The first time Pages Matam heard spoken-word poetry, he knew it was what he wanted to do with his life. He was in 9th grade at an assembly for Black History Month, and the performance by a traveling poetry club transfixed him from the moment it began. “Poetry saved my life,” he says. “I’m so grateful for that day.”
In the years since, Pages has become a two-time National Poetry Slam champion, and his first book, The Heart of a Comet, was named a 2014 Best New Book by Beltway Poetry Quarterly. But his early forays into the art form weren’t immediately successful. “I used to yell everything when I started out,” Pages recalls. “When you’re young and passionate and just want to tell a story, it can get loud. I thought that for me to make my message more profound, I had to yell it out, which is not true at all.” Pages credits his passion for the art form as the greatest contributor to his success as a storyteller. But he also has practical advice for speaking clearly and capturing emotion with your voice. These public speaking tips won’t only ensure a clean, crisp recording, but also help you speak confidently whether you’re presenting in a meeting or delivering a speech to a crowd.
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- Practice enunciation. Pages has trained his mouth like an athlete trains his body and just like anything, speaking clearly takes practice that many people take for granted. Especially if you’re recording, it’s important to exaggerate the shape of your mouth. It might feel funny but it’ll force you to slow down and help your audience understand you. When first starting out, Pages would practice saying his speeches and spoken word poems with the bottom of a pen in his mouth. “It helps you learn to shape your mouth the right way and forces you to over-enunciate.” Just like running longer distance during training makes the shorter race feel easier, stressing your mouth in practice will make the performance easier.
- Practice diaphragmatic breathing. Because it’s an involuntary activity, many people never think about breathing. But spoken word poets, proficient public speakers, and yogis know how powerful breath can be. Vocal coaches regularly instruct their clients to practice breathing with their stomachs. One such exercise is to lie on the floor and breathe in a way that fills up your belly, paying attention to the rise and fall of your breath. Lay a book across your stomach to give your diaphragm, the curved muscle at the base of your ribs that allows oxygen to flow to the lungs, a little workout. When you stand up and breathe normally, your breath will likely feel fuller and stronger. You can also work out your diaphragm muscle with a yoga breath method that involves rapid, sharp exhales and passive inhales. To do it, take a deep breath through your nose and exhale completely. Then fill up your lungs about half way, breathe out through your nose in a short, sharp breaths while you snap your belly button to your spine. The practice will generate heat and warm up your core, making it a great exercise before public speaking or recording a voice-over. Diaphragmatic breathing doesn’t just produce a better sound, it also has a calming effect because it slows down your heart rate and reduces nerves and stress.
- Consider pacing, sound, and intonation to better tell your story. Once Pages has his spoken word poem written, he then identifies places within his story that he can add an extra emotional component through performance. “If I’m doing a heartfelt poem about my grandmother’s hands, I shouldn’t be yelling,” he says. “My voice should be as heartfelt as my grandmother, because that’s the spirit I want to evoke.” He anticipates the emotional reaction he would like to inspire in the audience, and prepares the performance accordingly by slowing down in places, giving certain words extra space for emphasis, and altering his tone or volume. Consider highlighting important words in your material and practicing delivering them in different ways. How can your voice emphasize the meaning behind the words? Which parts do you want people to remember? What’s the most important phrase or word? Take time to think about these questions and practice different delivery methods—it’ll make all the difference when it comes time to perform it. Spark Video Pro-Tip: You can emphasize important words or phrases in Spark Video by setting them apart with their own slide. Consider taking important words in your material and matching them to imagery or icons to help your audience remember your most crucial take-aways.
- Project from your diaphragm. Most people don’t fully engage their diaphragm. Rather, they rely too much on their throats, which not only strains your voice over time, but produces a weaker sound, instead of the round, full sound spoken word poets are known for. To engage the full support of your breath, inhale, allowing your stomach to expand with breath, and speak during exhale. The result will be a fuller, projected sound that won’t strain your vocal chords.
- Stand up straight. It’s obvious, but your mom was right (always). Standing up straight while speaking is essential to getting the sound out. It’s especially important to elongate the spine in your neck so as not to constrict the breath in your throat. Lift your chin slightly and imagine a string is pulling the top of you head up. Plus when you stand up straight and assume a strong, confident stance, your audience will be able to hear it in your voice.
- Slow down. Your mom probably told you to do this too. It’s harder to slow down than it is to speed up—especially when you’re performing and adrenaline kicks in. Practice slowing down your speech to an uncomfortable, unnatural level so that you can play with pacing in your performance. Emphasize important moments and change up pacing in order to help keep your audience captivated.
- Create a warm up routine. Pages likes to drink Gatorade to hydrate and avoids food before shows, but every performer has a different trick or routine to get themselves in the zone. Vocal coaches consistently suggest staying hydrated and soothing the throat with warm tea, lemon, and honey. Warming up the mouth and vocal chords is also a a good idea. Try humming your favorite tune to warm up vocal chords, massaging the muscles on the sides of your jaw to release tension, or rolling your tongue and blowing air through relaxed lips to warm up the mouth.
- Give the microphone room. Pages advises keeping the microphone about three inches away from your mouth to produce the best sound. “You don’t want to blow out the microphone or damage the quality of your sound. When you know you’re going to get louder, step back from the microphone.”
- Know that NO ONE likes the sound of their own voice. It’s science! When we hear ourselves speak in real time, we pick up on the internal vibrations, as well as the external sounds. You’re actually accustomed to hearing a slightly altered sound. But when we hear our voices in a recording, it sounds foreign because we’re not picking up the internal vibrations. Our disdain for our recorded voice isn’t so much because it’s bad, it’s because we rarely hear it and therefore find it unfamiliar. Trust us, only you hate the sound of your voice. No one else is cringing.
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