Hari Patience-Davies shares an easy way to expand your vocal range and become a more engaging speaker.
Have you ever heard a sleep story? Most people will have but might not know it. That’s because many of us had bedtime stories read to us as children and may even have been lulled to sleep by the adult equivalent in a meditation or mindfulness app. A sleep story is generally delivered in a soft voice, at a slow pace, with a monotone pitch or tone. This makes sense because a slow, monotone delivery is incredibly soporific.
But when you’re presenting in a meeting or speaking on stage monotone is a problem. The continual same-ness of a monotone voice is just as good at putting you to sleep in a meeting as it is when you’re listening to a sleep story in bed.
For nervous speakers, it’s all too easy to slip into a monotone delivery – especially if you’ve already received feedback on your speaking that you need to SLOW DOWN. If we get too focussed on speaking slowly, we may neglect the pitch and tone of our voices, and it’s easy slip into that monotone delivery found in sleep stories.
But if you’re already thinking about slowing down your speech, as well as the content you’re actually delivering, how do you combat monotone delivery and unlock your vocal variance?
I’ve always been a fan of using simple poetry for vocal exercises, but it was a former colleague of mine – storytelling coach Naomi Smith – who introduced me to the idea of using children’s books to help people improve the tone of their vocal delivery.
While reading children to sleep might call for a softer voice, entertaining them with books when they’re wide awake often means pulling on whatever acting talent you possess to create voices for characters and deliver as much drama as you can to keep your listeners’ attention.
Julia Donaldson’s wonderful rhyming books are ideal for this kind of thing, as are old favourites like A.A. Milne and Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Stories that rhyme – or poetry with a narrative – are among the easiest things to read. The words can seem to flow off of the page, building a lyrical melody. The content is already engaging, and it’s written down so you don’t need to memorise it, and with those two elements taken care of, you can really focus on how you’re delivering the words and phrases.
Ideally you should either record yourself reading the story as a video, or get a friend or family member to play camera person. Watching yourself on screen enables you to see yourself as the audience sees you, and while we may all hate the sound of our own voices, this makes it easier to assess your performance at a distance and identify things you need to work on.
So if you haven’t already, reach for a book – and a child. It doesn’t have to be your child – a niece, nephew or cousin will do, as will the children of friends. if you can speak in person, that’s best, but if not you could always record a story as a video for them to watch at their leisure.
The BBC’s children’s channel CBeebies broadcasts a bedtime story read by a celebrity every night – so if you’re looking for inspiration, check out Bedtime Stories on iPlayer. In the first lockdown business leaders and politicians also reached for their children’s libraries, recording bedtime stories for YouTube or social media.
Your voice is a muscle – exercising it strengthens it, and reading to children encourages us to speak in a more expressive version of our voice.
That is not to say that we should all get up on stage or in a meeting room and speak to a professional audience as we would to a six year old! This exercise exists to widen your vocal range and make you feel more comfortable delivering content in a more emotional tone. Taking the time to read children’s stories, and being consciously aware of how your reading voice is different to your speaking voice, can help you improve how you speak