Do you ever get the sense that you’re not being heard? Whether it’s during a Zoom meeting at work or whether it’s when you’re trying to talk to your children at home, every now and again, we all struggle to speak so that other people will listen.
Sometimes that’s because we’re holding back and we’re not sure why; other times it’s because we’re not using our voice to its full potential. But it’s a more common issue than you might think.
As one of Hollywood’s most sought-after vocal coaches, Denise Woods has worked with the likes of Idris Elba, Halle Berry, Jessica Chastain and Will Smith to improve their communication and expression on set. And yet, even Denise herself struggled with these very issues growing up.
“I was incredibly quiet and shy as a child,” she says now. “I really struggled with my self-esteem.” But slowly, she began to find her voice. It started with the discovery that she could sing, which led to a place at Juilliard School. Here, “I found my tribe, and it was that which gave me the platform to feel comfortable expressing myself,” Denise says. She went on to become an actress, before switching careers to a vocal coach once she realised her passion was helping other performers find and hone their voices.
Over time, Denise realised it wasn’t just A-List actors who needed her help to perfect their communication, but every day people. So, Denise wrote a book, The Power of Voice: A Guide to Making Yourself Heard (£22, HarperOne) to share her advice with anyone who needs it.
Why do some people struggle to make themselves heard?
Issues with self-expression and communication can manifest in a number of ways, but the root cause is always the same.
“It comes down to confidence,” Denise says. “For whatever reason. Sometimes it’s because a particular event or trauma has knocked that confidence, and sometimes it’s because of more subtle things such as where you come in the family structure.”
For example, Denise explains that being a younger child with “vociferous older siblings” may well still impact your confidence to speak up as an adult.
Denise is intent on making sure no one feels they needs to change who they are or “be fixed”. However, there are vocal tools that she feels everyone can benefit from when it comes to speaking up, feeling confident and being heard.
How to speak up and be heard
Denise shares her top five tips on tuning into the power of voice and improving your communication skills, and your confidence...
1. Focus on breath
You might be surprised to see breathing as the number one piece of advice when it comes to speaking up. It is, after all, silent. But, as Denise puts it: “breath is to voice what gasoline is to a car.”
“A lot of people don't associate breath with voice,” Denise explains. “They have no idea that the two coexist in the same conversation. But they don't just coexist, they are the same. All voice is is breath that has passed through the vocal folds.”
So how can we harness breath in order to help us build confidence in speaking up? “First, always take a breath in through the mouth before speaking,” Denise advises. “Most people think about breathing through the nose, but the speaking breath should be taken through the mouth, because it clears an open space for voice to come out, giving you more power and authority.
“When you’re speaking, you should be thinking: breath in, voice out; breath in voice out. A simple exercise to practise this would be counting one to five, breathing in through the mouth and then releasing and saying ‘one’, breathing in again followed by ‘two’ and so on.”
2. Record yourself speaking
Denise always recommends that we record ourselves speaking and listen to it back. “It's a great technique, because people really don't have a sense of how they sound,” she says. “Read a passage from a book – something you’re not attached to. Afterwards, listen to the recording so that you can figure where you’re starting from.”
Ask yourself what it is you think you could work on. For example, do you speak too quietly or too quickly? Like with anything, practice helps. “You can keep going back to your recording and use it as your barometer to measure your progress.”
3. Consider your posture
The way you’re sitting or standing when you speak can help trick your mind into feeling confident as well as opening up space for resonance.
“Start by lengthening your torso,” says Denise. “Imagine you’re being pulled from a string at the top of your head, creating this wonderful, long alignment down your vertebrae.
“Then imagine being pulled by a string from either side of your shoulders. You want to feel the width across your chest.”
This gentle imaginative pull up and across will allow you to open up the maximum space in your torso and back for lung expansion, without forcing it or it feeling contrived.
“This posture is really conducive to vocal production,” Denise explains. “And using the power of your imagination with the string helps you achieve it in a natural way.”
4. Be careful of habits that undermine you
According to Denise, a common “vocal distraction” to look out for is “upspeak”. This is when we end a declarative sentence on an upwards inflection or rising pitch, rather than a downwards inflection.
“Upspeak makes it sound like a question, or as though you’re unsure of what you’re saying,” Densise says. “It has a detracting effect from your perceived credibility or intelligence, and can undermine your confidence by making you feel unsure too.”
Meanwhile, be careful of circling around what you want to say with hesitation phrases and modifiers like "I was just thinking". It can make people drift off and stop you from being listened to and heard in the way you want to.
5. Remind yourself that what you have to say is a gift
Sometimes, when we’re in a room with more vocal people than us, we can let them assume that role while we sink into the background. But Denise says we have to reframe how we think of ourselves in order to not let that happen.
“You've got to think of yourself as a gift,” she says. “You are the expert in what you know, and what you bring to a conversation is your gift.
“When you redirect the narrative in that way, it helps trick your brain into giving your speech the same energy as you would when you give someone a present you can’t wait for them to open.”
Telling yourself that what you have to say is a gift might sound simple, but it's incredibly powerful.
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