Have you ever stopped to wonder what would happen if you lost the ability to speak — to make sound? It happened to a friend of mine recently and he found the whole experience quite frightening. He is a sales manager and hadn’t realised just how much he relied on a healthy functioning voice to get across his thoughts and ideas in the workplace.
Many of us depend on our voice to make a living. Yet it is one part of the body people know very little about. The voice makes up a substantial part of our self-image — the way we perceive ourselves in relation to the world around us.
This is an area I have specialised in for more than 30 years, helping people to communicate more easily and efficiently. In this post, I want to look at the practical aspects of dealing with voice. In a follow-up post, I will go on to look at emotional considerations.
As with my friend, occupational voice issues now affect record numbers of people. One quarter of the workforce experience problems with their voice. It has been estimated that the UK loses £200 million each year from occupational voice disorders*. For some people, these problems mean the end of their careers.
But what actually is the ‘voice’?
The physiology of voice
We make sound from the vibration of our ‘true’ vocal folds, fibro-elastic ligaments covered by mucous membrane. Women’s folds are approximately 17mm long and men’s 23mm.
The vocal folds are attached to the thyroid and cricoid cartilage (the Adam’s apple) at the front of the neck, and two moveable cartilages at the back called the arytenoids. They are also attached to the trachea and surrounding wall of the larynx by the laryngeal musculature.
When we breathe, our arytenoids move apart, opening the vocal folds like a pair of curtains. When we speak, they move together and close the vocal folds.
Sound is generated when the air pressure from the lungs pushes against the closed vocal folds. It causes them to open and shut very quickly, which creates an audible vibration of sound. It is similar to how we can make sound by stretching the mouthpiece of a fully blown balloon and allowing the air to escape slowly.
Pitch of your voice
Whether your voice sounds high or low depends on the length and tension of your vocal folds. They are controlled very precisely by the laryngeal musculature and the overall position of your Adam’s apple.
Place a finger gently on your Adam’s apple and try singing a siren sound. Start low note and sweep up to a higher note. You should notice that your Adam’s apple moves upwards, which creates more tension in the vocal folds.
Imagine plucking an elastic band. The greater the tension in the elastic band, the higher the sound. If you reduce the tension the sound gets lower.
Although sound is formed in the cavity of your neck — the vocal tract — words are formed in your mouth. The only exceptions are the sounds ‘m’, ’n’ and ‘ing’, which are formed in the nose.
The quality of the sound you make is often described as vocal resonance. It depends primarily on the position of your Adam’s apple, tongue, how wide you open your mouth, and the tension of the muscles in your face and neck.
However, every single tension and relaxation of muscle in your body can greatly affect the sound of your voice. For example, your voice will sound different when you are slumped over a desk, as opposed to sitting upright.
This is the important bit that most people are unaware of. The primary function of the vocal folds is not to make sound! Put your finger back on your Adam’s apple and swallow. Did you notice your Adam’s apple moving upwards in the same way it did when you made the siren sound?
Primarily, our vocal folds work with the vestibular folds that lie just above them. With the epiglottis, they close and create a seal to prevent anything getting into our lungs when we eat and drink. They also prevent air escaping from our lungs — an autonomous defence mechanism engaged when we are in a state of high anxiety.
So, this is it is hard for us to speak when we are frightened, nervous, anxious, angry or stressed. Our vocal folds are trying to work in two completely opposing ways.
Basic health tips for the voice
Do vocal warm ups before using your voice
The best way to warm up your voice is to sing. Singing uses the voice in a very precise and sustained way. You don’t need to be able to sing well to get the benefit, neither do you have to sing in tune. Five minutes of humming to your favourite song or inventing your own tune will prepare your voice for the day.
Drink plenty of water and avoid drinks containing caffeine
If your throat feels dry, it almost certainly means your vocal folds are dry. This makes it more difficult to speak. Your voice will be more prone to strain and damage. When you speak, you release moisture with your breath, so if you are speaking for a long time, you dehydrate. It is important to rehydrate by drinking plenty of still water, at least 2–3 litres a day.
Breathe through the nose
Many people start to breathe through the mouth when they are talking. The most natural way to breathe is through the nose — it moistens and warms the air. Hairs inside our nostrils trap pollutants, such as dust particles and most germs. Air that we exhale through our nose absorbs moisture. Most people find breathing this way relaxing.
Avoid eating foods that encourage mucous
Too much mucus in your throat makes the voice sound indistinct. You will end up trying to clear your throat by coughing, which can damage your voice. It is important not to clear your throat unnecessarily.
In some situation, people feel that they need to shout to make themselves heard. Most people need to raise the pitch of their voice to achieve the necessary muscle tension required to increase the volume. Generally, they place too much strain on their neck muscles and there is very little support from the rest of the body.
Finally, avoid whispering if you have a sore throat or laryngitis. Use your voice as normally as possible.
Share your thoughts
As always I am interested in hearing about other people’s experience, so do get in touch. You can also find out more about Perform Green’s approach to learning and organisational development in the workplace.
Read more on walking in The Feldenkrais Method for Executive Coaches, Managers, and Business Leaders, a book I co-wrote with Garet Newell.
* E. Vilkman. Voice problems at work: A challenge for occupational health and safety arrangement: Folio Phoniatrica et Logopaedica. 52: 120–125
Paul has written a number of articles about health and wellbeing in the workplace for Perform Green, including the following.