Twice this week, I have experienced the very unpleasant sound of people clearing their throats while presenting information and ideas. I don’t just mean a one time clearing of the throat, but repeatedly. One person was giving a presentation in front of a live audience. The other person was on the phone with me for thirty minutes. In both “environments,” the sound of throat clearing certainly got my attention, but in a very negative way. I winced. I felt their pain. And after hearing their voices and the repeated clearing of their throats, I came away with the impression that these two individuals were older, more nervous, less prepared, and possibly unwell. Did I read this right? What else could be going on?
What does it sound like?
Why do we do feel a need to clear our throats?
Are you a habitual throat clearer?
“Throat clearing becomes habituated in some people and can occur without conscious awareness. To determine if you are a habitual throat clearer, tally every time you clear your throat in a day. If you are clearing more than a few times in the absence of illness, you may be doing so habitually.”
– Kate DeVore and Starr Cookman, authors of The Voice Book
There are known medical conditions and seasonal allergies that can stimulate an increased production of phlegm or mucus in the throat, and post nasal drainage in our sinuses. My friend, Dr. Todd Zachs is a Otolaryngology or Ear/Nose & Throat specialist. He told me that most common reason people who come to see him about problems clearing their throats is Silent Reflux (also known as Laryngeal pharyngeal reflux or LPR). Dr. Zachs cited one medical study that suggested that as many as 18% of the adult population may experience LPR.
For these reasons we may find ourselves needing to clear this excess mucus and “junk” in order to breathe, speak, and function comfortably. And the resulting sound may disturb others sharing the same space as we do. As the sister of a brother who suffered from Cystic Fibrosis, I am sensitive to the challenges that people with chronic respiratory illnesses face. So I try to be tolerant and understanding, as some situations are beyond our control.
And then there are the emotional variables that cause us to feel the need to clear our throats. When we are giving a presentation or speaking up at a meeting, we often experience emotional stress or anxiety. People are looking at us, judging our words and worth. This can cause us to momentarily lose our confidence. We begin to abandon ourselves and surrender our power and our self-esteem. We might find ourselves feeling the need to clear our throats in response to this distress.
In my work as an executive presentation coach and trainer, I am keenly aware of how the sound of your voice impacts your message and leadership presence. Sound engages…or disengages…. your audience. Clearing your throat repeatedly during a presentation (in person or over the phone) can alienate your audience and cause them to doubt your expertise. And you may be completely unaware that you are doing it. If not corrected, this could become a habitual problem – a bad habit that could dampen your potential.
As irritating as grinding the gears in a car
It turns out that clearing your throat is counter productive. My voice coach and dear friend, Arthur Samuel Joseph, founder of the Vocal Awareness Institute, told me on the phone today that one of the worst things you can do to your larynx is to clear your throat in the way we all habitually do. He says in his book, Vocal Power: Harnessing Your Inner Voice to Conquer Everyday Communication Challenges , that “clearing the throat badly irritates the vocal mechanism, wearing it down much like grinding gears in your car. To function efficiently, the vocal folds need air. Throat clearing causes the vocal folds to rub together without air…..just as grinding the gears in a car with a stick shift ….. and therefore hurts the voice.”
A clear red flag: clearing your throat during a phone interview
I spoke with a friend who is a recruiter and staffing professional for a Fortune 50 company. She interviews people on the telephone all day long. When job candidates clear their throats during a phone interview, she takes notice. It’s a clear red flag to her. Here’s what she said:
“When I interview a person on the phone who keeps clearing their throat, I think that they are telling me something that is hard to swallow. Perhaps a lie or a bent truth or something they really don’t like to say – such as repeating a pet answer to why they left a job. Sometimes they do a little laugh, then clear their throat, then start with the word, ‘Honestly…’ I really know this to be true when the throat clearing doesn’t happen when they are on a subject that they are very comfortable and confident with. It seems to occur more with male candidates than with female candidates.” – N.A.
What can you do about it?
To find working solutions to the problem of clearing your throat, Arthur directed me to Chapter 5 of his book Vocal Power. Great tips and insights on how to overcome the throat clearing problem are given therein. With Arthur’s permission, I’m sharing excerpts from Chapter 5: “Health Benefits of Vocal Power.”
