“It's not just how you sound. It's your voice. It's who you are. It's what you want to say. And if you have a tool that can help you express yourself, isn't that better?” — Jessica Hansen
In this episode of Outliers, I’m talking with Jessica Hansen (@JessActs), about the importance of having a strong voice in both a professional and personal setting, techniques to hone your voice, and finding the “ideal voice” (hint: it’s your own!).
Jessica Hansen is the voice of NPR’s funding credits, as well as the in-house voice coach at NPR headquarters. She has held roles on several television shows and has performed in commercials and films. After earning her MFA at Brandeis University, Jessica went on to co-found Lean & Hungry Theater, which creates a podcast and audio adaptations of classic literature for classrooms. In addition to her work at NPR, Jessica provides vocal coaching and voice-over services.
Daniel Scrivner (00:05):
Welcome to another episode of Outliers. I'm your host Daniel Scrivner, and we've got an incredible show for you today. On Outliers, I decode what the top 1% of performers across industries have mastered and what they've learned along the way. In each episode, I dive deep to uncover the tools, habits, and ideas that we can all apply in our own lives. And today, I'm talking to Jessica Hansen. As an actress, she's appeared on hit TV shows like Parks and Rec and Veep. And as a vocal coach, she works at NPR, where she helps all of NPR's on-air talent to sound incredible.
Daniel Scrivner (00:41):
In the lead-up to launching Outliers, I was lucky enough to work with Jessica and she helped me finally get comfortable and confident with my own voice. And that's exactly why I wanted to have her on the show.
Daniel Scrivner (00:53):
We go deep on how to find and own your voice, overcoming your fear of speaking publicly, why the best voices are often the quirkiest, and how to sound interesting, as well as why that's important. And we cover a ton more. If you've ever struggled with your own voice, this episode is for you. None of us get to pick our voice, but it's up to each of us to get to know it, own it, and harness its power. With that, please enjoy this vocal masterclass with Jessica Hansen.
Daniel Scrivner (01:25):
Jessica, welcome to Outliers. I'm so excited to have you on.
Jessica Hansen (01:29):
Oh, thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
Daniel Scrivner (01:30):
So I wanted to start by maybe going back a little bit and you and I haven't talked about this, but I'm curious for you when very early on did you kind of develop that connection with your voice or with other people's voice and was that something you discovered early in life? Was it something you discovered later in life? I'm curious where that this kind of fascination came from.
Jessica Hansen (01:52):
Sure, yeah. Now early in life, all I was interested in was theater. I wanted to be a theater actress and I was very drawn to the idea of dropping into another character. I wasn't very good actually at thinking about how to change my voice for the character. I probably thought about what that character might wear or maybe some backstory stuff or even physical differentiations for my own natural way of carrying my body. Growing up, I think I just was really interested in the psychology of the characters and didn't think about the voice I would say very much at all until I went to graduate school.
Jessica Hansen (02:31):
I think I was thinking about how I could use my voice better, but even then, maybe not necessarily thinking about really transforming my voice. It wasn't until after graduate school, I started working with a theater company called Lean and Hungry, and we did Shakespeare and other stuff kids have to read in school audio versions and I would work with the actors and help them to figure out how to separate their voices. Because if you're playing two or three or four characters on a stage, you have costumes and body posture and all kinds of things to delineate, you're a different character.
Jessica Hansen (03:07):
But if you're doing it in audio, the only thing that you have to make it a clearly different character is your voice and how you're placing your voice. So I think that's when I really started to crystallize where you can place your voice, how you can use different resonances, different pitches, flattening the voice, opening the voice to create really different sounds, and that's when I got really interested in it. And as that work bled over into other kinds of voice coaching, that's when it became apparent that I knew more than I thought I did.
Jessica Hansen (03:39):
You know how you get better at something and better at something and you don't have any perspective and then you work with somebody who's got no voice training at all and suddenly you realize, "Oh. What seems totally basic to me is a mind-blowing revelation for this person. This is cool. I can really help people change not only this technique, but change how they feel in a boardroom or how they feel in their lives." People can feel more heard. People can feel stronger and more confident. People can feel like they've got control over the image that they're projecting vocally.
Jessica Hansen (04:13):
So I think it was fairly late in life. I definitely was in my 30s I think before I started to really hone in on what does the voice do and what can it do and and where are all the places it can go and where can it open and how can we use that?
Daniel Scrivner (04:29):
So you have that theatrical background, but then overtime like I worked with you in a setting where I was really working on my speaking voice, which was something that I have never had a ton of confidence in. So you're able to span that spectrum of everything from singing to theatrical, to more of a speaking voice. Then you're also working at NPR. Talk a little bit about what that work looks like. What does your work look like at NPR, who are you working with and what are you doing?
Jessica Hansen (04:54):
Sure. At NPR, the work with the people who are on air, mostly, journalists, hosts, podcast hosts, correspondents, the international correspondents, also some of the executives. People who stand up at conferences and use their voices in a professional capacity. People who are representing NPR and need to have the ability to give a good presentation out there in the world. It's an interesting breadth of people. It's everything from people in their 20s to people in their 70s. Men, women, people from all over the country, people from all over the world, different backgrounds. Some are coming straight from print and have never had any experience at all using their voices.
Jessica Hansen (05:39):
Some have been on the radio for 50 years and they're locked in their habits and they really just need to get some new skills and break down the trenches that they've built, that they're used to operating in. I typically work with people one-on-one, the way you and I work together. When we were in the building, I would do some workshops, small workshops for 10 or 12 people so we could do a deep dive and give some people some skills fast. My waitlist was like two years long. So we needed a way to get more people and have a few skills faster.
Jessica Hansen (06:13):
Then sometimes I go in to a tracking session. Sometimes people will say I'm tracking the story and I'm not sure what I'm doing. Can you sit with me and hold their hands a little bit? Which is lovely, I'm always happy to do that. Once in a great while, they'll call me in for an audition. We're auditioning a new host for all things considered. Can you come in and tell us what you think of these voices?
Daniel Scrivner (06:35):
You talked about working with journalists and one thing there that I think is so interesting is clearly there's the hard work of being a journalist. You've got to figure out what you're going to research. You have to figure out how to put the story together, how to tell this story in a really compelling way. But then alongside that, I always feel like whether it's, especially news anchors I guess on TV, but it just feels like in journalism there's a degree of theatricality. The best journalists you watch on TV and the best journalists that you listen to on NPR, they not only have a compelling story to tell, but they're focused just as much on all the tools they can use to really connect people with that story and tell it in a compelling way. Is that what you find? Do they immediately draw that kind of parallel and are they super interested to dive into voice work with you?
Jessica Hansen (07:19):
Definitely. The performance level is key. Journalists, you're right. I mean, their training is about reporting. They're trained to cultivate their sources and get the story and to write the sentences, and get all the facts in, and the arc of a story. So often, when I start with somebody new, the first thing they say is, "I've never had any training for how to use my voice. I'm so glad to be here. Thank you so much for doing this." Because it's not in journalism school. It's not in J school, it's not in the training, it's not in the internships.
Jessica Hansen (07:53):
I mean someday if I have my way, J school will include how to use your voice, how to tell the story vocally. And for those who are on television as you mentioned, I mean it's more than just being able to read the prompter, it's also being physically relaxed and engaged as well. Definitely, the folks that I work with, I hear across the board just an incredible amount of gratitude that they're getting this training because otherwise they don't know where to start.
Jessica Hansen (08:21):
It's journalists for sure as an animal or one of my favorite creatures, they want to learn, they want to know and they're grateful for anybody to give them a hand to do a better job. But also, I think everybody who comes to this work anybody who's interested in learning about their voice, it's not just how you sound, it's your ability to communicate, it's your ability to express yourself and reach out to others. It's not just how you sound your voice, it's your voice. It's who you are. It's what you want to say. And if you have a tool that can help you express yourself, isn't that better? So sometimes, the folks that I work with, they aren't on air at all. They're people who just say, "I've always been quiet and shy, and I just want to be heard." And that is 100% a great reason to do voice work.
Daniel Scrivner (09:13):
Yeah, it's fascinating. I want to go back to something that you mentioned that you do at NPR occasionally, which is be a part of the panel of people that will listen to and interview potential hosts. I'm curious there, one of the things I wanted to try to spend a little bit of time on is when you work with somebody or in this case where you're listening to a host for the first time, what are you listening for? Is it that you want to try to have this voice that's beautiful and perfect out of the box? Is it that you want to see that all the basics and fundamentals are there and you can build on top of that? Part of what I want to explore is how much of someone's voice is fixed and how much are they really able to grab onto and control, and refine, and approve?
Jessica Hansen (09:58):
Yeah. That's a great question. Definitely coming in out of the gate with an interesting tone or a warm relaxed quality is brilliant, but certainly not a non-starter. The ability of the human body to adapt, I mean, this old dog new tricks thing is nonsense. We can always learn. If we stop learning, we stop living, right? We're always capable of learning something new whether that's kinesthetic learning, or analytically, or emotionally. Then what I'm looking for is a person who is willing to try something and has the flexibility to make the shift.
Jessica Hansen (10:38):
If you ask for a change, can they budge even a centimeter. If their voice can move just a little bit, if you can move the needle just a titch, it means if... Just by asking them once, that it means that when we sit down together and I teach them some techniques and they start practicing things, then they can grow, and deepen, and open, and range, can expand. There's so much possibility. If you just see a little bit of ability to move a titch.
Jessica Hansen (11:06):
The other thing I think that's really important is you mentioned the unique characteristics and I think this is really important because a lot of people think that to have a good voice, they need to sound like something else. And my goal is always, "How can I help you to sound like your best self on your best day? How can we unlock bad habits? How can we open up your voice? How can we free your sound so that you sound the best possible you and not somebody else."
Jessica Hansen (11:40):
If people come to me and say, "I want to work with you because I want to sound like so-and-so and can you help me do that?" The answer is no. No, I cannot. I can help you sound like you and I can help you think about phrases and sentences, and ideas. I can help you think about the colors in your voice and how you're using your breath. But I don't really want to spend time making somebody sound like somebody else. Imitation is not my art form.
Jessica Hansen (12:05):
So when you said if we're looking for something unique, sometimes that's great. Guy Raz has an instantly recognizable voice. And ages ago people said, "Oh, he'd never be a host because he had this quirky voice." And it turns out, the Guy Raz empire is never ending. It just keeps expanding. He's wonderful. He's got his really intense focused personality. He's got this readily identifiable voice. He's got endless energy. And the way that he listens to people, he looks like he is listening to your soul when he's listening to you.
Jessica Hansen (12:43):
So all of those things combine to make this little magical chemistry that is Guy Raz. But if you just listened to a tape of him and said, "Do you want that guy to be a host?" Maybe people would say, "No. Quirky weird voice." But I think it's the quirks that make us the most interesting, right? That's what's interesting to listen to is something different and unusual. This concept wabi-sabi that the Japanese have. It's not the perfect vase that is beautiful, it's the crack in the vase that makes the vase beautiful. The voice is very intimate and I think people tend to be very self-critical of their own voices especially because it sounds different inside our heads from how we hear it when it's played back for us. So I think most of the time, if people can just say I am what I am and I'm going to embrace that and I'm going to flaunt it, if we can do that vocally, then you get your best self.
Daniel Scrivner (13:40):
Yeah. That's an amazing kind of encapsulation of that. I love that you brought up wabi-sabi. I'll link to a few books on wabi-sabi that I love in the show notes so people can can learn more because there's a lot there that's really interesting. So I want to ask one more question about NPR specifically and then we can take a big step back and kind of break down what makes a voice. So a question I wanted to ask is I think Guy Raz is a great example where he clearly has a distinct personality and yet when you listen to a show especially if you listen to NPR a lot, it also has this NPR quality.
