“Use your words,” the voice said.
My scrawny nine-year-old arms were firmly wrapped in a headlock around my archnemesis classmate, Chris. We had been arguing about whose dad was better at bowling. Obviously, we had lost our ability to talk it out.
“Use your words!” I heard the voice again, this time louder. And again, very firmly, “Use your words!”
Just then, I felt my mother’s firm hand grabbing hold of my collar. She turned me around like a bridled pony. I released Chris to his own fate; now I faced my own.
“Listen to me, Joel Weldon!” she punctuated. “If you don’t learn to use your words, you’ll be struggling like this your whole life!”
God used that moment to motivate me. And now, after years of training and research, I’ve enjoyed a long path in communication, first as a touring singer-songwriter, then as a voice actor and speaking coach. I have found that the path to improved speech is available to each of us. It didn’t come naturally to me. I struggled and needed to work hard. But once I realized the power God gives through voices (including yours), I was hooked forever.
How to Use Your Voice
Take a moment and consider your voice. Do you “use your words” effectively? Do people in your professional and personal circles listen well when you speak, or are they easily distracted and disengaged? In front of a crowd or your church, are you able to connect and communicate? Do you see people scrolling smartphones as you work through your outline? It’s a common problem these days.
Have you overlooked your marvelous gift: your voice? Many have. It is one of the most undervalued and misunderstood instruments God has given. “Death and life,” Scripture teaches, “are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” (Proverbs 18:21). But some Christians do not speak more often of the Life they know because they do not like the sound of their voice. The majority perhaps feel stuck and insecure.
Even in biblical times, many doubted their voices. Even a prophet as great as Moses was “slow of speech,” and he knew it well (Exodus 4:10). His inability plundered his confidence such that he even argued with God over it, giving five reasons he was a terrible speaker and couldn’t return to Egypt. God answered his fears by graciously providing Aaron as his official mouthpiece.
But what about us today? Believe it or not, with a few simple tweaks, you can start to improve your voice, and access its God-given potential. But how? Whether I am coaching a fresh class of voice actors or a ministry staff at a church workshop, I like to start with three basic concepts for effective speaking.
1. Be aware of your headspace.
Your emotional state of mind and your attitude are discernible in your vocal delivery. It’s not enough to just fake it till you make it. If you force a broad smile while internally you’re upset over a recent argument, you will come across like a salesman pitching his newest cure-all potion. This holds true for everyday conversations all the way to standing on the largest stages. The audience doesn’t just analyze your words; they feel and respond. They may not even sense something amiss, but your message will not have the effect you intend if you don’t have the matching attitude underneath.
Knowing how to control and gift-wrap your speaking with appropriate attitude is like a superpower for your ideas. If you’re in any kind of ministry, the attitude you draw upon is founded in the mind of Christ, love for hearers, and a desire to glorify God. You consider your high task: “whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11).
Here’s a simple tip that I’ve used with countless students and clients. To give your mind and heart a reset prior to any conversation or talk, do a heart check. Is love for your listener (whether in personal conversation or speaking before many) a higher priority than what’s been distracting you? Is your desire for your audience that they truly hear and receive your words fully and powerfully? Then envision this simple formula: the word MISSION in all caps with the word me in lowercase set just underneath.
Write it on a note at your desk, in your notebook, in your Bible, on your iPad. It’s a simple perspective corrector. Yes, me is a part of the formula, but your MISSION is way more important than what others think of you, how effective your speaking is, or even your reputation. When your heart and mind are set on delivering your words for the good of others and the glory of God, rather than personal accolades, you’re reflecting the mind of Christ. And even if you stammer and fumble through much of your speech or sermon, your audience will still be moved by your very transparency, love, and care for them.
2. Stretch your voice.
From the time we’re cooing with our mother in the nursery and exchanging smiles and giggles, we are mirroring the world of speech and sound around us. We mimic; we copy; we try things we hear. That’s where regional accents and dialects come from. We’ve learned how to speak through immersive living and learning.
But something happens to many of us when we enter the world as adults. We throw our graduation caps in the air and enter adulting with the voices we’ve cultivated since birth. And then maybe we take a personality test that tells us who we are, replete with common personality traits and likes and dislikes. And we suddenly stop learning. We stop challenging ourselves in our areas of weakness. We allow someone else to define who we are and place a wall around our potential. Your voice is no exception. It needs some coaxing and training, but it can express and accomplish far more than most people realize.
