• Public speaking is something many of us struggle with, hypersensitive to any perceived shakes in our voice or tension in our body

  • Caroline Goyder, expert speaker and trainer, shares her main tips for mastering your voice

  • Performance anxiety is often rooted in a lack of confidence – this is something counsellors and therapists can help you with. Find yours here

Confidence comes from the Latin word confidere – meaning to trust. But how can you trust yourself when your words fail you just at the moment you need them most? How can you trust yourself if your voice is shaking? Or if you go blank in the spotlight of an audience’s attention? How can you trust yourself if you can’t trust your own voice?

Voice is the canary in the mine of the nervous system. The shakes, squeaks and tremors are a sign to the outside world of the nerves inside you. You notice nerves quickly in your own voice, and in the voices of others too. Pressure can affect our voices differently – and it’s a lot to do with adrenalin. The clue is in the body’s response to a perceived threat – fight or flight. Some people speak very quickly when they get nervous. This is the flight response: ‘Run away!’ says your nervous system, ‘faster!!’ Some are suddenly too loud: ‘FIGHT!’ says your nervous system. Some go totally blank and the words simply won’t come. This is "freeze" immobilisation; your nervous system telling you to 'shh' and hide. 

All of these reactions are deeply unhelpful for your conference speech or your big meeting of course. It’s no wonder that these responses make us feel like we are bad, unconfident speakers. But it doesn’t need to be like this. Armed with your understanding of your instrument and a grasp of what to do when the shakes happen you can begin to take control of these pesky stress responses when you speak.

There’s no such thing as a born speaker

If your voice has let you down in the past, you dread the shakes and the squeaks that you emit under pressure. Confidence is learned, not innate. There’s no such thing as a ‘born’ speaker. It’s what you do, day in, day out, that makes you confident, not who you are. For 30 years of my life I wasn’t a confident speaker. I rushed, ummed and worried. But steadily, using the skills I’m going to show you, I found that my confidence as a speaker grew. I started to find a new normal which allowed me to feel calm and in control in the spotlight. When you handle these moments well, doors open. Showing up with boldness and courage in situations that used to scare you allows you to step up. You stand out. People listen. Critical connections are made. Word gets around.

If you want to overcome the voice shakes and squeaks, you need to do two things. You need to understand the instrument – if you know how it works, you can use it with conscious control, and you need to know how to breathe when fear hits. Essentially your voice works a bit like a guitar – it has strings; the hitter which vibrates the strings; and the body resonates the sound. The instrument of your voice is similar: it has a string – your vocal folds; there is a hitter – the air that comes out of your lungs, supported by the muscles of the body; there is a resonator – your body. The air flows out of the lungs, hits the strings of the vocal folds, which vibrate, then the body resonates the sound and the speech muscles shape it.

Breath and voice are the master key to your calm

Voice is breath – exhaled air. Your pauses are a chance to take an in-breath. When you reflect on this you may realise that rather being a big stressor to your system, speaking to an audience can also calm your nervous system. In his book The Feeling of What Happens, the consciousness scientist Antonio Damasio explains that though ‘we are about as effective at stopping an emotion as we are at preventing a sneeze’, there is one area of our nervous system we can control: ‘One partial exception to the extremely limited control we have … concerns respiratory control, over which we need to exert some voluntary action, because autonomic respiration and voluntary vocalisation for speech and singing use the same instrument.’ It all goes back to how the larynx evolved to allow us to speak. The vocal folds were originally the guard house for the lungs – to stop food going down the wrong way. Because speaking is conscious, unlike breathing which is unconscious, we had to gain a degree of conscious control over our nervous system.

When you get your head around it, this is big. Most people dread speaking because they don’t have much awareness of what is happening and it all feels rather out of control. But when you have the awareness and skills that we are building in this book, you not only develop control of the voice but, as Damasio suggests, you also develop a modicum of control over the nervous system. Speaking requires conscious control. And speaking requires breath. So speaking is one of the few ways you can consciously control your system. Rather than stressing you out, when you know how to speak with control it can actually calm you down. You simply have to understand how to connect breath and speech.

Talk to old friends

Finding calm and confidence when you speak rather thank shakes and squeaks, is actually fundamentally simple. The quality of your in-breath is key for the calm of your voice, and also the richness of your voice. The answer is in the difference between how we pause for breath when we chat to friends and how we tend to rush and gasp the breath in the foe system. We don’t gasp for breath in conversations with our dearest friends. We breathe in a relaxed way – low and wide, diaphragmatic. We breathe in our own time, we don’t rush, we don’t run out of breath. If we master this breathing under pressure, the voice will fall into place.

And the best place to start on finding the calm and confidence of your voice is by cutting out this “gasp” the noisy chest breath you hear in nervous speakersGasping the breath in audibly via the chest and shoulders takes you straight to foe because it’s what we do when we have to panic or run away. It’s effortful and it stresses out your system instantly. Though I want you to avoid the gasp when you speak, it’s useful first to identify how it feels so you know what not to do. I want you to do this now: pull in a breath by lifting up your shoulders and chest and gasping it into your mouth. Notice it has an effect on how you feel – you might start to feel more stressed, your thoughts may be speedier. Why? The body knows this as panic breathing and starts to create panic thinking. This leads quickly into fast panic speaking. The key to the gasp is that you pull air in quickly through the mouth when you speak. So logically the simplest way to cut the gasp is to close your mouth while this happens. When you do this it becomes easier to take a relaxed breath under pressure. Take a lovely, expansive, all-the-time-in-the-world breath, rather than the rushed ‘tinned breath’ (as John Betjeman called it) that we do when we feel tense.  Here’s how:

  • First, if you’re not sure whether you gasp or not, record yourself when you are speaking – on film or just use the voice recording function on your phone. Can you hear a gasp? If you film yourself, you will see your shoulders and chest move as you breathe in, as well as hearing the gasp.
  • To find a more relaxed in breath, learn from the technique that actors learn for “smelling a rose” – it’s a lovely way to find an expansive easy in-breath that will calm the system, and give your voice a relaxed quality. Think of walking around a summer garden and letting the smell of roses arrive in your nostrils. Notice how you breathe in that lovely smell: wide, expansive and easy. It opens up your sinuses, your body and your breath without effort. That ease and expansiveness is what we want here. Close your mouth and silently, imperceptibly – no sniffing please – imagine smelling the roses. Feel the air arriving in its own time, there’s no gasp to pull it in.
  • Now, so that we can connect this relaxed breath into voice, let’s imagine giving someone you care about a compliment. As you think of the compliment, imagine taking in the relaxed smelling-a-rose breath. It can come in through just the nose, or the nose and mouth.
  • Then say the compliment on the out-breath. Your voice will have a relaxed quality. How you breathe is how you speak. Just as a tense breath leads to tense voice, you are discovering that a relaxed breath leads to relaxed voice. You may notice that after this exercise your voice feels looser, freer, more relaxed. It’s the voice you have when you are with people who make you feel safe. This ease is where your confidence resides.

And to find this quality of breath in daily life it can help to imagine the feeling of talking to old friends when you meet strangers or people who you are daunted by. This is a quick way into this calm centred breath. If you feel your voice start to shake or squeak, just knowing that you can come back to calm on every single pause is a lovely place of safety under pressure. No matter how high the stake, you are only a moment away from calm. All you have to do is close your mouth and smell that lovely rose!

Caroline Goyder is an expert speaker and trainer with senior management within organisations as well as private individuals. Her new book is Find Your Voice: The Secret to Talking with Confidence in Any Situation:

Further reading

On confidence and overcoming failure

How to carry yourself with confidence

Why emotions set high performers apart

Banish your inner critic and find your confidence

How to keep on top when the pressure is on