You’ve got a presentation coming up, but you’ve lost your voice! There is a lot of bad advice out there. Here’s how to make sure you don’t make it worse.
It’s winter as I write this (in the Northern Hemisphere anyway) and that can only mean one thing: sore throats. At this time of year, almost everyone is coughing, sniffling and croaking. Just the other day, I got mild tonsillitis and a cold at the same time. My throat felt like it was filled with fire. I couldn’t swallow without wincing in pain.
Sore throats are a curse for professional voice users like us. If your work involves giving presentations, singing, teaching, recording or talking on the phone, it’s likely that you have been struck down once or twice by the dreaded “lost voice.” Sometimes a sore throat is caused by a cold or an infection. Other times, it’s due to over-using your voice or using it excessively in the wrong way (as we’ll see from the examples of Adele and Tony Robbins below).
How do you ensure that you don’t make your voice worse?
This article will explain:
- How to identify a sore voice.
- How to avoid making it worse.
How to Identify a Sore Voice
If you’re feeling a sore throat right now, you probably don’t need me to tell you how it feels.
However, just in case, here’s a list of symptoms of a sore voice (extended from this research):
Uncomfortable or painful throat/neck
Tension in neck/shoulders
Discomfort in chest, ears, or back of neck
Difficulty speaking loud enough to be heard
Lack of vocal power
Running out of breath while talking
Reduced loudness range
Inability to maintain your typical speaking level and/or pitch
Need to use greater vocal effort
Voice Pitch is Different From Usual (too high, low or unusually monotonous)
Vocal Quality is Different from Usual (e.g. hoarse, husky, breathy, unsteady, etc)
Loss of voice
Reduced pitch range (talking or singing in only one part of your voice)
Pitch breaks (when talking or singing, your voice jumps up or down like a teenage boy whose voice is breaking)
Discomfort or pain when speaking
Pain when swallowing
Increased need to cough or clear throat
Scratchy sensation in throat
Swollen and red tonsils and throat
When you notice any of these signs, even if it’s only a mild feeling, take care. You don’t want to make your voice worse by falling into some of the common traps.
Avoiding Bad Advice
The world is filled with misleading advice about how to recover a lost voice.
I often hear discussions between public speakers, teachers and other professional voice users. As soon as the topic of “losing your voice” comes up, one or two people invariably pitch in with their opinion that “You should use Product X. It’s amazing. It will fix your voice immediately.”
The problem is that “Product X” probably isn’t amazing. In fact, a lot of products are in danger of harming your voice more than helping it. No product will restore your voice to full health immediately.
Unfortunately, there is a shocking lack of a basic understanding of vocal health. Bad voice use is widespread, especially in the West where it has become fashionable in some social circles to have a voice like a chain-smoking frog. Singers, speakers, actors and other voice users are even resorting to surgery to fix damages that they have inflicted on their own voice due to a lack of vocal care.
This recent Guardian article explains how singers like Adele — who has twice received surgery on her vocal cords — seem to be popularising surgery as a “fix” instead of being good role models for healthy vocal technique
There seems to be a worrying trend for professional voice users to just “push through” their pain and make their voice worse in the process.
Tony Robbins, one of the world’s top public speakers, has practically destroyed his voice doing just this. He shouts on stage, despite his gravelly voice clearly having been ripped to shreds. Personally, I can’t even listen to him as it makes me physically uncomfortable. Voice trainer Nancy Daniels agrees that he is suffering from vocal abuse.
And bad vocal technique can be contagious. Whether it’s singers recounting the myth that you can “sing over a cold” (you shouldn’t) or public speakers endorsing the latest questionable product, bad advice spreads as fast as fake news.
Even if you have good vocal technique, there are some common errors and fallacies which could lead you to exacerbate your pain.
When your voice is already sore, the last thing you want to do is make it worse.
10 Ways to Make Your Sore Voice Worse
Here are 10 things to avoid when you’re losing your voice:
1. Breathe Dry Air
Your vocal folds (aka vocal cords) need to be well lubricated to function properly. If you breathe dry air, such as in an air-conditioned building, the folds will dry out.
Speaking with a dry throat will damage your vocal folds further. They will eventually become inflamed and even more painful.
Stay in well-hydrated rooms and inhale steam if you think your throat is drying out.
Even if we ignore the many health risks associated with smoking, smoke is terrible for your voice. It both dries out your vocal folds and acts as a strong irritant, which will make your sore throat and your voice even worse.
Avoid smoking and use an alternative means of getting nicotine, if you need it.
Also, avoid e-cigarettes. Although they are less toxic than cigarettes, research has found that there are at least three irritant chemicals in e-liquids. My guess is that nicotine patches are your best bet as they don’t pass through your throat.
3. Drink Alcohol
Alcohol dries out your throat and, thus, your vocal folds. It also dehydrates you by restricting your body’s ability to reabsorb water. This makes your body less able to re-hydrate your vocal folds.
Some people say that caffeine also dries out the vocal folds, but research has so far proved inconclusive. A little caffeine might be okay, but don’t overdo it as caffeine can be a diuretic if you drink more than usual, leading to more fluid loss.
Avoid alcohol. Drink warm water with added honey and lemon instead.
4. Take Analgesics (painkillers)
It is natural to want to take painkillers when your throat feels sore. However, when you are going to use your voice a lot this can be a bad idea.
Although pain and discomfort are horrible, they serve an important purpose — to stop you from doing more harm to yourself.
Products which numb or suppress your pain so you don’t have feedback from your vocal folds, which can lead to you damaging them further.
If your throat is so sore that you can’t speak without painkillers, consider cancelling the presentation.
Try the other alternatives recommended in this list (i.e. rest the voice, sip water with honey and lemon, inhale saline steam, suck non-mentholated lozenges). If you must take painkillers, leave it until after your presentation. Then, rest your voice completely.
5. Take Menthol and other irritants
This is sometimes a controversial one, as I know various professional speakers who swear by products which contain menthol and/or eucalyptus.
However, these are both irritants and should be avoided. The voice therapists I have spoken to and research that I’ve read strongly warn against them as they irritate the vocal folds, which can lead to more damage.
Menthol also has an analgesic effect, which suggests to me that it irritates the vocal folds but stops you from feeling this irritation.
Avoid products with menthol, eucalyptus and other known irritants. Non-mentholated lozenges and even just normal boiled sweets are a better alternative.
6. Push Through
One of the worst things you can do when your voice is sore is to push through the pain and try to speak at the same level as you would normally. This is almost guaranteed to make your voice worse.
As I explained above, this is, unfortunately, a common practice among some professional voice users.
If your voice is sore, speak gently and don’t push it.
7. Ignore the Warning Signs
Related to the previous point, never ignore your pain. If your throat is so sore that you can’t speak and you push it anyway, you could do lasting damage to your voice.
Always listen to what your body is telling you.
8. Use Unhealthy Vocal Technique
As I discussed in the examples of Adele and Tony Robbins above, unhealthy vocal technique can seriously harm your voice. This is true even when you do not already have a sore throat. However, when you are ill the problems of bad technique become even more dangerous.
Learn more about vocal technique and take care of your voice.
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People often think that whispering saves their voice. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Whispering can be very damaging to the vocal folds, even when you don’t have a sore throat already.
In order to whisper, your vocal folds are held tight inside your larynx and they bash together, causing inflammation and aggravating an already sore throat.
Speak quietly with a relaxed throat but do not whisper.
We all have the urge to cough when we have a sore throat. I even coughed when I started writing the last sentence. However, coughing is bad for your vocal cords because it involves bashing them harshly together.
Swallow sips of warm water.
If you absolutely must cough, give a gentle, breathy cough using lots of air.
What to Do Instead
You know, it’s possible to give a great presentation even if you have a sore throat!
In next week’s article, I will provide a guide to giving a presentation when you have a sore voice. But until I publish the article, if you have a sore throat right now use the following advice:
- Rest — Rest your voice as much as possible. Don’t speak unless absolutely necessary.
- Hydrate — Drink lots of water to help lubricate the vocal folds.
- Inhale Steam — Inhale steam (made of a saline solution of 0.5 tsp salt to one cup of boiling water) which will relieve the effects of a dry throat.
- Speak Clearly and Quietly (without whispering) — When you must speak, don’t push your voice, even if you are giving a presentation. Speak clearly with a wide mouth and the audience will have a better chance of understanding you.
- Ask for a Microphone — If you are giving a presentation in a large room, use a microphone.
- Hum — Quietly humming is a great way to release your voice.
- Warm up — Make sure to do a vocal warm up before you speak. Again, don’t push your voice but gently warm it up to prepare your voice and body for the presentation.
- Rest Again — Once you have given your presentation, rest again. Rest until you are better. It’s the only real way to let your voice heal itself.
Have you had to give a presentation when you were ill? What tips have you heard about how to overcome a sore throat? Tell me in the comments below or join the discussion on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest.