As director, voice coach and joint artistic lead at The Bridge Theatre Training Company, Mark Akrill knows a fair few things about how to sound good when you speak. A published playwright, Akrill also holds voice workshops for businesses and groups on how to improve their communications skills within their professions.
Ahead of his appearances at the Perform exhibition and trade fair at London Olympia, we got hold of him to guide us through a few basic principles on how to use your voice better when making a video call.
“Sometimes, when on camera, it’s easy to switch off and just deliver,” begins Akrill, at the place we thought it least likely for us to be talking about using your voice. “So the key to good communication during a video call is, when you’re not speaking, listen.
“All the time in life, we monitor whether people are listening or connecting with us. If it’s a good conversation and it’s working, then both parties are listening. It’s the same principle with acting. If the two actors on stage are listening, then the audience listens as well.”
The other benefit of attentive listening during a video chat, of course, is it avoids speaking over each other. What tends to happen in that instance is that neither person can hear the other and it can take a few moments of pause and reconnection to get the conversation flowing once more. One facet of listening to prevent that from happening is to maintain good eye contact.
“We don’t need to keep it hypnotic. Be natural. We naturally will break eye contact at some point during a conversation but it’s important not to do so mid-sentence without coming back again. If you break away before you finish, then the person at the other end will feel robbed.”
Eye contact can be a tricky one in practise on video chat with the obvious temptation to look at the window where you can see the video stream from the other person rather than at your webcam. The answer is to drag the window up as close to your webcam as possible so that it looks as if eye contact is maintained.
Open your mouth
Akrill’s most simple piece of advice to improve the quality and clarity of your voice over the internet is something he says is also the most often forgotten and hardest to get people to remember: relax your jaw and open your mouth.
“You mouth is like an arch in a cathedral - the stonework are the consonants and the air in the middle is for the vowels. If we open our jaw enough, if we give our words enough space rather than clamping them shut, then there’s room to use the tongue, the lips, the teeth and the hard and soft palates to do their job and create clear sounds.”
It’s so against the grain to really exercise our jaws when we speak that it might even be worth trying a warm-up exercise before you make your call, but Akrill is keen to impress that you shouldn’t do anything that puts you in a tense frame of mind.
Make yourself comfortable
It’s tempting to consider posture, alignment and the use of extensive warm-ups but, according to Akrill, all that preparation can be counterproductive.
“There’s nothing wrong with doing a warm up if that’s what you want. Yes, of course, but the form of preparation shouldn’t be anything that makes you feel self-conscious. It’s not about techniques. If you’re thinking too much about clarity, that can make you tense. If you’re tense, you’re not listening and you’re not relaxing your jaw.”
We suggest looking for examples in popular media of people who use their voice well, newsreaders and such, but, again, Akrill is quick to warn us to keep it natural.
“The best way of communicating is to be yourself. It’s not necessarily about sitting up straight in your chair. It’s important to be engaged with your whole body and not stiff. You can be lying down flat and still be engaged. Be free and natural with your gestures, even if the camera is close up.”
Musicality: stress some words and not others
“Words are objects, so they take time to travel to us whether in a theatre or on camera or just talking in a room, and often voice experts will tell you to slow down. The problem with that is you’re telling people to change the habit of a lifetime.”
“What helps is using grammar in a natural, conversational way. The easiest way to do that is to lift or stress the key words that we really need people to hear. Not every word we say is as important as every other word, and that natural musicality creates time and space and makes us better understood.”
Anyone who’s ever read Shakespeare will have an idea of the stressed and unstressed patterns that Akrill is talking about but we don’t need to be delivering poetry in order to get the same effect to work for us. The iambic meter of Shakespearean verse represents the rhythm with which we most naturally speak and it only takes a degree of thought and time to take it the step further which this tip suggests.
“It’s like a song. If we just sang the words and notes individually, it would be very boring. So, we need to use variation in pitch, in pace; you need to naturally slow down or speed up sometimes or to change the tone or appropriate use of pauses.”
It sounds like quite an alien concept but it’s not something you need to think about for every single word. In fact, if you’re thinking about it at all, you’re probably in danger of breaking the advice in the section just above. Indeed, Akrill has a warning of his own on the subject.
“Don’t break a phrase or sentence by breathing in the middle. Talk all the way through it and breathe after. If you break things up too much, then you break the understanding of the person listening to you.”
If all that sounds like too much, then just apply this rule in this one simple way, is the best advice from Akill:
“Use language how you already use it, but do it more thoroughly.”
In an ideal world, there are a host of technique that you could use to improve your voice both for video calls and for any kind of communication, but it would place too much of an unnatural pressure for the beginner to try to think about these things all at the same time and still hold a natural, listening, involved and interested conversation. That said, if it’s something you’re serious about improving, then it’s well worth taking some classes, and a good place to start, according to Akrill, would be with Alexander technique.
“Alignment, posture and tension can be a problem and can make us speed up and slur our words. An Alexander teacher would work on those things and can spot places in the body where you have excess tension.”
“This stuff is important but, at this level, it’s more important, that you don’t feel you’ve got to do things right. All you need is to be engaging and alert. The more comfortable you are, the better your communication with people will be."
Mark Akrill will be holding workshops at Perform at London Olympia over the weekend of 8 March 2013. If you're interested in taking up acting or auditioning for The Bridge Theatre Training Company, you can find the details on the theatre school's site here.