Take care with your diction and enunciate every syllable in each word. If you plan to sound colloquial, ham it up a little.

For example, if you deliberately want to say “runnin’” instead of “running”, put a little extra emphasis on the last “n” sound.

This way it will not sound as if you are dropping the “g” sound out of ignorance.  Instead it will sound as if you are dropping it for effect.  Make sure your emphasis is clear but not overdone.

Clear diction often requires you to speak your script slowly which can take some practice if you’re used to speaking fast.

To develop good diction, make sure you open your mouth and clearly shape each word.  At first it feels uncomfortable.  But in time you’ll get used to it.

When you encounter a difficult word, practice each syllable on its own. For example, meteorology. Practice saying at a slow pace, meee — teee — or — oh — loh — geee.

Once you’ve said this a few times, you can start speeding it up until you are happy using the word at a normal pace.

Consciously using your mouth to shape words is critical.  Have you ever noticed opera singers as they sing?  They usually look ridiculously ugly.  This is because they know how to use the entire shape of their mouth and they push it to get incredibly wonderful sounds as they sing.

You probably won’t need to be as focused on your diction as opera singers, but just remember how they get great sounds – they use their mouths.  And don’t worry about anyone seeing you – it’s a podcast!

Expression: Timing and Physiology

Warm and authoritative vocals along with clearly enunciated words sound great for a time.  But they don’t keep your listener’s attention for too long.  They are actually likely to put your listener to sleep or at least cause her to tune out.

This is why breathing and diction need to be combined with good expression.

Expression is what draws your listener in and keeps her engaged.  So how do we express ourselves to keep our listeners from tuning out?

Here are my favorite techniques.

First, use body language.  Yes, seriously.  Body language is important for audio podcasts!  Second, focus on timing.  Third throw in some pauses.  Fourth, modulate your volume.  Fifth, change your pitch.

Improving Diction

One of the oldest tricks broadcasters use to sound happy is smile when they talk.  Try it.  Record a script and don’t smile.  Now record it again and smile.  Listen to the difference – it’s amazing.

In the same way, using physical gestures and body language can improve your expression.  When you are saying, “you’ll really benefit from …” point your finger at an imaginary person.  It has an incredible effect.  If you want to sound emphatic, clench your fist.  Believe it or not, body language translates into vocal expression very quickly.

The speed at which you speak can affect your expression too.  If you modulate your speaking speed, you will keep your listener’s interest.  So, speed up and slow down every once in a while.

And if you want something to seem exciting, speed up.  If you want something to sound boring or tedious, slow down.

A lot of people ask me what the perfect speaking speed is.  Is it 180 words a minute or 120 words a minute?  In the olden days, speaking slow was considered best.  I think that’s out of date and wrong.

We all speak naturally at different paces.  You need to speak at a speed that works for you.    How do you determine the pace that works for you?  First you need to find your “speaking speed limit”.

Your “speaking speed limit” is the fastest pace you can talk without stumbling over words.  The instant you start stumbling, you are speaking too fast.

As soon as you know your speaking speed limit, drop your pace a little.  This is how fast you should speak on average because it allows you to both speed up and slow down without stumbling over words.

My third tip for sounding interesting is to use some … pauses.  Pauses break the natural flow or rhythm of your voice.  It is this flow or rhythm that can lead listeners into a trance-like state.

If you want to emphasize something, pause before you utter the word.  Let’s say I want to emphasize the danger of bankruptcy.  I would say, “And be really careful about getting into too much debt because [PAUSE AND TAKE A BREATH] it could lead to [PAUSE AGAIN] bankruptcy.”

My fourth tip is to modulate your volume.  Naturally, the louder you sound, the angrier you might come across.  The softer, the more gentle.  I really suggest you avoid this technique because it’s hard to master.

My fifth tip is to change pitch.  The higher the pitch the less comfortable your voice is for a listener and you sound more nervous or excited.  The lower your pitch, the more calm and collected you sound.  The idea is to change pitch.  Once again, this is tricky to master and I suggest you practice it a lot to make it work.

Three Ways

So those are the three ways I suggest you improve your vocal technique.  I often give short demonstrations in my workshops of how these work.  However, I always offer a caveat which applies now too.  You won’t improve your voice overnight.  It takes practice.

I recommend coaching because it’s the best structured way to improve vocal presence.  However, work on what we’ve discussed in this article and over time you’ll sound much better.


This article by Jonathan Halls was originally published on Podcasters Portal in 2006