With all the preparation that goes into a presentation - the content, the slides, the technical equipment - there's one very important tool that speakers often forget to take care of.
Now, I'm not an expert in the human vocal system, but I've picked up some simple tips over time.
You've practised your presentation before you give it, so you know which parts to emphasise, where to speak slowly, etc. If you haven't said much all morning though, e.g. because you were listening to the speakers before you, your voice will need some warming up.
Humming is a technique (one of many) that actors use. Try actual, loud humming and feel how that resonates in your body. For increased effect, put your hands on a wall and push while you're doing it (as if you - gently - wanted to push the wall out of the way).
Also, try speaking to members of your audience before you start. I recommend this mainly so that you can connect with them and get a better idea of who they are and why they're here. But it also serves the purpose of warming up your voice. It's better to emit a few croaking noises (if your voice hasn't quite warmed up yet) in front of a few people in private than doing that up on stage.
The voice isn't the only part of your speech system that needs preparation. Speaking on a stage is different from speaking to another person, face to face. Up on the stage, you need to project your voice to a larger audience (and that's independent from whether or not you're using a microphone). In addition to your vocal cords, this also requires some support from your mouth and tongue.
So before you go up on stage, stretch your mouth and tongue. A rather silly-looking exercise that helps here is to speak with your tongue sticking out. Not only will this exercise the muscles you need to speak, it will also force you to try and speak clearly - as far as that is possible when your tongue's in the way. You will find that it makes speaking normally easier afterwards.
All these exercises have one thing in common: They make you look silly while you're doing them. So this is probably not something you want to do in plain sight (especially not where your audience can see you!). Finding a quiet spot before your presentation can be difficult, though. If you're lucky, you'll have a wardrobe or at least a quiet "speaker area" where you can prepare; but those are the exception. Otherwise, try and find a spot outside (beware of people in upper floors, though). If all else fails, try to incorporate the exercises into your bathroom break.
When you think about your presentation, you may think of your content or your slides. But those aren't worth anything if your voice isn't up to the task. So don't forget to prepare this often overlooked part of your presentation, too.
(Photo: Beautiful smile, iStockphoto file #20730459)
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