top of page
  • Writer's picturePaula Burton

Two Chances to Make a First Impression...

You often hear that you only get one chance to make a first impression. I like to think that we get two; the moment you walk in the door and then the second you open your mouth. Attention is paid to the outfit, the hair, the shoes, yet it can either be complemented or contradicted as soon as you start to speak.

The right tone, correct pitch, appropriate pace and perfect articulation – all these things are essential if you are to convince the person opposite you that you are right for the job. These are challenging to achieve when faced with nerves, but they are near impossible to master, without warming up the voice.

I know what you are thinking. Vocal warm ups conjure images of pretentious actors doing tongue twisters. I understand because even when I was at drama school, we would roll our eyes as often as we rolled our tongues. We thought we understood…this was just part of

character preparation, pre-show superstition, easing nerves, it is just what actors ‘do’.

In fact, it was, and is, so much more.

There is a reason why performers warm up their voices; the same way an athlete stretches, or the young pianist spends hours running scales. Your voice is the way you will tell your story, and the only way for you (AND your audience) to avoid being distracted by a nervous stutter, or overly fast pace, is through a proper warm up. Where? Wherever you can! In the car on your way to the meeting, the shower when you wake up, or the restroom when you check your hair one last time. Grab a stall, lock the door and stop the self-sabotage.


One of the public speaking classes that I teach has a relatively early morning start. The young professionals walk in clutching coffee cups, stifling yawns, and looking anxious as they prepare to present to the class. It’s not a coincidence that when they start they are low energy and barely audible, just as it’s no surprise that by the end of the hour-long class, they are buzzing and communicating confidently. It’s not surprising, because by the end of the class, they are warmed up. They’ve spent the class arriving at where they ought to have started.

One morning, after a couple of lack luster speeches, I asked the class how many of them had warmed up that morning.


I then asked, how many of them had spoken to another human before class, that morning? A few people nodded (these were the parents in any group – they’ve already fought 10 rounds just getting the kids out of the door), but most, aside from brief barista chitchat, had said no more than a few words since waking up.

Smiling, I reminded them that they “wouldn’t turn up to an early morning interview/client presentation in this semi-conscious state, so we need that kind of commitment to this class if we are to maximize the time we have together.”

This time a tumbleweed blew by.

I prodded a little more, and a discussion followed about the sort of preparation they would undertake for an early important meeting. Preparation might mean: getting up early, eating a hearty breakfast, a shave, an ironed suit, and polished shoes. Allowing time for traffic, carry extra meeting materials, and maybe even a little stretch…but other than a mental reminder to speak clearly and not too fast, the voice was simply not thought about.

That’s like going to a track meet and not warming up.

In fact, that is exactly what it is like.

If the holy trinity of public speaking is body, voice, and breath, then the understanding of how they work together is surely the public speaker’s holy grail.

Think about it…

When you’re nervous you tense up, when you’re tense your body can only take shallow breaths. Imagine yourself in a waiting area ahead of an important meeting – how are you sat? Probably legs crossed or leaning forward looking down into your phone. Not much chance to breathe deeply, and yet think of when you are having a panic attack – what do people say? Take a deep breath – breathe, calm down, keep breathing. It’s the hardest thing to do in those situations, which is why the only difference between fear and excitement is breath. Those butterflies in your tummy when you are nervous are the same butterflies as when you are excited…except when you breathe, they fly. Anxious butterflies are trapped in the pit of your stomach – sound familiar?

So, if your body is tense, your breathing is shallow, how on earth do you expect to speak with confidence? How on earth do you expect to speak at all…without a warm-up?

Have I mentioned a warmup?


Ok, so you're warmed-up...

Imagine arriving at an audition for the role of Goldilocks. You see a row of other women, dressed as girls, all sporting long blonde hair and reciting the words of our childhood – “too hot, too cold, just right.” (yes, you’ve all warmed up)

Now what? Why do you bother staying? How can you stand out for the right reasons?

(Put the brown wig down)

Is it possible say the same words, but tell a different story? YES.

Vocal quality is more than the ability to adjust volume and pace. Look at the list below – how many of the qualities listed are you aware of in your own speech and delivery? How many are you guilty of? How could you adjust your use of them in everyday life to be more productive?

