Sally Prosser is a voice coach who’s all about helping you find your vocal confidence and courage.
She says unless you’ve sworn a lifetime vow of silence, your voice matters and is key to connecting with others – whether it’s one person at a coffee catch-up or a thousand people at a conference.
Sally’s background is quite diverse but speaking is a common theme.
She ran a Speech & Drama studio, read the news on radio, reported it on TV and was the spokesperson for Queensland’s largest water company (not all at the same time, might I add!)
Sally holds a licentiate teaching diploma in speech and drama with the Australian Music Examinations Board, as well as degrees in Journalism and Law from the University of Wollongong.
She also has a podcast called That Voice Podcast.
Victor Ahipene: Speaking nation. Welcome to another episode of Public Speaking Secrets. Super excited to have you here where I’m probably going to get judged for my lack of vocal tonality because we’ve got Sally Prosser who is a voice and presentation coach. She’s had a raft of experience across multiple different industries and different ways that we present, which I’m super excited to be able to dive into. Welcome to the show, Sally.
Sally Prosser: Thanks for having me, Victor. Good to be here.
Victor Ahipene: Give everyone a bit of a background. How did you get to where and what you’re doing now?
Sally Prosser: Well, I’m sure as most people say, how much time do you have? It could go on for a bit, but in a nutshell, I started out as a speech and drama teacher. For anyone out there who’s done a Stedford growing up, poetry, prose, that kind of thing? Then I got to a point where I thought, “Oh my goodness, if I have one more child come in the door wanting to do a tongue twister I don’t think I can continue.”
At uni I studied law actually and also journalism. I worked as the broadcast news journalist. I did radio then moved into the area where you had to blow dry your hair TV, unfortunately. Then I went from news reporting to PR, which is called crossing to the dark side. The journalists who cross crossover to PR, that’s what they’re called. I was the spokesperson for Brisbane’s water and Sewerage Company. There you go. The glamour girl for sewerage.
Victor Ahipene: Yeah. Does that need lots of spokespersoning?
Sally Prosser: Well, you know what they say, if you can sell it then you can sell anything. Then I was there awhile I was there in the corporate setting that I started to understand how much of a skill public speaking, how much it was lacking really. A lot of people were struggling to speak up in meetings, struggling to speak in front of people, being asked to be on a panel or speak at a conference and be freaking out, wanting someone else to do it. So about a couple of years ago I left and I’ve started my own business.
Victor Ahipene: Nice. Kind of diving into that aspect on the corporate side, do you find it to particular level that—to put it bluntly, like sucks at the presentation fears, the presentation side? Is there a middle manager person? Is still happening at the CEO or the C level side of things? Or is it those people aspiring, interested from someone who’s going to been in there on the ground level seeing it?
Sally Prosser: I saw it at all levels. From people who don’t even apply for jobs, if they have to do any sort of speaking. They actually bring up insight. Do I have to do any speaking in this role? If they say yes, they say, “Oh thank you, I’m not applying.” It’s extraordinary.
Victor Ahipene: It’s crazy. I worked with someone who was in the air and one of the big four or five or whatever it is, accounting firms. It was kind of in the middle management space and then once he improved his presentations, it was like three months later he got a promotion.
Sally Prosser: Absolutely. That’s one of the main reasons people come to see me because everybody’s starting to realize that no matter what job you do, if you’re not able to speak well and communicate, you’re going to really struggle to shine in that field.
Then, yeah, I’ve seen right through to CEOs and board chair people who freak out. I have one client. She’s just such an amazing woman. I’m sure that any meeting that she chairs, everybody is sitting around just hoping to impress her. She tells me that she feels sick with nerves every time she walks in.
Victor Ahipene: It’s really crazy that, not necessarily that they can get to that level, but how they’ll surround themselves with amazing people, who are amazing at different areas. They’ll work really hard in particular skill sets. Then like that one is the one that they often let down.
