At a round table discussion after a documentary screening, Lexington, Kentucky’s former Mayor Pam Miller gave advice to women interested in going into politics at any level to develop an effective speaking voice.  Miller was Lexington’s first female mayor and had decades of experience in high level leadership roles, so the fact that this was a point of emphasis for her stuck with me.

As it turns out, the topic is diverse and involved, and there is no one quick fix for any vocal flaw.  However, I did find more insight into why Mayor Miller may have recommended directly practicing voice skills.

  • Research shows that within seconds of opening your mouth, your listeners have discerned whether you’re credible and trustworthy.
  • Based on your voice alone, they’ve decided whether or not they will listen to you.
  • There are multiple characteristics that distinguish pleasant from unpleasant voices and tendencies in speaking manner and voice that indicate dishonesty or honesty.
  • Even differences in speed of speech indicate to yourself and others that you are confident.
  • Vocal coaches teach speakers to thoughtfully use the intricacies 5 tools: tone, diction, volume, pace, and emphasis in order to maximize voice potential.

The voice is what brings your message to life. Remember, the words are everything and they are nothing. It’s how you bring them to life that matters. It’s how we bring them to life that changes people, that connects with people.

-Tracy Goodwin, Capturing the Room vocal coach

So, there are experts, books, videos, and papers galore that we can go to for insight, but one interesting focal point can give us a first stepping stone into the vast waters. The vocal chords are controlled by the vagal nerve.  This nerve is remarkable in its scope of practice, connected to head movement, heart and lung coordination of speed, digestive organs, inflammation response, immunity, and oxytocin networks.  Today, we are interested in a few facets of vagal nerve activity and what it may mean for our ability to develop our speaking voice.

  1. The first is its connection to vocal chords. Vagal nerves are connected to the muscles that surround your vocal chords and give our voice its tone.  Tone is one tool that helps us empathize with and relate to whoever we are speaking to.
  2. Also, vagal nerves are connected to neck muscles which control head movement. Head nods and gaze of eyes are motions that the vagal nerves control and that help us connect with our audience.
  3. Vagal nerves are connected to release of oxytocin, the hormone that famously promotes feelings of generosity, connection, and love.  Oxytocin release is contagious among others near you.
  4. Finally, vagal nerves are connected to breathing rhythms and heart rate, which are particularly relevant to vocalization abilities.

Breathing effectively is frequently mentioned by vocal coaches.  It helps in being able to have a consistent, solid sound and in limiting high pitch.  It can help with the pace of your speech as well. So, potentially, developing your vagal nerve could clearly help with 3 of the 5 tools in the vocal coach’s toolbox: tone, volume, and pace.  Emphasis is more tacitly tied, but it doesn’t take a leap to see how breath control, and thereby the vagal nerve, may help with that as well.

So training breathing, and specifically the vagal nerve, could be a solid rock to build vocal training on.  Here’s a little introductory guide to get you going.

  1. To activate the vagal nerves, breathe in for a count of 3 and out for a count of 6.
  2. To train the vagal nerves and tone the vagal muscles of the neck, practice this deep breathing by focusing on your breath entering and leaving your body.
  3. Yoga, meditation, and other mindfulness practices which include a deep inhale with a slower, longer exhale are ways to practice deep breathing in a variety environments.
  4. Practice using the same practiced breathing techniques in everyday life.
  5. Indirectly affecting breathing through developing vagal tone is increasing everyday compassion and self-control. Compassionate people and more controlled people have more vagal tone.

One more thing about activating the vagal nerve: As you gain the ability to use and activate the vagal nerve, you will be increasing your capacity for insight and kindness, as it is connected to the areas of the brain and the hormones that promote compassion and generosity. So while your vocal chords are gaining reliable strength from the muscles and nerves around them, you may also be influencing the capacity for insight that your message carries and the ability to connect with your audience.

One actor/coach gives some really helpful visual tips for breathing and other fun insights into how to apply breathing techniques to speaking here: All in all, the message all the science and experts give us is that voice is an important skill to harness.  With a little bit of directed practice we can make some meaningful changes that can start us off on our journey toward effective speaking.