Aerobics for your voice: 3 tips for sounding better on air

(Bria Granville and Morgan Noelle Smith/NPR)

If you pant like a Labrador will your voice have more energy? Can you hum away “vocal fry?” And what does Bugs Bunny have to do with good radio?

I coach reporters at NPR on vocal delivery — and these are some of the tricks we use. To really build a strong vocal presence for audio storytelling, I suggest you create a simple, daily warm-up routine that involves body, breath and voice. (And yes, panting like a dog is part of it).

In the video below, I show you how something as unusual as reading your text like John Wayne can keep your voice healthy and make you sound more interesting and natural.

Why should I practice breath exercises?

When you start a thought with a full, supported breath, your speech has more energy, so you can better communicate your story. Starting your warm-up with breath exercises helps the ribs to loosen up. It’s a strong foundation for warming up the voice and articulators (tongue, jaw and teeth).

Regularly working on your breath support helps your body remember always to support your voice with freer, more grounded breath. That way, your voice has more agility and uses more range. That gives you more ways to express yourself and gives the listener more variety, which keeps the sound of the story interesting and engaging.

Using resonance to help avoid vocal fry

What is vocal fry? Whether you love it or hate it, it’s putting a lot of undue stress on your vocal folds. There are a few ways to break the habit of vocal fry, but if this is a chronic problem, doing one exercise won’t be enough. See an otolaryngologist or ENT.

For our purposes, keeping the voice more forward and out of the throat gives more tone and energy to an on-air performance and helps listeners feel like they’re right there with you. Technically, this means that the voice is more resonant, using the teeth, the hard palate and the sinus cavities to amplify the voice. In our video, we demonstrate the lip trill to help place the voice forward.

This not only combats vocal fry, it helps with swallowed sound and keeps energy up and out, rather than down and back.

A few other exercises for keeping voice forward are:

Humming. Find the placement of your hum where the lips are the buzziest and most tingly. If it tickles, don’t back off, you’re doing it right!

Meowing. Yep, that’s right. Pretending to be an annoying, loud, meowing cat will place the voice right up front. Test it by speaking a sentence, meowing your alley-cat best, then re-reading your sentence. Do you feel a difference?

These exercises help create resonance in the face, and keep the sound forward, so it doesn’t fall back into the throat or back of the mouth.

Help your read sound fresh and engaging

Lifting the words off of the page to sound like you’re truly telling the story to the listener in the moment is a very specific skill. It takes practice. The exercise NPR’s Cory Turner demonstrates in the video — reading your text with distinctly different character voices — allows the voice to move through various pitches and tones without you having to think about it. That way, you can open up new spaces in your voice.

When you try this exercise, be sure to read the copy straight, as you would plan to track it. Then read the copy using the funny voices, and read again in your natural voice. In the video, Cory reads as though he’s a cowboy, a toddler in the throes of a temper tantrum, and an opera singer.

Other characters to try are:

  • Carnival barker
  • Valley girl”
  • Bugs Bunny
  • Eeyore

Think up your own. Be creative!

Jessica Hansen voiced NPR’s funding credits and served as an in-house voice coach at NPR headquarters.