Daniel Scrivner (14:13):
But can you talk a little bit about what that NPR sound quality is and how much of that is just the equipment or how much of that is kind of coaching? And maybe even help people understand at least the way you think about what the NPR sound is.
Jessica Hansen (14:28):
That's so interesting. This question always confounds me. The people that I work with at NPR have such a broad variety of voices and I think because I'm always focused on this person could have more top notes, this person is flattening their voice, this person could use more pitch range, this person has a great sounding voice, but it doesn't sound connected. I need to get this person connected to the text or this person tends to mush through some words and then draw at other ones, and it's a weird pattern, how do we break that?
Jessica Hansen (15:02):
I don't have an idea of what a cohesive, what an NPR sound is except that I think the journalism has a quality to it. NPR as a media entity is different from every other media organization because it started with this long form and this mission of serving the public rather than what's hot and what's going to be sensational. So with the educational mission and the civility and respect mission of the journalism, I think it creates a foundation that maybe supports this idea of an NPR sound that people maybe are more thoughtful. They take more time to consider. There's this idea out there in the world of being authoritative and having gravitas.
Jessica Hansen (15:54):
So maybe NPR has sort of some sound of being credible. Maybe there's like a credibility, but that doesn't mean that I don't get emails all the time of, I hate the way so-and-so does blah, blah, blah. Can you fix it?" There's everything from vocal fry and not just the women. There are men on our air who have more vocal fry than any of the women. And then there are things like trailing off sentences and losing breath support. But it happens from people at age 20 to age 75.
Daniel Scrivner (16:28):
Yeah, I think you hit on it. I don't think it's a particular sound, but I do think it's almost a style or a feel to it where it feels to me unhurried, thoughtful, considerate like someone is truly listening, which is a little sad to say, but that does stand out in pretty striking relief in a world where people are talking faster all the time and trying to cram in as many points as possible.
Jessica Hansen (16:50):
Daniel Scrivner (16:51):
So you work with men, you work with women. On the men's side, I know a lot of men have this belief that you need to have as deep a voice as possible. But can you talk a little bit about how men's and women's voices are different and maybe what they each uniquely struggle with or just how to think about that?
Jessica Hansen (17:08):
Well, first of all, wanting your voice to be lower and deeper is not limited to men. I have women all the time. The first thing they say to me in our first session is I need to sound more serious or I want to have more gravitas or I want to be more authoritative. There are women all the time pressing their voices down and then they get that flattened quality because they're way down in the gutter of their voice.
Jessica Hansen (17:33):
I actually spend a lot more time with women than with men saying, "It's not about lowering the pitch of your voice and it's not about speaking in the very bottom of your range, it's about integrating the bottom of your voice with the rest of your voice. So you have all of that warm, lower, deep resonance, but you also have your overtones and your brightness and we want to marry those so that you're using your whole voice all the time.
Jessica Hansen (17:58):
Then you have the options because when you're doing this work, you find out where those places are and how to activate them. You have the option of saying, "I'm just going to use the brightness right here and I'm just going to use the darkness right here." Then you can just marry them both right or choose any other tonal quality and do the same. As far as differences, I think I work with a lot of the same categories whether it's male or female. I talk about how you're expressing the ideas. I talk about breath support and control and endurance. We work on a variety of tones and emotion and being control of your pitch and how to create a sense of presence and how to draw your listener in.
Jessica Hansen (18:45):
I think the differences in working with men and women are very, very few. The actual instrument is different, but all the material is the same and all the approaches are the same fundamentally. The only thing that women have to contend with that men don't is biology that happens every month, which impacts the voice and then that big change later in your 50s or so that women have to navigate how to re... When you're having these huge hormone fluxes, maybe men remember as an adolescent, the hormone fluxes have a real impact on your voice and that happens again for women later in life as well. So I think that's really the only difference for me. For me, the approaches about how you're using your instrument and the differences are really nominal.
Daniel Scrivner (19:34):
So I have to ask. This is probably a stupid question, but obviously for men, we are going through puberty. At least what seems to be common is kind of a lot of breaking in the voice and kind of the jumping up and pitch. I know some guys later on in life that still have that quality, but it seems like that does line up to be one of those kind of teenager going through puberty things. Is that what happens to women in their 50s when they're going through menopause or is it a different thing that happens to the voice there?
Jessica Hansen (19:59):
It's a different thing. It's a different thing and for boys growing. Their voices are deepening with these new hormones, and so there's this flux and there's this lack of control. For women, it's all kinds of the estrogen is leaving the body and so the testosterone has more room to play. So women very often feel... I mean, they've got all this emotional stuff to deal with and all these physical ramifications. Sometimes it's just as simple as how do you breathe through a hot flash if you're in the middle of an interview. But sometimes I feel like my feminine voice is leaving and so how can we keep a woman's whole voice whole as she's moving through this transition. I have not had the distinct pleasure of working with adolescent boys as their voices are breaking. I'm not sure I'm up to the task.
Daniel Scrivner (20:49):
Yeah. I don't know if that's your prime client.
Jessica Hansen (20:53):
But once people hit the professional world, there are so many things that can impact what's going on in your voice from menopause to nerves. Just flat out, I see the red light blinking. I know the mic is recording, to standing in front of a room full of 500 people, to I didn't work out this morning and so I don't feel as warm. How can I get warm fast? There are just so many ways that the body can impact the voice. And so really the basics of my work are creating mindfulness. What are you aware of? Can you notice where you're breathing? Can you notice how you're breathing? And once you have the awareness of what you're doing, then you can shift that and we can play with, "Oh, well, what happens if you breathe into this place instead or how can you navigate this tricky situation whether it's nerves or a hot flash or whatever? How can we navigate this? How can we be mindful of knowing how your body and your voice work to get you through this smoothly or at least more smoothly?"
Daniel Scrivner (21:55):
So you touched on this and I want to go back to it for a second because I think it's a universal thing, a lot of people struggle with which is controlling your nerves. In those situations whether you're recording audio like I still get nervous before all of these interviews or speaking in public, those are all instances where keenly in your mind you want to feel confident and you want to show up as your best self and you want to sound your best and look your best. And then one thing that I thought was fascinating just to connect a couple dots working with you is just learning that really to get the best vocal quality. You don't want tension.
Daniel Scrivner (22:28):
You want to be very relaxed and that your best voice is kind of the most relaxed, the most open, the most natural, the most expressive possible. How do you help people work through that and improve that and do you have any techniques that people can use or things they can keep in mind, when they want to show up as their best self, but they're feeling that rush of adrenaline that's maybe not helpful.
Jessica Hansen (22:49):
Sure. I mean you're absolutely right. A lot of it is mental. When we get a little bit nervous or anxious, we move into the reptile brain, the fight-or-flight part of your brain. So there are a myriad breathing techniques for how to calm your nervous system and how to override that fight-or-flight or freeze response. You can find them in meditation. You can find them in yoga. You can find them in voice work. You can find them in singing work. The one that I love the best that I think is the go-to for me that I find most people can do anywhere, anytime, you can do backstage before you step out at a live event, you can do it even while you're listening to somebody asking you the question or in your case if you're listening to me answer it, you can do it as your producers setting up the studio and you're getting ready to record something.
Jessica Hansen (23:44):
It's the 4-7-8 breath. You breathe in for a four count, they say hold it. I don't like the word hold because it implies sort of holding or gripping or clamping down. So you suspend the breath for a seven count and then you exhale for an eight count. But what that does, the suspense creates a stillness which helps the mind be still. And then exhaling for twice as long as the inhale overrides the nervous system and tells your mind it's okay. Everything is okay. I'm safe. It returns you to that rest and digest brain and takes you out of the reptile brain.
Jessica Hansen (24:25):
So it's super easy. You breathe in for four, suspend the breath for seven, exhale for eight. People do it once and their faces are like, "Oh, I feel so much better." Yeah, it feels better to be calm, doesn't it? If you're not standing backstage or in a studio with a producer or a bunch of other people, the other one that I love is it's the simplest thing in the world, you squat. Get down on the floor, spread your feet wide, squat. Drop your head so that your back is arched. You're cutting off your front body so you take in a breath, let your head hang heavy like a bowling ball. You breathe in and you feel the breath going down your back.
Jessica Hansen (25:11):
Your back actually has more lungs than your front. So when you breathe into your back, you're getting more air into places that it doesn't necessarily usually get to. And those lower lungs are connected to the part of the brain that manages decision-making. So if you breathe low into your back, it helps you to feel more decisive, more confident and that can also override those jitters or a little bit of nerves for whatever you're starting. Some people though don't feel comfortable dropping into a squat backstage before they're about to go on to a stage live and I get that. So 4-7-8 is the go-to for anywhere anytime.
Daniel Scrivner (25:50):
I love that you touched on that because that's the single best little tutorial I've ever heard, 4-7-8 and 4-7-8 breathing. It's amazing. I've also shared it with people that are going through, I don't know, what might be described as like a mild panic attack or they're having just this wave of nervousness and anxiety. And it is amazing, because you'll start that four-seven-eight kind of sequence and you'll feel terrible and yet by the last four counts, it's just this wave of relaxation and it's an amazing technique.
Jessica Hansen (26:18):
Yeah. There's something about that eight exhale that's really your body gets to the end of that as you mentioned and it's like a sigh. A sigh is also one of the most wonderful things you can do for your body, voice, and mind. It's just a simple thing. You take a nice big inhale and then sigh it out. And you feel all your muscles softening and your throat opens and you're exhaling all that, the dead air. It's that psychological get rid of the gunk. It's great.
Daniel Scrivner (26:47):
So I want to start to, I guess, maybe dive in and talk about what makes a voice. But what was amazing about working with you and part of this was one of my motivations for wanting to do this is I just had no clue where to even start or how to think about it. You did such a good job of breaking down the qualities of someone's voice. Stuff like resonance or enunciation or interestingness or presence. Can you just set up for people or maybe try to break down at a high level what are those building blocks of someone's voice? Then we can go from there and maybe explore each of those a little bit.
Jessica Hansen (27:24):
Great. Well, first of all, thank you. That's a lovely compliment. I think you've hit them. Everything boils down to the breath. We always start with the body releasing the tensions and getting the breath moving. And once you've got the support of the breath, most people tend to use about 50% of your lung capacity. So if you think of that and think, "Well, opera singers, horn players, maybe use 70%, 60%. You think of that and then hey, what else can you do?" If you're only using 50%, you've got so much more. So I always start with a breath, releasing the tensions in the body, moving the breath. And then we start to build resonance.
Jessica Hansen (28:05):
Once you've got the breath underneath you and underneath your voice, you can start making some sound, putting some sound on that breath. And then where are you going to put the sound? That's when it starts getting fun. So the resonances can happen in so many different places. You can have chest resonance or head resonance which I think everybody is familiar with, but can you put your resonance in your nose? If you want a brighter sound, can you put it in your jaw? What does it feel like if you're moving your resonance to the top of your head? Can you put it all the way down in your hip bones? Where can you move your resonance and then what kinds of tones do you want?
Jessica Hansen (28:41):
Then we can start working with not just pitch range, but emotional tones, points of view. How are you coloring your text? Do you want it yellow or blue? Do you want it pink or green? You can start with things like good news, bad news. This is happier, this is sad. And then you can move into things like curiosity, suspense, inviting somebody in, sounding assured. A lot of the journalists have to do a lot of bad news and it can't just all be serious. This is serious. This story is serious. This other story is serious. You have to find what are the various colors there.
Jessica Hansen (29:21):
Everything can't be blue you have to have light blue and dark blue, and indigo, and turquoise, right? And then once we're sort of happy with all the freedom of choice that we have with our voice, then when you're sliding that onto text, then we can drill down to the specifics of phrasing, pacing, enunciation, who are you talking to, how do you make this engaged and energetic without overdoing it? You don't want to sound like you're forcing anything. You still want to sound authentic. That's when you're juggling seven or eight balls in the air at the same time. And I'm saying, "No, I promise it will all make sense next week."
