Note from Dan Voss: Mark Pellegrin shared an outstanding article Melissa wrote and published shortly after she graduated from UCF. The text of the article is reproduced in its entirety below.
Your Speaking Voice
By Melissa Pellegrin
Your speaking voice is the product of three basic processes: breathing, phonation, and resonation. Your ability to produce vocal sounds and form them into words that others will recognize is a result of these processes.
We each inhale and exhale thousands of times each day without giving much thought to the process. Unless we climb a flight of stairs quickly or run to catch a bus, we’re usually unaware of the muscles and processes involved in breathing. It’s only through a controlled inhaling and measured exhaling of breath through the trachea that we’re able to produce words and sounds. Breathing when we speak, unlike breathing simply to stay alive, requires controlled exhalation and involves a conscious, voluntary control of our chest and abdominal muscles. The degree to which we’re able to control these muscles and our diaphragm (a dome-shaped muscle attached to a central tendon beneath the lungs), is the extent to which we’re able to produce a steady flow of air needed to maintain tone, pitch, rate, volume, pacing and all the other essential characteristics of human speech.
As with any other muscles, they can be trained, and they can be made stronger with proper use and practice. They can also be overused, strained and abused. Sales people, customer service representatives, telemarketers and others who must give dozens of speeches, presentations, or talks each day must take great care not to strain or overuse their vocal equipment. During the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign, then-governor Bill Clinton kept up a rigorous speaking schedule that often included six or seven stops a day. Despite a cold, a badly strained set of vocal cords, and prolonged hoarseness, he persisted. The result was a candidate who could barely speak by Election Day. According to Dr. Wilbur J. Gould, the physician who treated Mr. Clinton during the campaign, the only relief for such abuse in most cases is rest.1
The second basic process involved in speaking is the vibration of our vocal folds, or phonation. The folds, known as the glottis and epiglottis, are housed in the larynx and serve several important purposes. They not only vibrate to give us our voice, but also act as a valve to keep food and water out of our lungs and to trap air within the lungs. They make it possible to “hold your breath” underwater or to exert strenuous muscular effort. The vocal folds remain relaxed and open during quiet breathing, but when we speak they vibrate horizontally and rapidly, alternately stopping and permitting exhaled breath to escape. These resulting interruptions transform the air stream into sound wave patterns.2
As our vocal folds vibrate, they produce sounds of a given frequency and pitch. These sounds acquire their tone through a process known as resonation. As a piano tuner strikes a tuning fork to produce a constant sound of a particular pitch and frequency, you’ll hear a more or less “pure” sound, a sound that is essentially unresonated. If the same piano tuner were to strike a piano key, Middle C for example, you would hear a more complex tone, a tone that had been resonated by the tuning board and various cavities of the piano. The same is true of the human voice. Those vocal folds produce a sound that is subsequently resonated by the pharynx, the mouth, and the nose. Our sinus cavities, which help to make the facial bones lighter, also resonate our vocal sounds. And, of course, our thoracic cavity or chest helps to resonate and reinforce the quality of our voices, particularly if our posture is good. Your choirmaster and elementary school teachers told you to sit up and stand proudly for very good reasons. They all help to improve the resonance of your voice.3
Writers have a number of devices available to them to convey a sense of expression without using words. These include such things as italics, quotation marks, parentheses, exclamation points, dashes, and so on. Speakers can’t use them, of course, but have their own range of devices that permit expressiveness in various ways.
It’s easy to sense when a speaker’s expression has changed: when a voice is raised in anger or defiance, when the pitch or pace of delivery are raised, or when a voice quivers with fear. When Dick Vitale, a former college and professional basketball coach, gives one of his motivational speeches to business groups across the country, his vocal expressiveness lends power and authority to his words. AI tend to speak a little more softly and slowly as I begin,” he said. AI talk about my background, my childhood, and the people who were important to me.” But as the speech progresses, he grows more intense, tightening the muscles in his neck, chest, and arms. “As I move into the more emotional portions of the speech,” he explained, AI raise my voice, I emphasize key words, and I begin speaking much more rapidly.” In speeches that deal with topics he feels very strongly about, such as drug use or alcohol abuse on college campuses, he really winds up. “By the time I reach the conclusion,” he says, “I don’t need a microphone. I don’t need a public address system. They can hear me two blocks down the street.” 4
We often associate “real meaning” with vocal expressiveness, even though the words a speaker uses may intend something else. If you ask a business colleague how she’s doing and hear a moderate-pitched, cheery, “Fine, thanks” in return, you tend to believe the words as spoken. But if you get a strident, forceful or loud, “Fine, thanks, just fine!” in response, you may detect anger or frustration in her voice. And, if you hear a choked, sobbing, gasping, “Fine, I’m fine, really,” you might conclude that she’s despondent, unhappy, or depressed. The way we say it B referred to as paralanguage by nonverbal communication experts B can tell us much more about the sender’s intention and state of mind than the symbols or words being used.
