Susan Murphy
Susan Murphy

535. Vocal coach helps reporters find their voice

For a moment, pause and take a deep breath, pulling air into the bottom of your diaphragm. Say something out loud. Then go back to your normal posture and say the same thing out loud. Notice a difference? 

Susan Murphy started her career in radio. After 40 years using her voice to share information with the world, she started a business in which she provides vocal coaching to reporters and anchors, mostly, about how to find and use their authentic voices. 

“News directors think maybe there’s a way to make the voice more pleasant sounding, but I like to say authentic,” she says. “Everyone has a beautiful voice at the bottom of their diaphragm, it’s just that we don’t use that.”

Instead, from shortly after we learn to walk, most of us will take shallow breaths. Babies know the importance of deep, chest-filling breath because that’s the only communication tool they have; as we grow up and learn to talk, we shift into conversational breathing and we lose some of the warmth and inflection of deeper breathing. 

“One of the biggest things I learned about voice came from my singing teacher with regards to a body part that has so much to do with your voice, I had no idea,” Murphy says. “Your shoulders! Let’s think about this: Where do we all carry stress and tension? Our shoulders. If we can consciously learn to drop the shoulders, loosen those muscles across the top of your chest, across the top of your back, you’ve automatically loosened the muscles into your neck and up into your jaw and into your face. That is crucial. If these muscles are tightened up, everything else is tightened up and pretty soon the pitch of your voice is going to rise. You’re going to breathe very shallowly and it’s not your authentic voice.” 

Murphy also believes that audiences lost some important information in the early days of the pandemic when reporters were covering stories with their mouths covered by masks. 

“Watching each other’s lips move is a very important part of understanding what you hear. It fills in psychological gaps if you missed a phrase or syllable. We spent two years all masked up and voices were muffled, but what really drove us crazy is we couldn’t watch lips,” she says. 

The same is true when a reporter’s story on broadcast switches from the reporter on-air to b-roll footage, because the audience cannot see them speak. Sometimes the footage helps tell the story, but that’s not always the case. 

“If there isn’t more deliberate speech when I can’t watch your lips, I’m going to miss something.” 

Deliberate, intentional speech sometimes means going more slowly. It certainly means taking pauses between thoughts so the speaker can reset the breath, but it also allows the speaker to move ahead to the next point. If you have an inkling of that moving forward, and you take those breaths, you’re less likely to trip up in your speech or to lose your train of thought. Pauses, as helpful as they are to you, they’re really helpful to me, the listener.” 

After 40 years as a broadcaster, Susan Murphy started VOSOT, a vocal coaching business to help broadcasters and journalists find their voice. Murphy talks to It’s All Journalism host Michael O’Connell about ways reporters can prepare for their next podcast, livestream or TV panel appearance.

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