I think, obviously there’s all well. There’s the fear and everything that I don’t have the gift of the gab, etcetera, etcetera. I find it really, really interesting when those top level people and then when they are able to share their message and find their voice and go through how it kind of amplifies everything. I talk about it. I thoroughly believe it’s the way to future proof yourself in a workforce where more and more things are getting automated.
There’s still that area where you want to get out in front of an audience or you want to be able to lead and lead your team and lead your company. As those who have got their ability to communicate that are going to be probably the last out the door apart from those with really elite skill sets.
Sally Prosser: Yeah. I totally agree. I think the more and more we’re relying on technology, it’s more important than ever to be able to make that human voice to voice connection.
Victor Ahipene: So you’ve gone out from on your own since then and you obviously help people with both. It was kind of all the aspects of what you’ve developed from the presentation side of things, from the vocal side of things. Obviously, it helps understanding that PR and being the spokesperson and that sort of thing.
I’d love to dive in today into some of the voice side of things because I know you can have the voice for radio and the face variety as well. You don’t necessarily want to end up like the Australian reference, the Wally Lewis on the TV who speaks like this. Like he is reading off a teleprompter and he absolutely sucks at it.
I see that even when I can—you can sometimes tell on social media or on LinkedIn, on YouTube, people who are still using teleprompters and then not overly natural. You see people who are memorizing things and then they’re having to use two parts of their brain to try and again look natural.
I see it coming in affecting their voice in different ways. Then obviously there’s people who are speaking off the cuff and then maybe monotonous in the way that they present. I don’t think there’s really a question in what I just rambled on about, but when it comes to voice, what are the things that as business owners, as professional speakers as people looking to present more, what should they be looking at from a vocal side of things to get started?
Sally Prosser: Yeah. It’s interesting that you talk about news rating because being a news reporter, I work with a lot of broadcast journalists with what I do. It’s always the same thing. We want to be telling the story, not reading the script. This is something that happens with people who aren’t too experienced with videos.
You see it on social media. You do say it in public as well. I call it a high school awards night syndrome. When every single line sounds like it’s being read and the winner is, and he usually find with the phrasing what’s happening is it’s too many pauses. So when you read, we take more pauses than we do if we’re just speaking naturally. That’s one of the things that I work on. If you want to sound natural, pay attention with the pauses.
The second thing we do when we read, this is how you can tell if people have got a teleprompter or if they’ve really tried to memorize it off a page, is people overdo the little words, which I call grunt words. The to, the have, the from the, ugh. All of these words should usually come out as to, have, from. Because they’re all sandwiched in other words.
A lot of the work I do is on getting the phrasing right, making the stars of the show that put important words stand out and the connecting words sit in the background and that comes with practice of course.
Victor Ahipene: Yeah. I think those are the big things like everything. I talk about public speaking, being kind of like riding a bike in the sense that you don’t become a tour de France cyclist from day dot. You become, you start riding a tricycle or a bike with training wheels or whatever it may be.
I have no doubt that it’s the same from a vocal standpoint is, “Hey, here’s some things I can learn and I can implement. Look, I’m probably not going to get them all right the first time. I’m 100% not going to get them all right the first time.” Do you follow different vocal coaches and listen to what they’ve had to say over the times. Do you do like a vocal warmups?
I’m sure if you’ve been in the speech and drama space, you probably do. Are there certain drills that people can work on say on a daily basis, even if they’re not presenting just in front of the mirror or just in the car on the way to work or when they’re in the shower that can work on your vocal tonality or trying to have a bit more inflection or a bit more excitement or whatever it may be in their voice?
Sally Prosser: Yeah, absolutely. I actually have a free one minute warm up people can do. If you head to my website, which is https://www.sallyprosser.com.au/. You can click on the warm up there and it’s all there for you. The one that I use is called Body Breath and Buzz. It’s the first thing anyone needs to think about before speaking is getting your posture right.
Because we are a walking, talking instrument and in the same way that the first thing you do when you pick up a guitar, when you sit at a piano or anyone who plays musical instrument, you have to hold it correctly. All of us can sit our posture up correctly and I say, “Pretend you’re wearing Victoria’s secret angel wings.” As soon as you put your wings on your shoulders, we’ll come back and unlock your knees. He rolls through the shoulders.