In general, five separate categories of vocal expressiveness help to describe and explain the ways in which we speak. They are quality, pitch, loudness, rate, and pronunciation.
While some voices may be described as “too loud” or “too fast,” it would be difficult to describe a voice as having “too much quality.” Quality is not a characteristic that can be described in quantitative terms. According to speech professor Arthur N. Kruger of Long Island University, “vocal quality is more a matter of kind than degree.” It’s what helps us differentiate one voice from another. The voice of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy was high-pitched, nasal, and staccato. At the other extreme, entertainer Barry White has a voice that may be characterized as low-pitched, smooth, and modulated. Common faults of vocal quality include the harsh voice, the hoarse voice, the glottal fry, and the glottal shock. 5
While harshness or hoarseness may be obvious to most listeners, the latter two faults may need a little explanation. The glottal fry is a strained, low-pitched voice, which usually occurs along with a drop in pitch as a speaker tries to force phonation without adequate breath support. Glottal shock is a fault that occurs because of the abrupt intonation of a vowel sound. It can be a useful device, helping a speaker separate two vowel sounds, as in “idea of’ or “law office,” but its overuse can be hard on the vocal folds and unpleasant to hear.6
This characteristic of vocal expression refers to the highness or lowness of a tone and is determined by the length, mass, and tension of the vocal folds. As the length and mass (or thickness) increase, pitch lowers; as the tension increases, pitch rises. This explains why small children have higher voices than women and why most women have voices that are higher pitched than most men. During emotional speaking occasions (anger, fear, excitement, joy, and so on) it’s easy to see why pitch can rise with heightened muscle contractions.
Common problems with pitch include monotone, a narrow pitch range, inappropriate pitch changes, and patterned pitch. We’re all familiar with monotone speakers B they’re the ones with just one pitch level to their voices. It’s rare, indeed, that someone (other than those talking appliances, like bathroom scales) can speak for long using just one tone or pitch level. More likely, the problem with inexperienced or infrequent public speakers is that their pitch range may be too narrow to accommodate the subject and the audience. Inappropriate pitch changes often come from speakers whose native language is other than English. Speakers of Hindi, Mandarin Chinese, and a host of other languages in which meaning can vary with pitch, will often change pitch while speaking English with no apparent motive. The solution for such speakers is simply to listen to more idiomatically correct English and try to imitate it. Finally, patterned pitch is nothing more than the predictable; singsong rhythmic delivery characteristic of memorized speech.7
Listeners should be able to hear a speech without straining to do so. Speakers should be able to talk to an audience without having background noise drown out their words as they deliver them. Speakers should be sensitive to the reactions of their audience members, adjusting the loudness of their delivery to suit both the speaking conditions and their intentions as they speak. Loudness can be adjusted upward or downward by a speaker to emphasize a point or convey an emotion. Other terms are sometimes used to describe this characteristic of loudness, including “intensity,” “force,” and “volume.” They mean essentially the same thing.
Common faults of loudness include the too-quiet voice, the overly loud voice, a lack of variety in loudness, and fading. In common business situations, these faults will be attributed to more than a lack of skill in speaking. They may be seen as the result of inadequate social skills, or a lack of self-confidence. In some cases, the fault may be a simple failure on the part of the speaker to adjust to the environmental conditions of the speaking location or equipment being used. In other cases, it may be a lack of breath control or nervousness on the speaker’s part. In either case, sensitivity to the audience and adequate rehearsal will certainly help.8
The pace, or rate, at which we speak is often determined by the audience, the speaker, the content of the speech, and the words the speaker has chosen to express the content. When we’re dealing with familiar, easy material, it’s not at all unusual for speakers to speed up a bit B the audience won’t have much difficulty following us. When the material is difficult, technical, or unfamiliar to the audience, most speakers find that it’s best to slow down so that the listeners can follow the speech.9
What’s an effective or optimal rate? A number of studies have measured college students reading aloud and then tested their audiences to see how well they could follow the speeches. Communication researchers Theodore Hanley and Wayne Thurman found that the middle two‑thirds of the students they tested read aloud at a rate of between 155 and 185 words per minute. Fairbanks calls a speaking rate of 160 to 170 “excellent,” with a range of 150 to 180 “acceptable.” You can test yourself by finding a passage in a newspaper, book, or magazine that contains 200 words. Count the words, then read the passage aloud, timing yourself as you go along. Multiply 60 by 200 and divide by the number of seconds it takes you to read the passage. That formula will give you your speaking rate per minute. The best rule to keep in mind is that you must be sensitive to feedback from your audience, adjusting your speaking rate to their needs and interests. 10
The most common faults of speaking rate are too many or two few words per minute; inappropriately lengthened or shortened pauses or sounds; too many or two few pauses; patterned rhythm; and no rhythm. People have come to expect that public speakers will speak at a rate that is easy for them to follow and understand. They’ve also come to expect that speakers will pause from time to time B always at appropriate or natural places in the speech B and that they will speak with some rhythm or cadence to their speech.
The ways in which we pronounce the words we use to communicate are a measure of several things: first, perhaps, our general level of education. Second, the region of the country or part of the world in which we grew up and acquired our language. Third, our general familiarity with the idioms and argot of the group we’re addressing. Certain forms of every language, including American English, are considered “standard,” but that’s really because the majority of people in society speak that way. So‑called Anon‑standard” forms of pronunciation are common in various regions of the country among various ethnic and geographic groups. “Standard English,” in fact, may brand a speaker in Kennebunkport, Maine, or Bayou La Batre, Alabama, as an outsider. President John F. Kennedy frequently referred in speeches, press conferences, and conversations to “the Soviet presence in Cuber.” His backbay Boston accent transformed the “a” in Cuba into an “er.” Regional pronunciations or “accents” are usually no problem at all, unless they somehow interfere with effective communication. Often, a change in speaking rate is all that’s needed for speakers to accommodate different expectations in pronunciation patterns.
Not all pronunciation is regarded as correct, though. Some pronunciation patterns, having nothing to do with geography, ethnicity, or enculturation, are regarded by most speakers of the language as incorrect and can interfere with effective communication. The most common faults are incorrect sounds, incorrect stress, and excessive assimilation. For various reasons, some speakers will pronounce a word incorrectly B either because they’ve never heard it used correctly, or because the correct pronunciation hasn’t been called to their attention. The t in often is silent; “off‑ten” is an incorrect pronunciation. There is no cell in cello and no revoke in irrevocable. Speakers sometimes add, omit, or transpose sounds, as well. Athlete is not pronounced “ath-uh-lete” and film does not have a u, as in “fil-um.” Extraneous sounds can transform a word such as wash into warsh.
Transposing sounds can alter pronunciation in such words as ask which can become aks, or prescribe, which becomes perscribe. According to Professor Kruger, over‑pronounced or pseudo‑cultivated sounds used by some speakers as an affectation is less common, but still unacceptable. The reason remains the same: affectations distract attention from ideas by focusing on pronunciation.11
Incorrect stress is a simple pronunciation fault caused by accenting the wrong syllable in a word, a common error committed by non‑native speakers of virtually any language. Even native speakers, though, can shift the accent in a word to stress the wrong syllable. Some words, with identical spellings, can change meaning B from a noun to a verb, for example B with a simple shift in stress. Words such as pervert, rebel, and conduct change meaning according to which syllable is stressed by the speaker. With the emphasis on the first syllable, conduct is a noun; with the emphasis or stress on the second, it becomes a verb.
Excessive assimilation is a term which refers to a speech sound being influenced by a nearby sound in a sentence or phrase. That usually happens when words used together frequently are difficult to pronounce or don’t flow smoothly. Speakers frequently alter the flow of the sentence to make it easier to pronounce. “Jeet yet?” is a quick assimilation of the words “Did you eat yet?” A related fault is truncation in which words are shortened, omitted, or letters are dropped, as in ‘Runnin’ across campus.” 12
Correct pronunciation is more a matter of adjusting to your audience, your purpose for speaking, and the occasion than a matter of memorizing one Aright” way to speak. Just as your teachers would criticize you for dropping sounds, running words together, or transposing sounds, your friends, teammates, or business associates might regard it as odd if you join them for a game of pick‑up basketball, or an informal meeting speaking like a network television news anchor. Speaking a sub‑language or talking in patterns and ways that you may have learned as part of a geographic or ethnic group is fine, as long as your use of the language is appropriate to the audience and occasion. You must be able to learn when and how to shift into other, equally appropriate forms of speech, when the occasion or your purpose calls for it, or when your audience expects it.
- Pellegrin, M., ‘Cordless in Virginia: Why The Voice of Change’ had a Change in Voice,” The Toastmaster, December 1993, pp. 8-10.
- Kruger, A.N., Effective Speaking: A Complete Course. New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, 1970, pp. 29-30.
- Kruger, pp. 31‑35.
- Vitale, R., ESPN College Basketball Commentator, in a personal interview at the University of Notre Dame, September 22, 1993.
- Kruger, pp. 41‑45.
- Kruger, pp. 42‑43.
- Van Riper, C. and R.L. Erickson, Speech Correction: An Introduction to Speech pathology and Audiology, 9th edition. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1996, pp. 42‑47.
- Van Riper, pp. 45‑46.
- Kruger, pp. 61‑62.
- Kruger, pp. 61-65.
- Kruger, pp. 70‑75.
- Kruger, pp. 73‑74.