Speaking From The Diaphragm – A Great Myth

Joel Tay is a Speech Therapist who has been working at SGH for the past 8 years. He has provided treatment to a variety of vocations from teachers to singers. He has also been invited by companies and schools to speak at events such as World Voice Day and the Voices Festival at the Esplanade.

What do you do?

I am a speech therapist who treats swallowing and communication disorders. Some might find this combination unusual, but the muscles used for speech, like the tongue and larynx, are largely the same ones used for swallowing.

When communicating, three main aspects are often considered: speech (articulation), voice (sound projection), and language (e.g. forming sentences and selecting words). My specialization is in the voice: it’s amplification, rehabilitation and protection.

What is the difference between speech and voice?

Simply put, the voice is the result of vibrations which produce sound waves, and our articulators (e.g. tongue, lips, velum) shape that sound into individual units, which we perceive as speech. 

What causes stuttering?

We don’t really know what causes stuttering at this point. We know that it has to do with the way some people are wired; some individuals are more predisposed to having stuttering issues than others. Stuttering is a breakdown in the fluency of speech. It’s often a misconception that stuttering is caused by psychological difficulties or anxiety; but the truth might be far from that. In some cases, the anxiety may have arisen because of the stuttering, rather than vice-versa.

While some of us are bound to have some level of disfluency when we speak – repairing our speech, revising words, making errors and so on – there are certain specific things that speech therapists such as myself look out for in diagnosing an individual with a stuttering problem. If you find that level of disfluency excessive, seeing a speech therapist is a recommended option.

Why is speaking from the diaphragm the greatest myth?

A common piece of advice given to people who have difficulty projecting their voices is to speak from the diaphragm. But in my view this has caused more problems than it’s helped. The main reason is not that it is untrue, but that it’s often misunderstood.

Because of the way our vocal folds are designed, pushing too much air from the diaphragm will increase tension within and around the vocal folds. This can develop into maladaptive voice behaviors and cause more serious voice problems in future.

By understanding that engaging the diaphragm isn’t about pushing more air, but really about expanding capacity and controlling the airflow, we will be more able to prevent tension from building up unnecessarily.

sore throat 1
Pushing too much air from the diaphragm could cause more serious voice problems in the future. (image source: http://www.emedicinehealth.com)

How should you project your voice?

The key word is balance. Let’s break down the production of speech into three segments: power (air from the lungs), source (vibration at the vocal folds), and filter (the shaping of the sound into speech by the tongue and the larynx). Each of these segments work together in order to maximize the volume and quality of your speech. If you want to be heard, your lungs and diaphragm shouldn’t be the only things working; your vocal folds should be as well.

Let’s say you want to project your voice clearly and resonantly to a class of 30. Remember that this involves all three segments of speech production.

1. Power: Your lungs have to take in the appropriate amount of air needed to say what you need to say. We usually don’t have to worry here because we naturally take bigger breaths when reading longer sentences; but make sure you keep this in mind.

2. Source: Your vocal folds have to vibrate in the most efficient manner possible in order to provide the resonance needed. Some people have airy voices, while others may have voices that are more hoarse. These can be corrected by engaging the diaphragm in the manner specified above in order to ensure that the voice has clarity.

3. Filter: The tongue and larynx are flexible in shaping the raw sound produced by your vocal folds. Use a little twang! Think of the voice of Janice from Friends, or Bugs Bunny. While it might sound exaggerated, introducing just a touch of it into your speech can increase the perception of clarity and resonance for your audience.

What drills can we practice to improve our vocal projection?


Breathing drills and exercises used by singers and musicians aid tremendously. Practice controlling the flow of the air through your vocal tract. Take a deep breath, keep your teeth clenched and release the air slowly, making a “tss” sound. Maintain the sound for 30 seconds, then repeat. Alternatively, you can try reading a passage but instead of saying the words, you make the “tss” sound for as long as the sentence lasts. This kind of drill lets you know how much air is needed when speaking.

Next, try replacing the “tss” sound with a “zz” sound. Your filters are doing the exact same thing, except this time you are engaging your voice. Practice making the “zz” sound louder and softer. This allows you to isolate and train your vocal folds.


There are many aspects of the filter that you can change to affect your speech. Remember what I said about the ‘twang’ earlier! You can start off with a simple “ee” vowel, then “eh”, then “ah”. Pretend that you are Janice and hold that vowel with as hard as you can. Imagine that you’ve got a “twang” knob that controls how much you’re using it. Give that knob a 10, then slowly bring it down to a zero.

Try jumping between numbers while reading a passage. As the exercise progresses, it should get easier to produce that voice, and your throat should not hurt in any way.

Bear these tips and exercises in mind for a clearer, more resonant voice!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s