“Help! I’ve Lost My Voice!”: When a Speaker Gets Laryngitis

Eleni Kelakos presentation skills training, public speaking training, speech coaching

Recently, my biggest nightmare as a speaker, coach and trainer came to pass:  I lost my voice. I mean, entirely. I couldn’t even muster up a pathetic, hoarse little whisper. It was utterly terrifying. And, of course, it couldn’t have happened at a worse time: Having just finished giving a Friday workshop out of state, I was poised to deliver four more trainings over three consecutive days, on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.  Trying not to panic, I spent the weekend on total vocal rest, drinking as many fluids as I could manage. This paid off, somewhat: On Monday morning, my voice was partially back.  And it lasted right up until the end of two, two-and-a-half hour long presentations, when it promptly petered out to a quiet little whisper.

With virtually no voice, and a throat that was beginning to hurt, I knew I had to face the fact that I wouldn’t be able to manage two more days of presentations.  And so, I made the dreaded calls to the good folks who had hired me. Fortunately, due to the nature, size, and location of the presentations, we were able to cancel and reschedule without too many repercussions. But, for someone raised with the directive “The show must go on!” it was devastating.  Until that point, I had never, ever, missed or canceled a performance for vocal health reasons in all my years as an actress, singer, speaker and trainer.  After a partial meltdown and a good cry, I then decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and focus on healing.

My next step was to visit a kind, knowledgeable, top-of-the line ear, nose and throat specialist (or Oryntologist), who snaked a small camera into my nose (fun!) and let me see my vocal chords for the first time on a video screen.  So pink! So plump!  So utterly unable to vibrate properly due to, apparently, a viral infection!  No vibration, no voice—plain and simple. This was also the first time I’d even been in a doctor’s office that featured a keyboard and microphones.  At one point, the good doc asked me to sing (well, croak) along to some notes, so he could determine the extent of my vocal incapacitation.  Come to think of it, singing and speaking into a microphone in the privacy of a doctor’s office was also another first.

I was glad to learn that I had no polyps, no odd growths, no ruptured anything.  Just vocal chords that had been compromised due to a virus; vocal chords that desperately needed rest, hydration, and a little assistance in swelling reduction from a short course of prescribed steroids.

The Doctor also suggested I regularly irrigate my sinuses with saline solution—something I already do with the help of my trusty Neti Pot.

I left the Doctor’s office feeling cheered and hopeful. And I’m happy to say that within 24 hours my voice was well on its way to recovery (mostly due to the steroids, I’m sure).

On the heels of this experience, I flew to Orlando to attend the National Speakers Association’s INFLUENCE convention. On the very first day, in a rather fortuitous coincidence, I attended a breakout session facilitated by fellow coach, trainer and vocal mechanics expert, Hilary Blair, who had a great deal to say about how to care for– and help heal– a voice that is fatigued, or going, going, gone from laryngitis.

Keeping your voice healthy in the first place, so you don’t lose it, is, of course, of paramount importance, especially if you speak to groups or meet with clients on a regular basis. Maintaining vocal health means treating your voice kindly by not yelling un-necessarily and correcting any vocal habits that wear out your vocal chords (like speaking in a shrill voice). It also means releasing tension in your shoulders, neck and face– because, as Ms. Blair puts it, “tension kills resonance.” Or as I like to phrase it, “You can’t transmit or receive effectively in a body that’s sphinctered up!”

Sometimes, however, circumstances outside of our control —like too many speaking engagements in a row with lousy amplification, or being broadsided by a bronchial infection—can cause us to lose our voice. To help regain a lost or flagging voice, Ms. Blair surprised me by suggesting we engage in healing vocal exercises. I say “surprised,” because, as a singer, actress and professional speaker, I’ve only ever used vocal exercises to warm-up my voice; and I was under the impression that complete vocal rest was key to recovery in the case of laryngitis.   According to Ms. Blair, however, gentle vocal warmups allow the vocal cords to regain their flexibility and ability to produce sound.  This was welcome news to me: The same vocal exercises I’ve known and used for years, and that I teach my presentation skills clients as a means of warming up their voice prior to a speaking engagement, can also be used as part of a vocal healing process.  Who knew?

Here are three of the exercises Ms. Blair suggested:

  1. HUM: Hum gently, with lightly pursed lips…hmmmmmmm. Just move your voice around comfortably, or go up and down the musical scale.
  2. MOTORBOAT (or B-B-BABY BUBBLES, as I like to call it). Keeping your lips together, blow until they vibrate and make a b-b-b-b-b-b sound. Babies do this all the time when they are blowing spit bubbles. Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, make the sound go up and down like a siren. FYI, doing this exercise should make your lips and nose tickle a bit.
  3. PUPPY WHINE: With your lips pressed together, make the sound a dog makes when it wants a treat, a “Hmm… Hmm” sound sliding from high to low.

As Ms. Blair suggested, doing these exercises, gently and in moderation, as you’re recovering from losing your voice—along with fluids and rest—can do wonders for your vocal health. (She also made note of the fact that rest, hydration and vocal healing exercises are not a substitute for professional medical advice if you think you’re dealing with a vocal emergency like a node or vocal cord hemorrhage).

I am currently Humming, Motorboating, and Puppy Whining on a regular basis. And I am delighted to say that my voice has returned to its full resonance and expression.  My brief– but impactful– episode of vocal loss was, however, a good reminder of just how precious our voices are. The primary method for delivering your valuable ideas, unique solutions, and deep wisdom is, after all, your voice.  So take good care of it.  And if, in spite of your best efforts, your voice somehow goes away, gently bring it back to life through rest, fluids, and vocal exercises.

Because you matter. Your voice matters. #Use your words to change your world!