It’s almost like you’re warming up for some kind of sporting activity, stretching the neck. Then you can get the breath in. So the breath is so important for voice because it’s the fuel. Oxygen fuels our voice. It’s one of the main things I see with people. Their voice is affected by their breathing. We think it’s just something that’s really obvious. How can I be breathing wrong? But breathing is habitual. It’s not actually natural. Its habits that we formed and a lot of us have formed quite bad habits.
We’re breathing far too shallow up inside our lungs. If you’re doing it right is take a deep breath. If your shoulders rise, then you’re breathing too shallow. What you want is wanting to have your hands down your tummy and as you breathe in your tummy expands. It’s not very flattering, but this is how you get the air that you need in order to control the voice. That’s down where the diaphragm is.
People might have heard speaking with the diaphragm. That’s the power muscle for your voice. So a few deep breaths, just breathing in for one and out for two. You want to have more on your exhale. That’s a good little warm up you do. Also good to come nerves before you speak. You’ve got your body set up. You’ve got the breath coming in.
Then the third one and I called buzz. Buzz is getting vocal chords to wake up. Vocal chords is so 17 or so muscles in there that had to come together to make a sound. We know that they aren’t ready to go first thing in the morning because we all have that morning voice. It sounds a bit like this, me on a Sunday morning after too much, too big a Saturday night.
Sally Prosser: Then we have buzz and we want to wake up our vocal chords and if anyone wants to say something quite disgusting but fascinating, then Google vocal chords while singing. It looks like something else. It’s really interesting. Our vocal chords are like two little chicken wings and we need them to come together nice and strong to get a sound.
The warm up that I use is count Dracula, which is like, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah. That brings my vocal chords together and gets the air flowing through as well. Now the quick warmup is praying like a donkey with the lips. This sounds very silly. I’ve actually got a podcast episode all about this, which is kind of embarrassing, but this is what you do to warm up your voice.
Anybody out there who’s doing public speaking and not warming up, it’s the equivalent of diving in for a swimming race or running out onto a footie failed without doing any stretching or warming up. You’re not going to perform your best. When people say, “Oh, I take a bit of time to get into presentations.” It’s often because they’re not doing in warmed up.
Victor Ahipene: I think there’s some big ramifications. My voice is sounding horrible at the moment because I’ve got a cough, but not that I saying it, which is a pretty good side note actually is once and you really realize this is the more speaking you do in particularly podcasting is you will hate the sound of your own voice regardless of how good you get it to sound.
Particularly when you’re starting out, you’re like, “Oh my God, is that how I sound? Oh my God, that is horrible.” I’ve helped a lot of people with podcasting as well. They’re all the same. Like, “Oh my God, I feel this and that.” It doesn’t mean that that’s how other people will try you. It’s just you often cringe at hearing yourself. That being said, I think there’s a lot of ramifications as well with that. Not warming up before you go out to speak.
As you get that shallow breathing, guess what? It’s going to dry out your mouth. Then you’ve got those lips that are going [lip sounds] into the microphone. You can’t not necessarily announce you ate your words or get them out there. Your mouth is dry. Your lips are dry, which obviously stress vocal chords further. Then you’re stopping halfway through your presentation because you need that drink of water because there’s no way that you could’ve made it 15 minutes in the real world, not onstage without having that drink of water.
Then you end up straining. You ended up getting hoarse by the end of your presentation that you see a lot of people because it’s a big room and they’re trying to get the voice out there to the masses. All of a sudden, they haven’t had everything warmed up. Like you said, the breathing too shallow so they haven’t got the air and they’re not using their diaphragm to push their voice out and all of these sorts of things.
I think it’s really, really important because it’s one of those invisible ROI’s with your presentation that you never say, “Wow, I saw Sally on stage and she had such a great voice.” Occasionally you’re going to say, “Oh, that person had a really cool voice.” The majority I will, I think of great presenters. They’ve got this great presentation. They’ve got great body language. Everyone just walks off and go, “That person was a great presenter.”
