You've got a presentation tomorrow, but you've lost your voice! How can you make it better? Don't worry, all is not lost. You can still give a great presentation with a sore voice.
Some years before I was born, Cathie Owen (the only voice coach who also happens to be my mum) was at a conference of voice teachers. Speaking at the conference was the great Cicely Berry — a voice coach who has influenced not only Cathie's (and thus my) approach to voice but has influenced hundreds of voice teachers and coached actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Emily Watson, Helen Hunt and Sean Connery.
When she arrived at the conference, Cicely Berry had been a bit ill and her voice was sore. She could only speak very quietly, but she didn't want to let down the attendees by cancelling her speech. She stood up to talk despite having "lost" her voice.
How Cicely Berry Spoke Even With a Sore Voice
Being a highly skilled voice user, she knew how to speak and be heard without hurting her voice further. She spoke quietly, with intense focus, but did not whisper. She opened her mouth wide and used clear, crisp articulation so that the audience could understand every word. Even the people at the very back of the room could hear her.
You can still give a great presentation even if your voice is sore.
But, be prepared to change how you deliver the presentation.
As soon as you realise you have a sore throat, stop… and breathe out. Take a few deep breaths and tell yourself: "I am now in Voice Preservation Mode. I will stop thinking 'how can I get rid of this sore throat'. It will not go away. If I try to push through the sore throat, it will make my voice worse. Instead, I will commit to doing all I can to give a great presentation without hurting my voice further."
Warning: Don't Follow Bad Advice
You can find a lot of bad advice about how to "beat" a sore throat when you have to use your voice professionally. A lot of this advice can actually risk damaging your voice further, like taking certain medications or products, "pushing through the pain" (aargh, never do this!) or suppressing the pain with painkillers.
Last week, I wrote about the 10 dangers which can make your voice worse when your throat is already sore. You can read the article here: Lost Your Voice? 10 Ways to Make Your Sore Voice Worse.
You can bet that Cicely Berry did not commit any of these mistakes. Instead, she probably followed some of the following 8 steps for giving a great presentation with a sore voice.
The 8 Steps to Giving a Great Presentation With a Sore Voice
Here my 8 steps for speaking with a sore voice:
Before you do anything else, rest. Don't speak, don't smoke, don't sing. Rest.
Rest is really the only way to get your voice back to full health. Save your voice for the presentation and speak as little as possible until then.
This may mean that you have to change your game plan for the day.
For example, when I'm delivering a speech at an event I often like to do a bit of networking beforehand to meet some of the attendees. However, networking can strain the voice, especially in a noisy room. If I network before the event, I will have to introduce myself and ask questions to prompt the attendees to talk. If my voice is already sore, this will wear it out before I even start my speech. In this case, it's better to change my plan and rest my voice before the speech. I would wait until after my speech to talk to people one-to-one, when the attendees are more likely to start the conversation for me. This, unfortunately, means I won't meet them personally before I speak, but it will save my voice.
As I explained in last week's post, dry vocal folds (aka vocal cords) can make your sore voice worse. They are likely to become inflamed due to a lack of lubrication. The best way to re-hydrate your vocal folds is to drink water. I understand that this can be tough, especially if your sore throat makes it uncomfortable to swallow, but it's vital. When my throat was sore a couple of weeks ago, even drinking sips of water was painful.
You must hydrate both the day before you speak and on the day itself. If you wait until the day of your presentation to start drinking lots of water, it will be too late for your body to re-hydrate properly.
To soothe your throat and make the water easier to drink, try mixing warm water with a little bit of honey and lemon, and drink it in sips. Research has shown that honey can help to reduce inflammation and heal the back of the throat — one study even found it to be more effective than over-the-counter medication. Lemon juice is both anti-inflammatory and contains a lot of Vitamin C.
Honey will not "coat the vocal cords" as I once heard someone say. Food and liquid don't pass through the larynx, it passes through the oesophagus, so this is a misunderstanding of how the voice works. However, honey will coat the mouth and upper throat (pharynx) which will help to reduce this area of pain.
3. Inhale Steam
As well as drinking a lot of water, steam can be a good way to re-hydrate the vocal folds. The traditional method is to put boiling water in a bowl, place your head over the bowl and a towel over your head then breathe normally. However, there are some useful products which are handier (e.g. steam inhaler cups).
One research team found that using a saline solution in the steamer (0.5 tsp salt to one cup of water) is more effective than plain water for lubricating the vocal folds. This lubrication effect is immediate and lasts for around 35 minutes. However, you will feel the effects for longer than this. In another study, researchers found that the feeling of vocal strain caused by dryness lasts for up to two hours. This suggests that breathing saline steam before your presentation can help to soothe the pain for the entire duration of your performance.
4. Learn Vocal Technique
Just as Cicely Berry demonstrated in the story above, good vocal technique can help you give a great performance even when you have a sore throat.
Unlike the other "quick tips" on this list, learning vocal technique is a long-term investment. However, it is a vital skill if you want to become a great presenter.
This blog includes a lot of resources about the voice. Download my free cheat sheet pack by signing up to the newsletter at the bottom of this post to also get your first lesson in voice.
5. Speak Clearly and Quietly (without whispering)
I always remember my mum's story of Cicely Berry because it reminds me of the power of the voice even at low volume. You don't need to shout to be an engaging speaker.
When you have a sore voice, you have no choice but to speak more quietly than you would normally. However, do not whisper. Whispering can damage your vocal folds, as I explained last week. Instead, speak with a relaxed, released throat and do not push your voice.
6. Ask for a Microphone or Move Closer
Microphones are there for a reason — to help you be heard. Even if you usually like to speak without a microphone, use one if possible. It will help you to avoid pushing your sore voice. If a microphone isn't an option, the next best thing is to rearrange the furniture to move yourself closer to the audience or move them closer to you.
Both of these options will require you to turn up early to the presentation. If you are using a microphone, you should do a sound check with it before the audience arrives — you may have to increase the gain so that you can speak quieter. If you decide to move the chairs, you will have to turn up early to do so.
Humming is like a magic tonic for the voice. It's a deceptively simple exercise; in fact, it hardly seems like an exercise at all. Despite its simplicity, various research studies have demonstrated the positive effects of humming on both impaired and healthy voices.
How do you hum properly? First, you should try to release as much tension as possible from your shoulders, neck, jaw and throat. Then, imagine your throat and tongue relaxing completely. Then hum, quietly, at the tone that is most natural to you. Do not try to be musical. Just try to produce a clear, relaxed humming tone.
One group of researchers found that humming improves the vocal quality both of people with damaged voices and for people with healthy voices. Amongst other effects, it made their voice sound less rough.
Do a bit of gentle humming before your presentation. It will improve the quality of your voice and release your vocal folds so that you do not damage them further.
8. Warm Up
A vocal warm up is important before any speaking event. When you have a sore throat it is vital. However, be careful and be gentle with your voice.
In your warm up, rest your voice as much as possible. Instead, focus on warming up the rest of your body:
- Warm up your articulation by exercising the muscles of your face, without speaking.
- Move and stretch your arms, shoulders, torso and neck to release tension from them.
- Do some breathing exercises, breathing through your nose, to warm up your breathing.
- Hum to warm up your voice.
If you are not sure how to warm up your voice, make sure to sign up for the newsletter. I often send out voice exercises to the mailing list. You can sign up using this form:
Have you had to give a presentation when your throat was sore? What tips have you heard about how to overcome a sore throat? Tell us in the comments below or join the discussion on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest.