Find and use a compelling voice for storytelling

December 19, 2017 01:30

By Joanne Stevens, RTDNA Contributor
Welcome to part 2 of your breathing lesson! (If you haven't already, check out part 1.) By now I hope that many of you are using your new breathing skills to speak and breathe without effort.

I am sad to report that while listening to NPR this past weekend, an accomplished journalist reported his impressive story with a gasp before almost every sentence.  Unfortunately, audibly sucking in air can be even more distracting on radio and in podcasts. 
Great storytelling depends on your voice 
“I want to be the best storyteller out there!”  Sure. Here’s a little more anatomy.  Many of you confuse ‘pitch’ and ‘resonance,’ e.g. ‘I want to make my voice lower’ or ‘Wow, my voice is so flat and lifeless sounding.’  Either way, with a nod to journalism’s (and for that matter- everyone else’s!)  increasing appreciation of ‘storytelling,’ bear in mind that you can be the best writer/reporter going and totally lose out on closing the deal by not taking advantage of ‘all that your body offers’ – so to speak. 
What, really, is your ‘pitch’ ?
The pitch of our voices (high pitch- looow pitch) is determined by the vocal cords. They’re housed in our neck, positioned at the level of our ‘adam’s apple,’ which is really a bone - the hyoid bone.  Vocal cords are made of thin bands of smooth muscle.  When they tighten they create a higher pitched sound, and when they’re relaxed, or at repose, the pitch sound they create is your most ‘neutral’ sound. The process is similar to tightening the strings on a violin or guitar.
How do I adjust my pitch, or find my best pitch?
Your best pitch starts from your neutral pitch, which is your Home Base
  • Quietly say ‘ha ha ha.’ Your neutral sound, or Home Base,  should be close to that ‘ah’ sound
I often hear my clients’ best neutral sound when they’re not worrying about ‘sounding good’ but rather telling me ‘got it’... or ‘yeah,' i.e. a polite ‘noise’ that’s letting me know they’re with me.
That neutral, effortless sound is invariably your Home Base. When we start speaking, we either start from Home Base, or perhaps slightly higher or slightly lower. 
Know where your Home Base is, and your speaking voice will feel more ‘at home’ (!) and create natural higher and lower fluctuations within that vicinity. Much of your storytelling interpretation depends a lot on this natural rise and fall of the sound.   
Is my pitch too high?
Well, if you are tense (and who’s not at various times within our day?!), this can tighten your cords, causing a higher pitch than you want. Or, if you are unclear where your Home Base is, you may in fact be starting way higher than you should, and yeah, your voice is too high!  From here, when your pitch moves even higher, your voice-over interpretation or standups will start sounding less commanding.
Is my pitch too low?
Only if you’re forcing it in effort to ‘lower your pitch’ and keep it there, i.e. you may be choosing to stay in a lower range to sound ‘better,' but this often kills some of your natural semantic interpretation as you speak, making your voice-over or standup sound more flat and lifeless. 
A natural speaking voice has a continuous up and down ‘inflection.’ Some of you worry about going too high and as a result, squelch some of the upward pitch movement range that is natural for you to hit. We only go a bit lower than our ‘Home Base’ when we speak.  Some of you try forcing your pitch to that very lowest, position - and try keeping it there. You do need to shift continuously from your Base, to a bit higher, to a little lower. If you try keeping your voice solely in that ‘slightly lower than Home Base position,’ you’ll tend to sound flat and lifeless.
Why do some people have voices that sound fuller, and more pleasant? That’s your Resonance.
Violins, violas, basses, better made guitars; they are crafted from beautiful woods meant to ‘resonate’ when the strings are ‘played.’  Each of our bodies is a different size and shape. Our percentage of muscle and fat varies. When our stomach/diaphragm pumps the air from our lungs up through our necks, each of our bodies creates its own unique, beautiful tone. Regardless of the pitch: the majority of the sound that a listener hears comes from the vibration of our chest. I call it your Torso Voice.
I think I’m speaking from my throat? 
Bye bye lovely resonance, hello tight sound that essentially vibrates in your neck, or worse, gets stuck in your skull to create a distracting, sometimes annoying ‘face voice.’ Here, your vibration turns fundamentally into bone vibration or nasal vibration, neither of which are as pleasant.

Pledge to stomach breathe and find your Home Base!
  • Put one hand flat against your upper chest, palm down. Play around with your ‘haaaaa’ sound and: you can feel the vibration as the air passes by, up through your vocal cords and into your mouth, where it gets shaped into words by your jaw position, tongue position, and lips. 
  • Feeling braver? Now try a sentence, a paragraph, a standup, a story.
So forget about ‘voice envy!!!'  And remember, we’re all functioning instruments waiting to be utilized properly to create our best storytelling, much like a symphony does.

News consultant Joanne Stevens has written extensively about broadcast writing, reporting and anchoring, including columns in the former print version of RTDNA's Communicator Magazine, and earlier versions of the RTDNA website. She has taught at Columbia and New York University and serves as a news award judge for the New York Press Club. She has returned to to offer a new series of News Coach columns with tips, best practices and more. Many of her previous columns are available on her website.