Sally Prosser: Yeah. You’re talking about presenters here, but a lot of the work that I do with people is they just in normal professions where they’ve got a lot of stress on their voice. A teacher is a good example. If you’re not using good technique in front of the classroom, by the time you get to Friday or the end of term, you could do some serious damage or even people who are facilitating workshops. If you’re talking nonstop every day, then that’s when you can put strain. If you don’t do things right. In my experience, people who are professionally public speaking, they tend to have some good techniques that they use. One of the better term, regular people who don’t think that they need to use their voice so much. They’re the ones who could benefit most from a bit of TLC.
Victor Ahipene: Yeah. I think it’s very, very important. From a say someone who’s speaking in the board room or delivering a presentation to their company or whatever. That kind of everyday person. Are there certain things you see people once they start learning these things, maybe try and overcompensate.
You were saying earlier when the certain people over pronounciate words that wouldn’t necessarily come off your tongue is—are there other things along that inflection at the wrong times or too long of pause, too short of pause. Anything else throughout kind of— I think a voice is, it’s the verbal but also the nonverbal use of the voice.
The pause is using your voice to add to it. From your side of things, what are some of the things I throw out that phrase? You’ve warmed up your voice. You’re out on the stage now. You’re nervous. I’m sure a lot of your students are still got reaching nerves. Some of them, when they’re stepping out there, how do they remember, “Oh God, I’ve got to breathe through my stomach. I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to do this.” What are some of the things that you kind of work on throughout that presentation? The actual giving of the presentation for them to nail it.
Sally Prosser: Yeah, we arrived the keys in the preparation and if you practice all the techniques beforehand, I say you practice training in pace time so you can draw on it in warm time because there’s times when you’re really, really nervous that’s you need to have things just there ready to go. That’s when the training comes into play.
While you’re on stage, I always just go back to the body and the breath, take that deep breath. If you feel your legs shaking or your arms shaking, just tense it. Tensing and releasing will help there. And smiling, breathing and smiling can often get things centered again so you can continue. You were talking earlier about in the board room, different things that I’ve seen people do, trying too hard. I see some people especially women, push their voice to the back of their throat because we’re told we have to sound lower.
Lower, lower pitched is better, or lower pitched voice is good and that’s true. But to make the voice sound low, we want it to be in the walls of our chest. If you’ve seen the Wolf of Wall Street, that’s scene with Matthew McConaughey and Leonardo Di Caprio. That’s what we want. We want it down there in the walls of the chest.
The mistake a lot of people make is they push it to the back of their throat. So you end up getting this very pompous, self-important kind of voice. I’m so important because I’m at the board table. The problem with that is, yeah, you love because that voice sounds very fake and very put on. When people are trying to stake with credibility, it can backfire
Victor Ahipene: For people, because they’re obviously going to be hearing this. If you were to give an example of say that back of throat, what you just did versus say something deeper down throughout the chase, what would they kind of sound like for people out there?
Sally Prosser: Yeah, it’s different by the brain. You’ve got to visualize where the sound’s going rather than swallowing it back down here, the back of the throat, and think like you’re doing a very posh kind of queen accent. Instead of that, we want it to vibrate. I’m talking about the sound waves vibrating down in the walls of our chest.
With that exercise you can do is just put the palm of your hand on your chest and as you say just try, “Ah” you got to visualize that your voice is not at the back of the throat, but somewhere out in the distance. So whether you visualize a horizon or a Frisbee or a space flight, I don’t know anything that’s out there. Then you say, “Ahhh, good morning.” Your voice is very forward and free as opposed to good morning where the voice sits back there.
Victor Ahipene: I think being able to hear that obviously with those drills of being able to, you are demonstrating a beautifully with your hands on the audio, but I think being able to hear that and been those droves have been able to go down and put your hands on your chest and fill those vibrations and being able to actually hear that audible difference on what it sounds like.
