Seems like a strange question or topic for a blog, right? Everyone knows how to have a conversation since we first learned to speak. Well not exactly. We know how to talk, but how do we have more meaningful conversations both technically and artfully - in particular business or sales conversations?
People are often worried about how they sound when they are giving a speech or having a conversation. One of the biggest issues people have is what’s called upspeak or inflecting up vocally at the end of sentences making everything sound like a question. It makes you sound unsure and less confident. Usually, the reason this happens is because you are nervous or tense and maybe a little unsure. Learn to flatten the sounds or go down at the end of sentences, to sound more confident.
Another issue people have is the dreaded vocal fry that personality Kim Kardashian made so famous. Vocal fry is the froggy, creaky sound that happens within or towards the end of sentences. You are running out of air. Using diaphragmatic breathing also known as belly breathing will help get rid of vocal fry. Put one of your hands just below your rib cage, breathe in slowly through the nose, and observe your stomach outwardly rising, then exhale through the mouth and watch the stomach deflate. Repeat diaphragmatic breathing several times for relaxation, increased oxygen, breath support and exhalation of carbon dioxide. Now do it again, only this time speak on the exhale, which will increase your vocal support and get rid of vocal fry.
An additional Kardashian vocal affect was recently parodied in the ‘Kourtney’s Court’ SNL skit where Kim imitated her sister Kourtney’s disinterested monotone pattern of speaking. While funny for the skit, it is a good example of what not to do during a conversation. No one wants to talk to someone who seems bored or with no natural variations in speech.
A comfortable pace is important to be understood. Here in the Northeast New York Metropolitan area, we have the tendency to talk fast. We don’t even realize it. In one of my early VoiceOver workout groups, the feedback received was that I was speaking too fast. Well, members of the group were from California and I’m from NYC, so in New York, it was normal pace, but not in California. When you talk fast, it is very hard for the listener to take in all the information. Being nervous also increases your adrenaline, making your heart beat faster and can cause you to talk much faster than you normally would. Doing some relaxation or meditation exercises before your conversation can help ground you and slow your heart down helping you speak at a slower rate.
But don’t make the mistake of slowing down so much that you sound impossible to listen to. It’s one thing to be a thoughtful speaker another to be dull and monotonous.
Two other bad habits are mumbling and over articulation. If you mumble, no one can make out what you are trying to say and you will lose your audience. If you over-emphasize each word or consonant, to make a point you sound rigid and forced. It’s a good idea to record yourself having a conversation with another person. Ask their permission to record as in some states it’s illegal to record without permission. You can use a voice memo app that comes on your phone and listen back to your natural speech patterns. Are you mumbling, talking too fast, inflecting up? Would you want to have a conversation with yourself? Learning what to listen for, having self-awareness, will improve the quality of your conversations
How you sound depends on the size of your vocal cords. The smaller the cords, the higher your register. The thicker the cords, the deeper your voice. Men typically have thicker cords which is why their voices can sound deeper than many women. (Of course, they’re always exceptions.) Other things, discussed in previous blogs like alcohol use, caffeine, smoking, environmental issues can also affect your vocal quality.
Vocal placement is key for a rich, clear sound. There are several voice placements including head, nasal, throat, and chest voice. Head and nasal can sound like you have a cold. Many people talk through their nose, and that causes the nasality you often hear. Some people are throat speakers. They aren’t using enough air, the voice sounds weak and can trail off at the end of sentences. Diaphragmatic breathing, described above, can help with a round, more resonate voice. Speaking with a chest voice means the vibrations from the vocal cords are in the chest area. This can be useful for a war character in a video game but maybe not be ideal for a conversation.
Ideally, you want to use forward placement for a clear, vibrate sound. This means placing your voice forward towards the front of your mouth and teeth. You can do this with a smile, and just thinking voice forward. If you speak at the back or middle of the throat it’s harder to understand and it can sound muffled or hard to listen to. Also called the Kermit the frog voice and unless you’re playing a character, you want to avoid that sound as much as possible. Along with diaphragmatic breathing, using the voice forward technique will help create a strong, supported voice.
Ok, so we discussed technique .,.but what about content?
Why are you having the conversation in the first place? Effective presentations are meant to ‘Inspire, Educate or Entertain.’ But what about business conversations, where the goal is ultimately to sell a service or product? It’s the same idea as a commercial VoiceOver. Just by the very nature of watching a commercial, we know the goal is to sell something, even if you have to watch it 7 times to act upon it. Same for a business or sales conversation. Sure, we know the end goal is a potential sale, but no one, I don’t care how young or old they are, wants to be sold. Rather explain, share and educate the listener. Having the intention of helping and informing, rather than making the sale, provides a more organic experience and real conversation. Staying away from worrying about the outcome of the conversation will allow for a real human-to-human experience and take the pressure off both the speaker and the listener.
Learn to read the room, less is more. People’s attention spans are shorter than ever due to social media, cell phones, and so many choices for content. People will tune you out even if they are nodding their heads in agreement. Listen to the other person, rather than endless talking. Use active listening, which is paraphrasing back what’s been said, to develop understanding and commonality.
Body language is important and can be heard even if you are talking on the phone. Leaning in, softening your voice can create a more intimate or important moment. Using gestures as long as you’re not flailing your arms all over the place can make conversations sound more natural.
Smiling is good, but a frozen smile comes across as fake. You don’t have to smile the entire conversation, but you do have to be interested and engaged in the other person. Nothing is worse than a big plastered smile and dead eyes. People can hear a twinkle in your eye, so don’t be afraid to switch it up and smile with your eyes and give your lips a moment to rest.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re an extrovert, introvert, or somewhere in-between like most of us. People are looking for authentic, natural, organic conversations like they would have with a friend or neighbor. It’s why ‘conversational like you are talking to a friend’ is the most common direction in voiceover commercials. Take an interest in your listener, have empathy for their experience, and don’t hit them over the head with your pitch. Most importantly, be you, appreciate the opportunity for the conversation, worry less about the outcome and better business conversations will follow.
Nancy Kaszerman is a VoiceOver artist and lives in New York City.