Never stop learning how to maximize it. Consider the main sound elements of every voice that together make it interesting, even irresistible: pitch, pace, and projection.
Remember the scene near the end of the movie Elf where Will Ferrell is reading his book to the kids in the library? “Past the sea of swirly gumdrops, and through the Lincoln Tunnel!” He animates his voice to give the story the big effects and exaggeration that children respond to so well. If you have kids, or you once were a kid, you know what I mean.
For some strange reason, we grow up and believe we need to lose the kid’s tone. But really, instead of discarding it, we need to adapt the same voice variety and character to mature material. Of course, the overexaggeration will be tamed a bit, but the voice should stay interesting to the listener. And pitch variety, or inflection, in your tone is a proven attention keeper.
Practice by reading aloud any material, pretending you’re reading it for children in a kindergarten class. Move your voice pitch up and down. Practice getting excited and letting your voice rise dramatically in pitch. The key is to feel free to play. Make it part of your alone time — while driving, walking, studying. Make recordings on your voice-memo app. You’ll begin to feel more freedom adding inflection to your daily speech.
How fast or slow do you typically speak? We each have a typical talking speed — fast or slow, choppy or smooth. Record yourself having a conversation with a friend or coworker (with permission). Listen back. It’s alright to feel awkward listening and evaluating yourself. It’s part of the understanding process. Start listening to other voices you like. At what pace do they talk? Why do you like them? Begin to notice how other voices make you feel and why.
Start adding silent space to your speaking as well. Most of us don’t take advantage of a good pregnant pause unless we practice it. So practice it.
Projection, or volume, is a critical element in your sound. Some voices average a medium volume and don’t deviate enough from it. Much of your default voice tone is shaped by the family you grew up in. From the over-the-top energy of Italians and Ethiopians to the stoic, steady tones of Scandinavians and Canadians, your upbringing has affected you.
Part of learning fuller expression means breaking out of the comfort zone you’ve always known. It’s okay to go bigger sometimes, especially on something exciting or urgent. Then try taking it way down to almost a whisper, as if you’re speaking to just one person face-to-face.
If you’re using a microphone, use it to your advantage. Pull it close when speaking softly. Let the mic do the work. Then try getting bigger and more authoritative and back off the mic a bit. We are built to respond to dynamic speaking, and it is fitting that messengers of the gospel work at developing our voices to match the message.
3. Know your listeners.
This brings us to the third and final (yet perhaps most important) principle for effective voice expression.
In Colossians 4:6, Paul says, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” We have a responsibility to know our listeners and learn how to “season” our speech in a wise and compelling way so they will best hear us.
In the modern advertising world, the voices representing brands are cast and directed to sound authentic. Thus, there’s a common phrase on almost every voice script that comes my way: no announcers. In the new media market, the target audience is supposedly enlightened to the wiles of the old “announcer voice,” the voice that sounds like a staged, inauthentic paid spokesperson for a brand.
So, the modern world is full of messaging by all kinds of authentic-sounding voices, including AI voices. A perfect example would be a warm, friendly middle-aged “mom” voice speaking to other moms about the best snacks for kids. That type of voice selection reaches the target market.
In similar fashion — but for a far higher purpose — you need to bring the appropriate delivery for the moment and the mission at hand. You wouldn’t use your Will Ferrell, kindergarten voice for a board-room presentation or a sermon. From the account in Acts 17, we might assume the apostle Paul was an expert at reading the room, knowing how to connect with his words and his voice. If you’re instructing, you’ll use a more authoritative tone. If you’re counseling one to one, you’ll likely want to use a softer, sympathetic voice (coming from a sympathetic heart).
Go and Speak
As carriers of the good news, we remember that the truth is worth sharing through the best possible means. Write about it. Live it. Advance it. With humility and courage, use the voice God gives you to declare his name. And start a new journey to make your sound versatile and effective for every encounter, whether you’re preaching or having a heart-to-heart talk with your kids. You’ll find that with the Lord’s help, you’ll never stop learning and adding to your ability to speak.
As a final encouragement, practice. Out loud. Have fun doing it. Find physical spaces where you’re free to go big. And move the rest of your body to match your voice too. And when your spouse interrupts your practice time and asks, “What in the world are you doing?” you can simply say, “I’m using my words.”