Daniel Scrivner (30:02):
Okay. We talked a little bit about those basic building blocks of someone's voice. Obviously, you work with a lot of people one-on-one, but walk us through. So you meet somebody for the first time that you're going to work with together one-on-one and you have these sessions planned out. What is your process like for breaking down someone's voice and understanding where they can improve and then how do you put together a plan for that?
Jessica Hansen (30:24):
Great. All right. Now, I'm revealing all my secrets, huh? So the first thing I do is have a phone call with them like you and I did because I want to hear how people talk normally, ask them a few questions about their background and their experience both for the content. I need to know what the experience is but also just to hear how people normally talk when we're on the phone. If you don't do a video call the first time, I can't see the person so I don't have any visual pollution and I'm not also distracted by how am I also presenting myself. Just the phone call is pure audio. I get to hear how a person just speaks naturally.
Jessica Hansen (31:05):
Then once I've sort of noted where's the resonance, where is the resonance not? Where do I hear tensions? Where can I hear even in speech, is there jaw attention or is this person running out of breath? Is this person a fast talker? Or does this person collect their thoughts while they're speaking? Does this person have a lot of vocal fry? Does this person, whatever? Once I've assessed that in just normal conversational speech, then I run them through a little assessment asking them to do different things. Can they meow like an annoying alley cat? And some people cannot. Some people say, "Meow, meow." It's like, "Well, okay. Great."
Jessica Hansen (31:46):
They can't, with that prompt imagine or put their voice up into a really annoying nasal place. So maybe I try something else or maybe I just say, "All right. We'll see if there's another way we can get to brightness." Or I ask them to do can they do these lip trills that are magic, which you and I have done, I believe, right?
Daniel Scrivner (32:09):
Jessica Hansen (32:10):
And so many people can't do just the fluttering of the lips, just the... If you can't do that much, you can learn. It is possible. I have had students, clients who have learned, but it's a further distance. So maybe there's something else that we can do instead. I probably asked you to do several ridiculous things like bang on your chest like Tarzan.
Daniel Scrivner (32:33):
Jessica Hansen (32:33):
Sometimes I ask people just to laugh and cry. If you fake a laugh or fake a cry, it gets up into that special little space that... right up here in your sinuses and your nose and your eyeballs. If people can place their voices up there, there's like a world of possibility. If people can't, then we have to come at it from a different direction.
Daniel Scrivner (32:55):
Yeah, so you broke down there some of what your general process looks like, what you're looking for. Now, I guess my experience working with you was it's really about then layering on and it starts with breath support and then after that, and there's a lot of breath work that you do with clients. And then a lot of it, I would best describe is like maybe mind, body connection where it's very much like can you be more present of restriction or tension in different places and where you're breathing, and when your breath is about to run out so that you don't always have these, you're gasping for air at the end of a sentence. Then you're layering on top of it. So once someone has those building blocks in place, where do you try to go from there and what does kind of advanced voice work start to look like?
Jessica Hansen (33:38):
Sure, sure. Yeah, you're absolutely right. I mean, step one is you have to shed the tensions. You have to open up the bodies, get the muscles soft so that they're not in the way, so that you can breathe. And the breath is under everything. Then you can move that to the resonance and the voice and then you move to the text. Then you're starting to remember how to keep your breath endurance and your specificity of your resonance and your placement, and your sound, and all of these explorations that we've done on words. And you won't believe... I mean the brain is like I know how to speak and it goes back to all the old habits.
Jessica Hansen (34:15):
So building that bridge between the new exercises and putting it onto words even if it's not even sentences, just single words, it's trying to break down the old habits and build a new habit. We're building the techniques and with the mind-body connection being aware of when I'm focused on putting my resonance in my face, I start clenching my jaw. Yes, if you start noticing those things, then you're on to it and then you can work because once you realize, "Oh, every time I take a breath, I'm raising my shoulders." Yeah, you're cutting off your air supply. You're trying to take a breath in and instead you're squeezing your throat.
Jessica Hansen (34:59):
So the mind-body connection is so critical, just that awareness. And then once you sort of have overcome... I mean, it's never done. Work is never done, right? You graduate from high school, you go to college. The same is true with breath work and voice work. Once you say, "Okay. I've mastered this plan that Jessica has given me. I've done my exercises every day for a month. I'm so good at these exercises and I'm learning how to put them on words. Then everything morphs. Then you start reading paragraphs and thinking, "Oh, well what happens if I read this whole paragraph just thinking about soft jaw? I'm just going to let my jaw drop open the whole time and I'm not even going to think about what the words mean." What happens?
Jessica Hansen (35:48):
Then when you do that, suddenly you find, "Oh, wait. Without that tension in the way, all of your meaning and intention of the words and the content comes through because there's nothing to stop it. That jaw isn't impeding your speech. So boom, there's so much more freedom. What happens when I noticed that I was leaning forward and so I was jutting my throat forward, so it's cutting off my airway. What happens if I get back in alignment and my airway is all clear, what happens to my sound? Wow. I feel more confident. I feel more relaxed. I feel more powerful." So really, I mean there's no end. It's just a constant exploration and once you've got a mastery of this toolkit, then you can sort of poke and explore and then come up with new tools.
Daniel Scrivner (36:41):
I love that you brought up jaw attention because clearly a part of your work is what is there that we can improve? What is maybe not there that I can add or help them flush out, but then a big piece of it as well too is, "In what ways are they kind of their own worst enemy? How can we get rid of some of those obstacles?
Jessica Hansen (36:58):
Yeah, truly. And people so often don't have that awareness and just you can see it even when all the coaching is remote. I can see it in the computer screen. Somebody's shoulders hike up when they take a breath or they do the jaw exercise, but then when they're speaking, the jaw isn't opening anymore. But this is true of so many things. In these micro places, we hold ourselves. We might have tension in our middle back that we haven't paid attention to because we're so worried about our shoulder tension. And once you finally release the shoulder tension, you notice, "Oh my gosh. I'm doing this really weird thing with my middle back. I'm clenching between my shoulder blades."
