Monday, October 3, 2011

I Hate the Way I Sound on Radio: Practical Tips for Politicians, Entrepreneurs & Sportspeople

If you are a rising politician, the founder of a interesting startup or a successful athlete sooner or later you will be hearing your own voice on the radio. Most likely you are not going to like the result, especially at the beginning. All the time I hear people say "I don't like the way I sound", "I hate the way I sound" or "do I really sound like that?". It's not just beginners, too. Not so long ago even Biz Stone, billionaire founder of Twitter was tweeting  "Listening to myself on Weekend Edition with NPR's Scott Simon. Do I really sound like that?".

So what, if anything, can you do about it? Here are some practical ways you can deal with this problem.

1. GET USED TO THE SOUND OF YOUR VOICE. You've been listening to yourself in a way since you learned to talk, but when you hear yourself naturally you don't hear the same sound other people hear. This is partly mechanical; you hear yourself partially through your bones and the outer ears affect the way your voice goes from your mouth to the ear so the sound really is different; at the same time there is a muscle reflex that switches your ears to a less sensitive mode when you speak, changing the quality*. It is also partly neurological because your perception of sounds is altered by subconscious brain functions that filter out some sounds like accents or fillers. This is actually a feature since it is the way your mind allows you to focus on things that matter. This effect is very easy to deal with: you just have to listen to recordings of your own voice until you get used to it. Maybe the first time it sounds odd but after ten listens it will already sound much more like you, even though nothing has actually changed.

2. PRACTICE SPEAKING TO A MICROPHONE.  Once you have become used to the natural sound of your voice the next problem is that you are maybe uncomfortable about the fillers -- um, ah. eh and so on -- that you use without realizing it. You may also make distracting noises like clicks and pops that you never noticed before. This is perfectly normal, too. If the presenters and actors you see on TV never make these sounds it is because they are trained performers and have practiced away all these issues. You can do the same. Just imagine that you are being interviewed, record some answers and listen for things that you find annoying. If you are really serious about becoming a great speaker you should consider buying a handheld digital sound recorder like the Zoom H1 Handy Recorder. These are high quality portable sound recorders like the ones used by professional journalists and should not be confused with the cheap message dictation recorders that are virtually useless except as memory aides. If you have zero budget right now you could also practice with your computer and sound recording/editing software like Audacity, which you can get free from the Audacity download page.

3. AVOID TRYING TO DO FUNNY VOICES. Maybe when you are with friends they all laugh when you do your Vladimir Putin imitation, but when you are being interviewed on radio it is safest to stick to your normal voice, all the time.  When professional comedians do funny voices they are building on years of practice and when someone like Ricky Gervais is talking in a comedy club everyone is expecting that they will suddenly switch to a ridiculous voice. When anyone else tries it they may still laugh -- but this time they are laughing at you -- but most likely they will just be puzzled and think you are an idiot. This is partly because you just haven't practiced enough -- standup comedy is very hard -- and partly because of the context. For the same reason you should also learn to avoid irony and sarcasm because there is a risk that your words will be interpreted literally.

4. BE CAREFUL IN LOUD ENVIRONMENTS. There is a natural tendency to speak more loudly in an environment where the background noise is very loud, maybe even to the point where you are shouting. This can easily happen at a political meeting or a stadium. This works when you are trying to order a drink in a very loud club but can be a problem when there is a journalist with a microphone in front of you. First of all, if the background is loud they will put the microphone close to your mouth so that you don't need to raise your voice to shouting level. Also they are almost certainly using a directional microphone that picks up only the sound in front, so all the yelling in the background is much quieter on the recording than you perceive it. If you are still shouting hoarsely it will sound like you are shouting in a quiet room and sound strange. Just talk at a normal level without stressing your voice.

5. CONSIDER VOICE TRAINING.  Finally, if you think that your voice is too scratchy or squeaky then you should consider voice training. Most people believe that some people are born with radio voices and some people are born sounding like Donald Duck, but the reality is that this is trainable: anyone can improve the sound of their voice by learning some basic techniques. Singers, actors and radio/TV presenters all master these techniques and you can, too. If you live in a very small village in Antartica where there are no voice coaches check out the singing teachers because they can also do this kind of coaching.

Once you have mastered the art of speaking into a microphone and feel comfortable about the sound of your voice you will be much less stressed in interviews and then you can focus more on what you are saying, but that's another story and I will come back to that later.

And to answer your question, Biz, yes, you probably do sound like that but you don't need to worry because that's the way everyone has always heard you and it didn't get in the way of your career.

* For much more detail about why people don't like their voice a great resource is the Quora answer Why do so many people hate the sound of their own voice when a recording of it is played back to them

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So You Hate the Way You Look Sound in Video? Here's What You Can Do About it
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