Beautiful is not an adjective one would immediately associate with Boris Johnson, but the Financial Times decided recently that this was an apt description for the voice of the former Prime Minister.
The same journalist continued that Mr Johnson’s voice is “deep and textured, raspy without crossing into sibilance”. While a columnist in a rival paper drew the conclusion that the comment was code for ‘posh’, looking at his public speaking fees since leaving Number 10, he must be saying something the right way.
It is essential that any voice you speak with is an authentic voice, and while some people are able to gain this through training (think Margaret Thatcher) others struggle to make that training seem natural (see Liz Truss).
Nevertheless, the best speaking voices have something else that draws you in. The adjective mellifluous comes from a meeting of the Latin words for ‘honey’ and ‘flow’ and is defined as having a ‘smooth rich flow’.
The word perfectly describes the kind of voice you want to have serenading you through 300 pages of an audiobook. It is also the kind of voice which has been the making of many well-known celebrities – think the creamy richness of James Earl Jones, the voice of calm, reason and Darth Vadar!
It is said that George Lucas gave him strict instructions to keep his voice on a very narrow band of inflection in order to reflect the mostly machine nature of the villain. Delivered in the vocal chords of a mere mortal orator, it could have sounded rather flat. From James Earl’s lips however (with the overlay of heavy breathing admittedly), the delivery became iconic.
Netflix’s Behind the Streams series pronounces Morgan Freeman’s voice as ‘the most calming of all time’. So full of confidence and trust, if Morgan was selling a second-hand car, I would probably not be the only one who would willingly pay the asking price!
It seems rather quaint, and certainly discriminatory, to think that there was a time when getting on in life in the UK involved eradicating any trace of the accent of your origins. Speaking in the clipped tones of an inflection known as Received Pronunciation, saw many an aspirational character endlessly repeating elocution exercises such as ‘the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.’
Now, thankfully, there is less, if any, need to conceal an accent, as illustrated by the successful voice over careers of performers such as Yorkshire born Ralph Ineson and Lancashire’s Kelly Condon. Nevertheless, many still do like the assurance of a rich voice, as vocalised by Downton Abbey’s Penelope Wilton and national treasures Stephen Fry and Olivia Coleman.
The above are all worth listening to, because of their unique ability to invoke using just their voice alone.
So how to improve one’s speaking voice? Beyond the simple vibration of vocal chords to produce sound, a captivating oration involves optimising the mechanical process of speaking. It is tempting to focus on ‘what comes out of the mouth’, but the formula for success is a combination of:
- Breath: The best speakers breathe from the diaphragm rather than the chest and throat. The easiest way to condition oneself to breathe from deep is to hold a hand on the belly and feel it swell on the inhale and flatten on the exhale.
- Larynx: Strong larynx muscles combined with good breath control allows the speaker to control tempo and pitch.
- Articulators: Lips, tongue, teeth – the components of the mouth all contribute to how we enunciate words. The antithesis of good enunciation is muffling your words in a mumble.
Those who can speak and command attention are the titans of the public speaking scene. Some people naturally have a good speaking voice, but optimising one’s vocal output is more often the result of nurture rather than nature and anyone can do it.
Remember James Earl? He had such a bad stutter that he barely spoke for a long period of childhood. What changed? A teacher that believed in him and gave him confidence to read out loud and then he employed that same universally accessible device used to master most skills… practice. Your journey to a more beautiful voice could start now.