A simple trick to help you speak in public without showing your nerves

Jan 22, 2019 /

You don’t have to put up with a thin, shaky voice, says speech-language pathologist Jackie Gartner-Schmidt.

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Ever given a presentation and felt like your throat was closing up or that there was a big lump in it? Or made an important request of your boss but thought your voice sounded as shaky as Jello on a trampoline?

Turns out, you don’t suffer from some unexplained physical malady. There’s an anatomical explanation for what happens to our voices when we’re under pressure, says speech-language pathologist and University of Pittsburgh professor Jackie Gartner-Schmidt.

All humans have vocal cords — also called vocal folds since they’re folds of tissue — which sit on top of our windpipes, right behind the Adam’s apple. “The real reason we have vocal folds is to protect ourselves,” says Gartner-Schmidt. In fact, they do the very important work of preventing us from inhaling water into our lungs whenever we drink something.

But researchers have found “in experimentally induced stressful situations — be it public speaking, hearing a loud startle sound or having cold water put on your body — that the muscles around the voice box and the muscles actually inside the voice box [a.k.a. the vocal folds] react,” says Gartner-Schmidt. “They activate, and in some cases, they close altogether.”

Of course, no one wants to sound shaky, squeaky or choked up when they speak. As Gartner-Schmidt puts it, “We want our voice to reflect our strengths, not our weaknesses.” She says, “in study after study a high-pitched voice has been correlated with the perception of anxiety, not being competent, not being strong, and not being trustworthy.”

And this matters more and more now, as many of our meetings and interviews take place over conference calls or low-res video chats. As a result, says Gartner-Schmidt, “the voice is substantially taking over more and more of how we are perceived.”

To avoid this, she suggests doing this easy exercise (which she calls one of her favorites).

Hold up your index finger a few inches in front of your mouth. As you exhale steadily, make a “Wooooooo” noise (think: little kid pretending to be a ghost) for 5 to 10 seconds. Do this 5 to 10 times. (Watch her demonstrate it here.)

“This … essentially relaxes the vocal folds,” says Gartner-Schmidt. “It establishes breath and air flow and voice stability, which is the cornerstone of any strong, clear voice.”

Right before the next important occasion in which you have to speak — for work, for the toast you’re giving at a wedding, for a speech to a community board — take Gartner-Schmidt’s advice and “spend some time finding your best voice.”

Watch her TEDxPittsburgh talk here: