Top 10 Tips from a Voice Coach

I teach trial advocacy with Judith Shahn who is a voice coach.  Judy has been a senior lecturer at the University of Washington's School of Drama since 1990.

Here are Judy's top suggestions for more effective speaking:

Ten Voice Essentials to Remember: 

1.      Keep your weight on both feet
(when you move – move deliberately and land on both feet)

2.      Keep your hands relaxed at your sides
(when you have the impulse to gesture – let your hands help you; when you don’t – let them just relax. Don’t hold your hands behind you or in front of you – what are you hiding?)

3.      Allow your first breath and others may follow
Relax your outer belly muscles (leave the control top panty hose at home) and allow the breath in. Each new thought begins with a breath – thus the word, “inspiration”.

Practice whispering “huh”
Now voice it – “huh”
Now say “hey”, “hi”, “hello”, “how are you?”
(can you feel your middle responding?)
Now, much stronger, “HOW DARE YOU?” The “h” will connect you with your diaphragm.

4.      Vocal Energy is what carries your words out to all in the courtroom.
In a jury trial, everything you say is for the benefit of the jury, whether it’s opening, closing or examining a witness. If you had a volume dial from 1-10, you should be between 4 and 6 during the trial.

5.      Speak at the speed of your thinking
If you speak too fast, you leave the jury behind you – speak too slowly, and they are way ahead. Your speed will shift, depending on your thinking: example – “The prosecution is trying to make you believe that the circumstances are enough to convict my client in this case; but, after examining the evidence, I believe you will do the right thing and find Mr. Smith – innocent!” The first part of the sentence wants to move quicker, whereas you want the jury to stay with you for the important words: evidence, right thing, and innocent.

6.      Employ vocal highlighting
This is something we do naturally when we are expressing something important, but sometimes we forget when we’re under pressure and everything flattens out to sound the same.

Practice emphasizing different words with the simple sentence:

Billy Button bought a bunch of beautiful bananas.
Notice how each new emphasis changes the meaning. Now try with this one:

Mr. Smith never entered the house on Elm Street at 9:00 pm on December 5th, because witnesses identified him at the same time at the George St. Tavern across town. So, he never had the opportunity to murder Sarah Jones.

7.      Pitch is thought
Human beings use pitch as a way to inflect their thinking and make it more expressive. Pitch is also an emotional response.

As lawyers, you can use pitch to be more authorative, understanding, ironic, humorous, friendly or factual, for example.

Your voice getting stuck on one pitch is like serving the jury the same meal every day or telling the same, predictable joke. Women tend to get stuck on the higher end and men, on the lower end, but either way is deadly.

8.  Timing is everything
Never underestimate the power of rhythm in speaking. Good writers are really aware of it, good actors can accomplish it and good lawyers should take advantage of it. Vary your rhythm as much as possible. Slow down to make a point – use mono syllables when something’s really important. Shakespeare did it:

“that but this blow must be the be all and the end all….here.”

9.“Words are the boats that travel on the river of sound”
This saying is from Kristin Linklater, an internationally renowned voice teacher. In essence, your intention must always be going forward towards the people you are speaking to. If your voice is swallowed or nasal, we are not receiving you.

Practice fluttering your lips: bbrrrreee, bbrrrrrrey, bbrrrrah
or trilling your r’s: rrrrrrreeeeeeeee, rrrrrrrrrrey, rrrrrrrrah

Or practice tossing a ball with someone while you are speaking. Let the final word in your sentence land as the other person catches the ball.

10. There is drama in the room
This may be obvious, but knowing when the light is on you and you are the center of attention is a very important tool. Sensing when to move and when to stay still, when to look directly at someone and when to avoid them, when to be expressive or when to be factual are important tools to have. Playing an intention puts you in charge. For example: are you trying to: educate, inform, entertain, shock, warn, mock, protect, reveal, plead,demand, instruct (or any other intention).  This will inform your way of speaking and ultimately how you get through.

Lawyers cannot take communication for granted. The art of persuasiveness can only be finessed with practice. There is always room for improvement.  It is wise to periodically to reexamine your modes of expressing yourself: your body language, vocal quality, pacing, clarity, phrasing and intentionality.