Register – chest voice – depth/power vs. nasal, high voice

Timbre – Rich, smooth and warm

Prosody – find a lyricism in your speech. You do not want to be all one note, nor do you want to run out of breath and drop off at the end of every sentence. Worse still, avoid “up-talking” – making every sentence sound like a question. Advocates claim it ensures your audience is keeping up with your thought process. Unless you are teenage girl discussing makeup, it will merely be perceived as annoying, and suggest that the speaker is not confident in their own thoughts.

Pace – Too fast you’ll sound nervous. Too slow and you’ll send your audience to sleep. Variance in pace is key. At times, a quicker pace can excite the audience; slowing down allows a complicated idea to sit with the audience. Always be controlled and the audience will keep pace.

Silence – Own it. Do not be afraid of it. Make an important point, and let it land.

Pitch – When you are nervous, your chest and throat become tight, constricting your voice, resulting in a higher pitch than usual. Instant giveaway that you are nervous. Warm up and let your voice drop down into your chest.

Volume – Is speaking too quietly a sign of nerves or lack of respect for the people trying to hear? Is speaking too loudly a sign of arrogance or perhaps disrespect for those not involved in the conversation that are perhaps trying to work around you? There’s a time and a place to drop the voice or raise the roof and both can be equally powerful. Suddenly speaking at a lower volume can draw an audience in, make them feel like they are being told a secret. Sudden bursts of volume can energize an audience, rouse them and get them behind a rallying cry. Be aware of your own volume and how to manipulate it to your benefit.

Now, think about who you might consider a great speaker? Why? How about a memorable voice? Is it for the right reasons? What makes a good speech great; why did it resonate with the audience? Content, delivery and connection. Seminal to any conversation, never mind a large-scale presentation. The content must connect with the audience, but if they cannot hear or understand the delivery, you may as well be talking to yourself. It’s all about them, remember. It's always a conversation.

Below are a few examples of speeches that are considered memorable for a number of different reasons. Even if you disagree with the content/person speaking, look at why it resonated.

Authenticity, and connection with an audience

Choose phrases carefully

I Have a Dream – MLK Jr.

Winston Churchill “fight them on the beaches…fight them on the landing grounds…” Why is this different from simply asking men to join the war?

Look/listen for master alliteration, cadence, rhythm, repetition, rhyme

Clarity/Respect for the Audience…

The rules of three is a known marketing trick, and Steve Jobs was a master with it. Aside from his way of announcing Apple products, Jobs’ began his 2005 Stanford commencement speech, by stating he would share three things with them. He showed respect for his audience by setting expectations ahead of time…after these three things, I will be done. Don’t have an Oscar moment where the music starts, and you haven’t finished rambling – leave them wanting more, not wondering when you will be done.

Build Rapport

Find a way to get the audience rooting for you, even if they don’t agree with your thoughts. Look at the examples above or think of your own; who have you seen speak that you couldn’t help but be drawn to, despite disagreeing with their point of view?


These thoughts are just the tip of the tongue when it comes to the importance of voice. However, the start of anything, just like a warm-up, is a very good place to begin.



Below are a few common warm-up exercises for the voice; you’ll no doubt have seen this in one variation or another. Please note that a warm up for your voice, should be as tailored as one for your body. Find the areas that you need to work on and then adjust the exercises accordingly. A good coach will personalize a vocal warm up for you in the first few sessions, highlighting why each exercise is important for your own personal development. e.g., a student for whom English is their second language will be much more focused on exercises to strengthen their tongue.

Relaxing your jaw

· Opening the mouth, massaging the cheeks with your thumbs where the jaw splits. Massage for 30 seconds, or until you feel the pain subside.

· Add sound “mamamamamama” with a very light lip contact for the “m”.

· Change to “wawawawawa” with very light lip round for a slightly distorted “w’.

This will feel good for those that grind your teeth.

Relaxing your lips

· Breathing through them without noise – 10 seconds

· Breathing through them going up and down the scale – 10 seconds

· Repeat


· Produce a gentle “hmmmm” on an exhalation at a pitch that is comfortably positioned in the lower range.

· Repeat and change the hmm to “ahhh” halfway through the exhaled breath. Try to change nothing but the opening of the mouth. Maintain the same facial buzz with the “ahh” that was achieved with the hmmm.

· Experiment with the pitch. Poduce while sweeping the pitch from high to low and then low to high.

Strengthening your tongue

· Push out your tongue as far as you can and holding it out there for 30 seconds minute - repeat

Tongue twisters

· Red letter/yellow letter x 10

· A proper cup of coffee in a proper copper coffee pot x 10

· Unique New York x10

· Teaching ghosts to sing x 10


bottom of page