They’re both deeper voices, but one sounds ridiculous in the nicest possible way. The other one sounds natural. I’m not sitting there going like, yeah, I remember back at school, there was a couple of friends that I did public speaking with and I used to be like, “Why do you have a fake voice when you present? It wasn’t like it sounded terrible, but it was like if you spoke how you naturally speak with obviously a few deviations for when you’re actually giving the presentation. It sounded really good, but it sounded fake. People were just going to switch off because it doesn’t sound—
Sally Prosser: I know and I work with a lot of reporters. It’s a cycle of the reporter satire voice. They’ll often just speak normally to me like this and then say, “Police say investigations are ongoing.” I’m like, “No, no, no.” We’ve got to have a forward police. The investigations are ongoing. You can still sound very serious and credible. This is part of the reason why people are losing trust in the news I think.
Victor Ahipene: Yeah, I think 100%, it’s a really good point. I think that’s a really good example because regardless, most people see the news wherever they are in the world. It’s not an unusual thing. You can watch the best. The ones who are, I don’t know, Good Morning USA or the biggest news branches versus maybe your regional one or just the person who like, “Oh, that person doesn’t vibe of me for some reason like yours.” I was throwing Wally under the bus. The guy I referenced earlier, he’s a sporting great who is not—
Sally Prosser: Yeah how dare you say anything about Wally.
Victor Ahipene: He’s a sporting great, but even my girlfriend sitting there going, “What is he doing on TV?” He never sounds natural like anything that’s coming naturally out. Unless they’re talking to him about rugby league and it’s not off the teleprompter then he sounds like a normal human being that you can relate to.
I think it’s a very good on him for going out there and then doing that. It’s a very important aspect and the difference of, I think in my personal opinion is the trust. I don’t think of them as untrustworthy, but I just switch off with his message that he’s delivering because of his voice. 100% his voice.
Sally Prosser: Yeah. Because he clearly sounds like he’s reading the words, not telling the story. We’re very attuned. Even if we don’t know the technical reasons behind it. We’re very, very attuned to a genuine sounding voice. That’s why we want the vibrations to be forward, not hidden at the back. We want the phrasing to be natural. We want variation as well, which is something we haven’t really talked about.
Vocal variation is one of the main things, but more presenters could do it. We also want to voice where the breath flows freely out. To demonstrate that, hopefully my voice is doing that now. You’ll hear some voices which are very restricted like this and the air. They actually holding their breath while they’re talking.
Victor Ahipene: If you were to put it into a sentence, I tend to find that the end of their voice with inclination just that’s dropping off. The closer it gets to the full stop because they run out of air. They don’t pause for say that hypothetical comma if it’s a hypothetical comma, but that comma, they would otherwise sit in the sentence. They have that comma that otherwise sits in the sentence.
Sally Prosser: Yeah, absolutely. What’s also interesting is often it’s not enough air getting in. It’s a restriction in the throat, not letting the air go out. It’s almost like it’s the body holding it in going, I’ve got to save some for later. We know this is true because when we get home after a long day or a long week, we’ll sigh. We’ll go, “Oh.” Finally letting the muscles of the throat open up and let that voice go. That’s why it’s really one of the good exercises you can do is just to sigh. Have a nice big sigh. Ah, ah.
Victor Ahipene: Last thing I wanted to touch on, what you just brought up was kind of that vocal intonation throughout presentations. Where do you feel, not just presenters on TV, but people presenting in general can improve in that aspect. What are they tending to do wrong? What’s the kind of 80, 20 of that?
Sally Prosser: Oh, there’s so many things that we could talk about. Bad vocal variation is a good one. I talk about avoiding the vocal flat line. So if you imagine a very bit of a sad image in a way, but the flat line on the heart monitor. That’s what we’re doing to our audience if we don’t change things around.
There’s three things you want to change. We want to change up the pitch. We want to change up the pace. We want to change up the volume of our voice. So with the pitch that’s the most talked about. One, if we sound the same pitch, no matter if we go louder or if we go softer or if go faster or if we go slower. If we just stay on this one pitch, our brain is going to fall asleep. This is why people are meditation tapes have a monotone because we actually feel like going to sleep.
