About 10% of the workers in the U.S. are “heavy occupational voice users,” according to the Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research — and some are safety professionals. (Ever given a presentation in an active production setting? What about an outdoor toolbox talk with a large crew?)
Unfortunately, people in this group are “at higher risk for occupation-related voice disorders than the general population.”
Symptoms of a voice disorder include hoarse or raspy voice; a suddenly deeper voice; a raw, achy, or strained voice; difficulty speaking; and repeated throat clearings, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Any of these symptoms could progressively get worse, leading to laryngitis or vocal cord paralysis.
It's important to maintain your own health while you’re working to protect others. These tips from stage performers and vocal professionals can help.
1. Take Good Care of Yourself
A lot of the same advice for taking good care of your body applies to taking good care of your vocal cords. Here’s what the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders recommends:
- Get plenty of rest.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Include whole grains, fruits and vegetables in your diet. These foods contain vitamins A, E, and C and help keep the mucus membranes that line the throat healthy.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise increases stamina and muscle tone. This helps provide good posture and breathing, which are necessary for proper speaking.
- Wash hands frequently to avoid infection.
- Don’t smoke and avoid second-hand smoke.
- Avoid or minimize caffeine and alcohol.
Opera singer Jennifer Wilson must keep her voice in good condition: She often sings without a microphone over a full orchestra. So Wilson hydrates, avoids caffeinated beverages, uses a humidifier at home and takes 200-400 milligrams of coenzyme Q10 to keep her immune system healthy, she tells NPR.
2. Hydration Is Key to Mucus Production
Hydration is so important to healthy vocal cords, it’s worth reinforcing. Here’s why: When you’re properly hydrated, your body produces a thin, watery mucus. Your vocal cords vibrate more than 100 times a second when you speak, and they need that mucus to help them stay lubricated, says Lesley Childs, M.D., associate professor of Laryngology, Neurolaryngology and Professional Voice at UT Southwestern’s Clinical Center for Voice Care.
If you want to take it an extra step, Amy Lee, lead singer of the rock band Evanescence, tells Reverb her “secret weapon” is called Ponaris, a nasal emollient that was used in NASA’s medical kit for astronauts. “It coats your nose and throat and stops you from waking up with that dying of thirst, craggy, dry throat in the morning,” she says.
3. Warm Up Your Vocal Cords the Right Way
Just as runners warm up by stretching and walking, you should warm up your vocal cords before speaking engagements. Jackie Gartner-Schmidt, a speech-language pathologist and University of Pittsburgh professor, does plenty of speeches herself, including a TED Talk on public speaking.
To relax the vocal cords before speaking, she has an easy exercise. Basically, pretend to be a ghost:
- Hold up your index finger a few inches in front of your mouth.
- As you exhale steadily, make a wooooooo noise for 5 to 10 seconds.
- Do this five to 10 times.
This “establishes breath and airflow and voice stability, which are the cornerstones of any strong, clear voice,” she tells TED.
4. Retrain Your Speaking Voice
As the longtime vocal coach for singers like Brandy and Macy Gray, Roger Burnley has been featured on VH1, MTV, “The Voice,” “American Idol,” and “Saturday Night Live.” In an article for Backstage, he writes that the secret to a healthy voice is to “stop your swallowing muscles from coming down, engaging or interfering with your sound production while singing or speaking.”
To train yourself to avoid using your swallowing muscles, follow this three-step process.
- Locate your swallowing muscles by placing your thumb under your jaw in the center and then swallowing. You will feel those muscles push down, Burnley says. “When those muscles are working, they will block your air and cause you to push to attempt to create sound. This is what leads to hoarseness as well as exhaustion while singing or speaking,” he says.
- Determine how much you use those muscles while speaking by placing your thumb in the same position under the jaw and then reading something aloud.
- To retrain these muscles, place your thumbs under your jaw where those muscles are located, close your mouth and keep it closed as you attempt to read again. “You are somewhat becoming a ventriloquist,” he says. “This will not sound great as you are doing it, but do it over and over until you can speak all the words without those muscles coming down.”
After you have done this for a while, go back to speaking normally and you should notice more clarity and projection from your voice. Repeat until you have retrained your body, Burnley says.
5. Rest Your Voice
Resting your voice is just as important as resting your body. That means silence. Whispering could actually do more harm than good, Childs says.
Ronja Petersen, an expert in applied vocal technique, head of the Modern Music School vocal department and owner of Singgeek, also warns against talking in a low voice. When we try to show authority — for example, in a safety training environment — she says we tend to naturally drop our voices. But unfortunately, using a low voice could tire out your vocal cords more quickly.
Finally, don’t yell during conversations or presentations if you can help it, she says. In place of a microphone (which may not be permitted or available at your work site), it’s worthwhile to consider group configurations, room acoustics, visual aids or even breathing techniques that support your vocal health. After all, you’ll be able to offer better presentations if you know you can be heard.
“We want our voice to reflect our strengths, not our weaknesses,” Gartner-Schmidt says.
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