- Swallow it. Instead of attempting to clear your throat, allow saliva to build up in your mouth and then swallow it, recommends Arthur. Or cough very gently to loosen mucus on the vocal folds and swallow. This should be a quiet cough, not percussive or hacking. The gentle approach will probably clear the vocal folds and give you the relief you are seeking.
- Warm up your voice. Before your presentation (or meeting or phone call), you should take a few moments to warm up your voice. You are a wind instrument after all. No different than a clarinet or a trumpet. Doing a simple series of “Umm” and “Um Hmmm” with your lips gently closed will help activate the vibration in the bone above your top lip. It should tickle a bit. Arthur calls this “finding the hub of your voice.” One of the keys is the nasality of the sound you make in this exercise. You should feel a little vibration in your lips. Where the pitch ends up is optimally where you should end up speaking.
- Sucking on lozenges can be helpful. Arthur recommends Grether’s blackcurrant or redcurrant pastilles, an over-the-counter brand of lozenges made in Switzerland from an old English recipe. The company’s web site claims “Grether’s Pastilles have a particularly soothing effect on sore throats, hoarseness, strained voice and a dry mouth. The carefully processed ingredients soothe irritation and coat overtaxed vocal cords like a protective film.” I’ve just ordered them. They are a bit pricey. I’ll let you know what I think after trying them out. Note: Arthur recommends that we stay away from menthol-coated drops, as they can sometimes irritate the throat.
- Gargling (silently). Gargling can sometimes contribute to cleaning out mucous, even though it doesn’t clear very far down the throat. A simple recipe is to mix one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar into six ounces of warm water. That’s enough for two or three shots of gargle. Take a mouthful, gargle it in the back of your throat and then expel it. Arthur advises us not to make noise as you gargle. Silent gargling is more healthful.
- Practice good vocal hygiene. This includes drinking plenty of fluids. Room temperature water is best, as hot and cold temperatures affect the vocal folds in ways that won’t support your best sound. Limit the coffee intake (regular and decaf) as this beverage dries out your mucus membranes. In addition to water, you may enjoy drinking honey and lemon in warm water (that’s warm to the touch, not hot).
- Give yourself vocal rest. “If you are feeling poorly and this condition involves your throat, use your voice as little as possible. Put yourself on at least 12 to 24 hours of complete vocal rest,” says vocal coach, Arthur Samuel Joseph. He also reminds us that whispering is not a good solution as whispering is performed by a tiny set of muscles called the crycothyroid which tires and wears out a lot faster.
- Avoid mucous stimulating food and beverages before important speaking events. Sugar creates mucous and thus should be avoided. Alcoholic beverages can sometimes produce excess mucous as well. White wine is the least offensive to your vocal folds. Red wine, grain alcohol, vodka, and beer can create more mucous. Dairy products (especially milk and cream) are notorious for producing mucous.
- Avoid smoking (anything). In addition to the obvious cancer risks, smoking subjects your vocal folds to 2,000-3,000 degree heat and that severely dries out the mucous membranes. As a result, the membranes then over-secrete mucous to protect themselves. While the mucous levels increase, new layers of tissue are formed on the vocal folds, which thicken, redden, and enlarge the muscles. As this happens, the throat has to be cleared more often, which irritates the vocal tract and the vocal folds even more. Smoking reduces your vocal leadership.
- Take a Mastery Moment. Arthur Samuel Joseph recommends that you allow yourself sixty seconds of quiet time to center yourself prior to speaking. He calls this a “Mastery Moment.” Go somewhere quiet and just be still. Center yourself. Get into stature. Breathe slowly, deeply and silently. Arthur describes this as allowing a breath, not taking a breath. It makes a huge difference in the quality of the breath.
Your voice matters
The quality of your voice and how you use it should embody the leader that you aspire to be. Own your voice and you’ll own your power. This means that we have to be consciously aware of the sounds we are making. Throat clearing is unpleasant, and as you have read, it is counter productive to your health. We are evaluated by others not just by our ideas, contributions and productivity, but by the sound of our voices. I invite you to join me and Arthur in the vocal awareness movement. Empowerment through Voice is a goal worth pursuing! For more information, check out http://vocalawareness.com/