Sally Prosser: It’s a good tip though, for anyone who’s got children out there. You want them to go to sleep when you read them their bedtime story. Don’t read with too much animation. If you goes straight into a monotone, they’ll be more likely to go to sleep. With pitch, you don’t need to be getting out there and singing, Do, Re, Mi. Everyone should just aim to be able to go up and be able to go down. If you can go up and go down and be able to vary that through your presentation that will be a big start.
The next one is pace. So you’ll find that you’re more likely to speak too fast. That’s me or more likely to speak too slowly. Identify what your default is and then try to mix it up. Last of course, volume—volume I’d be careful with because you don’t want to go soft unless you know you’ve got the attention of the whole room.
Going softer is one of the things that more of my professional speakers will do when they’ve got a microphone, they’ve got a whole audience. They’ve got that option to go down here so people can really listen to what they’re going to say. You don’t want to do that if people can’t hear to begin with.
Victor Ahipene: Yeah. I heard something really interesting, even from the professional speaking side of things is, understanding or respecting the audiences kind of nervous system in that lower pitched voice as often something that’s more intense or something that’s more personal. People can’t maintain that anxiousness of what it is from an emotional level for 30 minutes. You have to take them.
Again, like you talk about it gets people’s engagement, but it might be slower and quieter and then a bit louder and faster and then people are like, “Oh, okay, cool. Oh, there’s a bit of humor. This is going on a bit of a tangent from there.” I think it doesn’t matter even if it’s in a board room. You obviously still want people to listen. You can use it effectively and there, but you hear that people’s emotions can’t be held on edge for long, long periods of time.
Sally Prosser: That’s right. It’s not about having a low voice or a loud voice or a slow voice. It’s about having a voice that has range. There is no fast without the slow. There is no, the low doesn’t have the impact if you don’t have the high. It’s all in the contrast. It’s the ability to keep people on the edge of their seat and keep people guessing.
Most people will go to a room and they’ll sit down and somebody will bring up the PowerPoint. They straight away switched off because they know what to expect and know what to expect to the presenters. So one of the best things you can do is just keep its people guessing. Keep changing it out.
Victor Ahipene: There we go. It’s the most powerful thing. Like I say, all of these are so important in presenting yet your audience don’t necessarily put their finger on it until it’s bad. I shouldn’t say never, but more often than not, you’re not walking out of a presentation and say, “Wow, that person had great voice, vocal variation and great pausing.” But you go, “Man, that person was monotone. Man, that person spoke really quickly.”
Sally Prosser: You don’t come out and say, “Wow, the use of rising and falling inflections.” Unless you make—
Victor Ahipene: Exactly. It’s why I say more often than not, your audience isn’t go into that.
Sally Prosser: If you learn how to do it, it’s absolutely a skill that you can learn and practice and master. Once you can, it’s like the dark arts. People don’t even really know why they like hearing what you’ve got to say, but they do.
Victor Ahipene: Often you can disguise what you’re actually saying with just it sounding super intimidating.
Sally Prosser: Oh, Victor, yes. I’ve got away with not knowing what I’ve been talking about just because I have such an articulate voice. There’s been times that I’ve said, “That’s a very, very good question. Thank you for asking. I’d love to look into it and get back to you.” Sounds good. In my mind I’m going, “I have no idea what am I talking about.”
Victor Ahipene: Well, with all of that being said, I think hopefully people can now go out there and see the value of what your voice can do to a presentation. I appreciate you coming on and sharing it. If people want to jump over and find out their one minute warm up that they can do and hopefully get into on a daily basis because we know you need to practice to actually get out on the court and play and if you want to play effectively. If people what to do that, again where can they go and what can they do?
Sally Prosser: Hey, it’s my website. Its https://www.sallyprosser.com.au/
Victor Ahipene: Brilliant. Well, if there isn’t sit in a bit of voice, I don’t know what is. Appreciate your time and I look forward to, we just found out they were down the road from each other. I look forward to catching up in person and a take again, hopefully seeing what magic happens.
Sally Prosser: Absolutely. Sounds great.