Jessica Hansen (37:38):
So once you release that, you notice, "Oh, I'm gripping my own fingers. I'm making like claw hand. Why do I have all this tension in my hand?" So it's just this constant process of shedding, shedding, shedding, shedding tension and building the habit of release, the habit of softness and the habit of openness. It does get easier. I mean you talked about like advanced level. It gets easier. You walk into the studio or you sit down in front of the mic or stand in front of the mic, I hope and you say to your body, "Let's do a head to toe scan," and you say, "Oh, I can soften there and there. Oh, and my breath wasn't going into my belly. Oh, my feet aren't on the floor. There we go. Strong grounded feet. Okay, I'm ready."
Jessica Hansen (38:25):
Even then, you'll get into some content that you start to think about and as this cerebral society, you might start clenching between your eyebrows and get that little furrow above your nose, that forehead furrow and then you realize, "Oh, that furrow has now blocked my voice again. How do I soften my face?"
Daniel Scrivner (38:47):
Yeah. I want to explore one thing in particular. So there were some things that after going through the voice work with you, just really stood out as simple things, simple concepts that you could think about and have in your mind that could just help you have a voice that people want to listen to and I feel like that is a a big reason why I was drawn to voice work and I knew I was going to be doing these long-form interviews and the thing I feared most was that either as excited as I was that that wasn't being conveyed in my voice and in the quality of the conversation. And then the other piece was that it would just be monotonous or it would be something that people weren't able to engage with.
Daniel Scrivner (39:25):
So some of the things that I took away of working with you was just really simple things like playing with volume, playing with speed, playing with enunciation, just making sure you're enunciating really clearly and then things like interestingness. But talk a little bit about that like. What are some things, what are some concepts that people can maybe latch on to that if they're in a video call and they're doing a pitch or a presentation to their team, what are some things they can have in mind just to make sure that they are communicating the emotions, and the interest, and the excitement that they're feeling and what are some techniques that people can use to be as interesting as possible?
Jessica Hansen (40:04):
Yes. You do need to keep variety for people to stay interested because even if you're doing something beautiful, but you're only doing it on two notes, those two notes get tiresome. People's ears check out. The brain knows what to expect. And once again, we meander off into what are we going to cook for dinner tonight? So changing pitch, changing pacing, using pausing effectively. When you just give a little micro pause, just a little lift before and or after a word, it sets it out for your listener's ear.
Jessica Hansen (40:37):
So if I say, "I'm going to go to the grocery store later," that's nothing. But if you say, "I'm going to go to the grocery store later," people are like, "Whoa, grocery store? That's important. What just happened there?" Right? So there are little things you can do with pacing and phrasing. You can blow through something really fast and then slow down to emphasize something. You can certainly think about putting a different idea on a different pitch. So if you're talking here and this is this idea, then maybe the next idea starts up here because it's a new idea, and so it comes to a different place.
Jessica Hansen (41:14):
Then maybe the next one drops down a little bit more and maybe you slow it down. So yeah, absolutely. Everything that you just talked about, pace, pitch, tone, phrasing. All of those things can certainly, if you're giving a long presentation or a long talk. But I would say before that, before even thinking about how you're structuring the delivery. Step one is to get your voice warm. Don't go into it cold. Shake it out, do some lip trills, do some howling. Do some humming, do some yawning and sighing. Get your voice moving. You can't just go in and in your brain say, "I'm going to move my voice around."
Jessica Hansen (41:55):
You have to open it up. No NBA player goes into a game cold. You don't park in the parking lot, go into the locker room, put on your uniform and start the game. You go in, you do the drills. You're with the team, and you're passing, and you're shooting. This is the same. Why would you not warm up your voice? Your voice is your instrument and you are a professional voice user. So get it warm, get it ready. And then you will find that it's so much easier to move it around. Step two, before you even think about delivery is get yourself into a good position. Especially with these Zooms, the ergonomic setups are all over the map.
Daniel Scrivner (42:36):
Oh, yeah terrible.
Jessica Hansen (42:37):
So people are... The chairs, the wrong height for the desk and the laptop is down on the desk and not at eye level. You've got to get your monitor at eye level so that you're not cutting off your throat if the camera slash your screen are below you. You're going to tip your chin down and then you've... I mean you can hear my voice. If you're tipping your chin down, you're cutting off your voice. And then some people to counter act that, will stick their collar bones forward to try to make that space so they can breathe.
Jessica Hansen (43:08):
Now, you've got like a little zigzag shape in your airway, which is even worse. So make sure that your hips are underneath your ribs and your ribs are underneath your shoulder tops and the points of your shoulders are underneath your ears, and your head is balanced and your eyes are looking out to the horizon and not down or up. Either way is going to make your airway of your channel go junky and you don't want that.
Jessica Hansen (43:35):
If you've got a warm voice and a clear air channel, then your voice can freely move and you can think about should I go up or down here? Should I slow down here? Where should I take a dramatic pause for effect? Where should I get warm and low and close? Where should I get bright and far and excited? All of those things are after you've established that your voice is ready to do those things and your air is accessible to you.
Daniel Scrivner (44:04):
Yeah, I love that a theme that it feels like keeps bubbling up just during the conversation is mindfulness, being aware of the position of your body, being aware of where you're holding tension or where you might not be holding tension, and all the bad habits that we accrue. But it does seem like a big part of, I don't know working on your voice or being able to sculpt the quality of your voice is almost just being in touch.
Jessica Hansen (44:29):
It's true. It's really, really true and sometimes you develop new habits, good habits, because you're aware, "Oh, I have a jaw attention." So you focus on your jaw and you focus on your jaw, and eventually you develop some better habits with your jaw. But that doesn't mean that ever the jaw awareness goes away. The mindfulness is everything and in some cases, it's not the top of mind thing because you've practiced it. So you can get it to a place where the little mice in the back of your head just like hit the button when you need to pay attention like ding, something tensed up. Oh, yeah. Okay.
Daniel Scrivner (45:05):
Yeah, I love that. I've never asked you this. I'm super interested to hear your response. But what's a voice. So it could be an actor, it could be an actress or voices that you feel really drawn to or that you think are really interesting and maybe they're even at NPR, maybe they're not, but I'm curious what are some voices that you think are particularly interesting or that you just love the quality and the tone.
Jessica Hansen (45:24):
Sure. So people ask me this a lot who's your favorite NPR voice? And it's true, I mean we can all point to those beautiful sonorous voices that we just could drown in, James Earl Jones. And then there are the voices like Tom Hanks that just feels so comfortable all the time. You're just like, "Oh, that's my favorite sweater. I could always put it on." But for me my favorite voices are the ones that completely transform. Cate Blanchett for instance is one of the most transformative actors alive today. If you look at her in Elizabeth and you look at her in The Gift, there's no way you could even think they're the same person and yet there it is.
Jessica Hansen (46:07):
She does that physically, but she does it vocally too. She has a mastery of her instrument that even Elizabeth from the beginning of the film to the end of the film is a completely different vocal person. She has such a subtle control over where her voice is and what it's doing. I just love to watch her on screen or on stage because her power, her control, and her subtle use of color in her voice as well as everything else is just mind-boggling. I love Cate Blanchett. That's the answer to that one. Cate, Cate Blanchett. Yummy.
Daniel Scrivner (46:50):
Period, full stop, end of story. I love your description of Tom Hanks's voice because one as soon as you said that, I was like, "Oh my god. That's so true." And that's just so true of his... I feel like his acting and his persona in general. But I think the other thing that's really interesting there goes back to your point that you want to figure out what that voice is. What the most interesting, most unique version of your voice is and not trying to sound like anybody else. What's funny just thinking about how you describe Tom Hanks's voice is I'm guessing you've never had a client that's come to you and said, "Oh, my voice to sound like a sweater." Your favorite homie sweater that you want to put on all the time and yet that's something that makes his voice just particularly fascinating.
Jessica Hansen (47:30):
True, true and we love to love Tom Hanks. He is a person who has a strong sense of self. He's relaxed and confident. He doesn't have one of those booming sonorous voices, but he is present. He is present in his voice. He is relaxed in his voice and you can hear it and you're drawn in, right? Well, I am. I'm drawn in. I don't know about the rest of you, but I am drawn in. I feel like I can just hang out with Tom Hanks. Yeah, it's a good time. It's easy.
Daniel Scrivner (47:58):
We did a lot of these when we were working together, but we did a lot of weird but effective exercises, so I'm curious just personally are there weird but effective exercises that one, you have every client do and two that you do personally that you swear by and if you describe them to people, they're going to sound a little bit weird, but you do them for a reason.
Jessica Hansen (48:19):
Yeah. I mean, I think there are clients out there that would tell you absolutely everything I do is weird. For sure. I think I mentioned it before, but the laughing and crying is a great one. Laughter and crying are things that we know how to do. We're born knowing how to do them. As babies, we can laugh and cry and it's such a powerful basic human thing inside us that when you just laugh, just even start with a little chuckle. You can feel your belly connecting with your breath. And it's the same thing with a cry. It's the same mechanism and it's the same placement.
Jessica Hansen (49:04):
That belly kicks in which connects your breath and your voice instantly. One of the other things that I love to do is any version of a shimmy or a tremor or a shake. When you shake your voice, you shake loose all this crud. You shake loose a bunch of tension. You shake out... Even if you go get a massage and get off the table, your voice isn't going to be what it is if you shake because you're also infusing energy in the shake.
Jessica Hansen (49:34):
It doesn't have to be anything particularly structured. Just wiggle your whole body. Let your arms, and your hands, and your head, and your jaw, and everything, shake, shake, shake, shake on a big ah or an oh, and just let all that sound come out. That's one of my favorites. It's super easy. You can do it anywhere, anytime and it's got like full impact. You go from zero to 60 boom.
Daniel Scrivner (49:58):
Yeah. And I think for a lot of us, we unfortunately don't move our bodies very often during the day either so it's just the simple act of getting your body in motion. It really helps.
Jessica Hansen (50:06):
Truly. Truly. Especially now that we're all at home and we're staring at Zoom screens, we're not even walking down the hall for the next meeting, we're just... Definitely get up every hour, stretch, shake, breathe, yawn, cry, laugh.
Daniel Scrivner (50:23):
So one thing that I want to touch on is for someone listening that they are probably feeling how I felt before working with you which is they don't have confidence in their voice, they probably don't find it particularly appealing or they just... I think my experience with it was you don't get to choose your voice. It is there and for most of us, we never learn like a lot of things in life, how to harness it or how to think about it and yet it's something we use all the time to communicate our emotion, to try to compel people, to believe in something that we believe, to connect in intimate ways with our significant other. So your voice is super important.
Daniel Scrivner (51:02):
So for someone listening that maybe has that same sense of I... Maybe don't probably particularly like my voice. I want to start making, maybe just start with one simple little step to begin their own journey of improving their voice. Is there a book, a course, a video on YouTube that you would direct somebody to or maybe it's just an exercise?
Jessica Hansen (51:25):
Yeah. There are a lot of really good voice books. Voice books though are really difficult to read, if you haven't already done voice work. The voice books that are out there, they will describe the voice exercises, but I think it's really better to have practical instruction. If you've had some practical instruction, then maybe go back and read the book. It's got good reminders, adjustments for techniques and good exercises.
Jessica Hansen (51:52):
There is of course my YouTube video that has four exercises that's like you see me demonstrating them super easy to do, great place to start. They're very basic exercises. As for courses, yes, and actually right now in the pandemic is a brilliant time because voice classes are online when they aren't normally. Usually, you'd have to go to New York or LA or London. Right now, everybody is doing them online. So absolutely.
Jessica Hansen (52:20):
But be careful. Be judicious about who you're choosing. The Linklater Centre in Orkney is doing some online right now. Make sure that you're choosing certified teachers. There's a ton of stuff on YouTube that I look at it and I think, "Oh my gosh. I hope people aren't doing this." So just make sure that you're choosing whether it's Feldenkrais or Alexander technique or Patsy Rodenberg or Linklater, or whomever.
Jessica Hansen (52:48):
Make sure that you're finding somebody who's a certified teacher if it's YouTube or you're signing up for a class, sign up through an organization that is reputable. But right now is a great time to do a course online because things are accessible and available right now that normally are not. So the course options are great. I took last week a Linklater course that was taught by a woman in Mexico and another woman in Chile.
Daniel Scrivner (53:14):
Yeah. I wanted to just throw out like a few things that I picked up in my own research and experience that you didn't recommend. I just want to be super clear, you didn't recommend these, but I thought I would throw them out and I will link to everything that you just shared in the show notes. So thanks for all those. But I figured I would just throw in a couple more. You talked a lot about warm-ups. One of the things that you particularly gave me were a few tongue twisters that I can do, which were super helpful.
Daniel Scrivner (53:38):
One book that I found that's in that same vein that I don't even know, there's probably been 100 copies of it purchased ever, but I love it and it's just super fun to do and it's a great way to warm up your voice. It's just tongue twisters. Rodney Saulsberry has a great book called Tongue Twisters and Vocal Warm-ups that it's almost like you can flip to any page and just give something a try, and it's a good way to warm it up.
Jessica Hansen (53:58):
Oh, that's neat.
Daniel Scrivner (53:58):
And then another one that is a little difficult, but it's a device called a Bone Prop and it's for all intensive purposes like a tiny little bone. It's not an actual bone, but it's like a tiny little bone shape that you put in between your top and bottom teeth and you use it to try to just work on enunciation and basically... At least, I'll just describe my experience with it, you sound ridiculous when you put it in and it makes it just much harder to try to have clear enunciation.
Daniel Scrivner (54:25):
So the kind of idea is you can warm up with that and if you're able to do it in this more difficult way, with this Bone Prop then it should carry over to your regular speech. So those are two things that I picked up. Do you have anything to add to that or is there any products you would recommend?
Jessica Hansen (54:41):
Yeah. I mean, that's great what you just said about the Bone Prop. If you can run a marathon, you can run around the block with no problem. This is why it's so important to do your daily exercises if you're a professional voice user or if you just want to use your voice better in your life to work on it daily to train. You have to train. And when you create these impediments for yourself to make it harder like a Bone Prop or sticking out your tongue to read your copy.
Jessica Hansen (55:09):
It's kind of remarkable how easy it is afterwards. It's sort of mind-blowing. I mean for me everybody's got their phrase or their word that they hate, right? For me, it's digital editor. Don't make me say digital editor, but you stick your tongue out and say digital editor, digital editor, digital editor. And then digital editor is suddenly so much easier and the articulation is so much lighter. So yes, props to the Bone Prop or just sticking your tongue out. I was wondering what's your favorite tongue twister. You said there are a couple that you love to do.
Daniel Scrivner (55:42):
It's a great, great way to put me on the spot here. Let me see. So I actually have it right here. I mean, they're just really fun. Just to share, the way that I typically do them is I just do them in the car. So I commute about half an hour each way. So one of the things that I just started doing when we started working together is I would just do a couple tongue twisters in the car.
Daniel Scrivner (56:01):
I guess my thought or something I always try to incorporate into some area that I want to improve is my personal experience has been if I just go for it and try to find things that I enjoy or things that feel more like play or things that feel more like a game, it just makes it so much easier to do. One that I like doing is, and these all come right from that Rodney Saulsberry book is it's called Bippity Bumpity. But it's just bippity bumpity rippity rumpity rippity bippity boo. Bippity bumpity rippity rumpy, let's make it harder to do. Bumpsity rumsidy dumbsilly clumsily hopefully soon will be through with bippity bumpity rippity rumpity stop when your pink tongue turns blue.
Daniel Scrivner (56:36):
And that's one of like a five or six sequence and then as you progress, you try to do those faster, you try to connect them together and that is I will say very easy and there are some inside there that are just incredibly difficult to do. So it's fun. It's a fun way to try to get better at it, work on technique.
Jessica Hansen (56:54):
Let me say one thing about that because when you said it's more fun for you to do it, when you feel like you're playing, I mean that is the key to everything. No matter what these exercises are, if you can treat them like play, if you can play with them, if you can have that attitude of being playful, not only does it make the work more fun, but it makes the work better. It improves the quality of the work that you do when you approach it with a playful attitude. You are more relaxed, you're more released and so the work happens deeper and it happens more fully because you've released all this intensity of focus and concentration.
Daniel Scrivner (57:32):
Yeah, and you're more present. I feel like a lot of us are just on the surface and you need to try to find ways to engage a little bit more fully all of your senses and engage emotionally. Yeah, it feels like a helpful way to do that.
Jessica Hansen (57:44):
Daniel Scrivner (57:45):
Well, thank you so much for coming on, for talking about something that I know I was fascinated. I feel so fortunate to work with you, or to have worked with you. I feel like this is an area that I think a lot of people struggle with and a lot of people would benefit from getting proper instruction, so thank you so much for being so generous for coming on and for sharing at least some of your secrets.
Jessica Hansen (58:06):
Oh, well, thank you so much for inviting me. It's always a pleasure to talk about this wonderful work and to help people understand that yeah, they're not locked into the sound that they have. You can grow and you can change, and you can make choices about how you want to sound and how you want to express yourself.
On Outliers, Daniel Scrivner explores the tactics, routines, and habits of world-class performers working at the edge — in business, investing, science, and so much more. In each episode, he decodes what they've mastered and what they've learned along the way. Start learning from the world’s best today. Listen to past episodes for free, be the first to hear about new episodes, and subscribe to Outliers on your favorite podcast platform.
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