How to Give a Speech When You Can’t Talk

When giving a speech, your voice is your most valuable tool. But, what do you do when you can’t use it?

Four years ago, I mounted a one-man show, Off-Off-Broadway, about two friends from my sketch comedy troupe who had died in the preceding two years. I was doing three performances, Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday evening.

When I woke that Friday morning, I was unable to speak. I had completely lost my voice. I wasn’t in any pain, but the sound that came out of my mouth hurt anyone who heard it. I was in a mild panic – it was a one-person show, so I had to speak the entire 80 minutes (minus some video clips). How would I get through three performances in two-and-a-half days?

Well, I did it (and you can see the results here). If you find yourself about to give a speech, but your voice is failing, here are my tips for handling it.

Cut the speech down. Let’s face it, most talks are too long. If your voice is shot, limit the amount of talking you have to do. If you have videos that can make your points, show them (which you probably should have been doing in the first place).

See a doctor. If you can, get yourself checked out. Most likely, you don’t have anything serious. But it’s better to know. Also, your doctor might give you handy tips on how to get your voice ready. In 2017, I was able to visit an urgent care clinic, where, along with prescribing a steroid to treat the sinus infection she said was the cause of my voice loss, the doctor gave me the following five tips.

  • Don’t Talk. Give your throat a rest. While I think you should rehearse every major talk you give, in this circumstance you might choose to skip it. At least avoid as many conversations as you can. And don’t yell, no matter how badly someone cut you off in traffic.
  • Rest. Get some sleep. I know doctors prescribe rest even more often than personal trainers tell you to “strengthen your core,” but they aren’t wrong. Sleep helps with healing, and it stops you from using your voice (unless you talk in your sleep).
  • Steam. Take a steam bath, especially if your laryngitis is related to your sinuses. If you can’t do a full sauna experience, try to breathe in the steam coming off some hot food or drink. To that end…
  • Tea with Honey. Backstage at my show, I had 2 cups of tea with honey at all times – one I was actively drinking whenever I left the stage, and one steeping. I don’t know the science behind it, but it helps.
  • Avoid spicy food, caffeine, and alcohol. This was the hardest for me to do, as I have an addiction to hot sauces and love a good beer, wine, scotch, etc., especially after a show (I gave up caffeine in college, however). But these delights dry out the throat, worsening your plight. No matter how good a single-malt might feel on your throat, it’s not helping you (just as it’s not making you warmer at a December football game). Skip these until you can say, with a full, clear voice, “I’ll have a dozen wings, nuclear level, and a pint of Guinness, please.”

All of those tips were useful, but none of them could help me when I was actually on stage. As luck would have it, Reneé Flemings, a fantastic singer and actor, came to my opening night (you can see and hear her and her amazing band here). I saw her before the show, and she passed along the following tips to get me through my performances.

Use your “Head voice.” When you sing, you place your voice forward – instead of forming the words towards your throat, you move closer to your teeth. Try doing the same when speaking. You’re not going to sing your speech (unless you sing as well as Reneé), but moving the air you use to speak forward in your mouth will give you more sound and take pressure off of your throat.

Don’t “push.” Don’t force the air from your diaphragm. This tenses up your whole breathing and speaking apparatus and makes matters worse. You want to open up and allow the air to travel up and out of your mouth.

Relax your upper body. Again, when struggling to speak, the tendency is to tighten up. Fight against it. As much as you can, keep your chest, throat, and mouth relaxed and open.

Don’t whisper. Whispering tenses up your throat. Instead of whispering, push the air forward as you speak and stay relaxed.

Don’t make your tea too hot, or your water too cold. Both will dry out your throat. Room temperature for the water, warm but not hot for the tea.

If you are desperate, and have hardly any sound coming out at all, Reneé suggests the following “folk remedies.”

Put a little ginger in your tea. Along with the honey.

Thayer’s slippery elm throat lozenges

Singer’s Throat Spray. “Only use two sprays of it – it’s pretty nasty.”

Drink a mixture of honey, slippery elm, and goldenseal. “Let it slowly slide down your throat. It is fowl, but it works.”

One last tip from me – be honest with your audience. In my show, I talked about my voice problems at the beginning. Feel free to open your speech acknowledging your hoarseness – maybe even joke about it if you are comfortable with using humor.

Let’s be honest – these tips will not magically transform your voice from Peter Brady during puberty to Morgan Freeman. But they should get you through your speech just well enough to make your points.

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