How You Sound Matters as Much as What You Say: 4 Voice Tips for #PR Pros

A Guest Post by Jessica McClanahan, Graduate Student, American University, PR Expanded Blog Contest Winner

Jessica McClanahanWhether it’s a podcast, presentation, press conference, event, radio or television interview; vocal abilities matter in PR – though not many of us were born with a sonorous NPR-ready sound.

Even if you can’t change your voice, you can always improve your technique. You can also ensure your audio tools don’t just amplify your voice but also work to amplify your image.

#1 – Take the right breath 

Think about that old plastic recorder you played in elementary school music class. Much like that recorder, your voice is a wind instrument that needs air to pass through it to make a sound. The more stable the air, the better the sound.

When we get nervous, even just a little bit, we tend to do a funny thing – we hold our breath. We also do it when we are reading or thinking about something we want to say. Really! Try it now, think of something you know by heart and review it in your mind as if you are about to speak it, notice what happens.

When we recite things in our heads – like prepared talking points – our vocal folds are going through the motions of speech and our breathing can become very shallow. All this is to say, take a few deep and slow breaths before you start to talk.

If you skip this crucial step you might find that your voice cracks, sounds shaky and less than confident, or that it comes out sounding different (usually higher) than you expected.

Take that deep breath to make the air steady and also to relax the muscles that coordinate your speech. Some deep breathing will also have the added benefit of helping to calm any butterflies.

#2 – Stay on Top of It

Over the past few years there has been much discussion over the phenomenon of vocal fry. If you haven’t heard of it that doesn’t mean you haven’t heard it. Vocal fry is the name for the type of phonation (vocal sound) that you’ll hear often at the end of a sentence as the voice drops lower in pitch – it sounds a bit like a creaky door – listen here.

For many people it has a fingernails on a chalkboard effect and should be avoided in excess. Vocal fry happens when air stops moving but the vocal folds keep pulsing. Women seem to catch a lot of flak for speaking in fry, but I’m here to tell you, vocal fry is an equal opportunity annoyance. It’s just a physically lazy way to talk.

People who do it don’t often know why or even that they do it. Ask a friend or record yourself if you’re not sure if you are guilty of this vocal habit. If you keep air moving as you talk (called talking on the breath) you are much less likely to fall into a speech pattern that might offend your listeners’ ears.

Steady regular breathing will also help to keep you from speaking too fast, a common mistake. If you have vocal health concerns such as frequent hoarseness or loss of voice, don’t hesitate to seek professional medical help from a certified Speech Language Pathologist.

#3 – Don’t Drop the Mic

By this I mean, don’t forgo the available microphone. Unless the microphone is in poor working order, use the microphone.

We have all been to the presentation where the speaker strides up to the front and assures the audience that they don’t need a microphone. What this person has demonstrated is not confidence, but rather, insecurity with the technology. You have no way to know the ability of each person in your audience to hear, so just assume that amplification is going to help you get your message out more clearly.

For some reason we are all expected inherently to know how to use a microphone, but most people don’t get formal training. If we do get a lesson, it is on one type of microphone and when we encounter another it’s totally different. There is a reason for that – different mics are different.

Microphones have something called a polar pattern which determine its range and directionality. Check out to geek out on polar patterns. This is one of the reasons you want to do a mic check prior to go-time.  What you need to find out from a mic check is how close your mouth should be to the head of the microphone so that you can speak conversationally and what angle is best. It’s also important during a mic check to learn where the power and standby buttons are so you can turn it on or mute it.

If you are using a professional AV company (spoiler alert – you should) the audio engineer will be able to accommodate your mic preferences. If your CEO likes to wander the stage and gesticulate when she speaks, make sure she gets a lavalier mic for her collar. If you are at a podium and have notes to look at, make sure your mic is sensitive enough so that you can stand back with a clear line of sight to them.

Other rules of the road for good mic etiquette: don’t put your mouth on the mic, don’t put a mic near a speaker, don’t yell into a mic, don’t tap on or blow into the mic to see if it’s on, one more thing…please don’t EVER really drop a mic, they are fragile!

#4 – Hire a Specialist

Do yourself a favor and protect your image like you would a client’s. Even if your event is on the small side, hiring a good audiovisual company is worth it. The hotel ballroom or convention center might have a house system, but if they don’t have a house engineer it’s not worth the risk.

Just as every mic is different, every audio system is different. Even though Joe from marketing has a band and knows how to run his own soundboard, that doesn’t mean he’ll be able to run the PA at your event or presentation.  Added bonuses to a pro AV team include – your visual presentation will run smoothly, they can add lighting effects to the room, and they are likely to think of the details like extra mic batteries and ambient music during breaks in the action.

If you want to hang out your shingle as a podcaster, bring in an AV pro to consult on the right gear and how to use it. You may have incredible content, but if your sound quality is irritating you’ll soon find your listeners clicking unsubscribe.

Flawless audio in a presentation, event or podcast, demonstrates your keen attention to detail and will only help to cement your reputation as a consummate PR professional.

Submit your voice & audio questions -or- comment on your presentation pet peeves in the comments section below.

Jessica McClanahan has twenty years of experience as a voice professional, including 11 years representing the US Navy’s music program as an active duty vocalist and vocal instructor.  She has traveled extensively throughout the Asian Pacific, Australia and the U.S. performing and making presentations on behalf of the U.S. Navy. She is currently a graduate student at American University where she studies Strategic Communication. Jessica earned her bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana.