Speech Challenges

Learning Objectives

Identify speech challenges.

Each of our voices have a unique quality that makes it recognizable to the listener. There is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” voice. However, each speaker will have different challenges about the way they use their voice to speak in public. In considering these challenges, it is important to differentiate between speech disorders and vocal habits.

Speech Disorders

A speech disorder is a condition in which a person has problems creating the speech sounds needed to communicate. Speech disorders can affect people of all ages. Some speech disorders appear when a child first learns to speak, while others can arise as the result of medical conditions such as an illness or stroke. Stuttering is a speech disorder that disrupts a person’s ability to speak as smoothly or fluently as they desire.[1] Stuttering can make public speaking especially challenging, but many people who stutter have gone on to become internationally known speakers and entertainers (a long list can be found at the Stuttering Foundation website). By working with a certified speech pathologist, many children and adults with speech disorders have improved their level of fluency and become confident verbal communicators.

To Watch: Megan Washington

In this TED talk, singer-songwriter Megan Washington talks about speaking publicly as a person who has a stutter.

You can view the transcript for “The Thing Is, I Stutter: Megan Washington at TEDxSydney 2014” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

Washington uses humor, especially self-deprecating humor, extremely effectively in this talk. Her jokes not only help to win over the crowd, but also make her struggle to find her public voice both powerful and relatable. Her sincere yet humorous delivery also helps to reinforce her initial point, that public speaking with a stutter can be frightening, but, as she puts it, “not the worst thing in the world. . . . I know that other people in the world have far worse things to deal with.”

Vocal Habits

Each of us has our own patterns and habits of speech. It’s good to keep in mind, though, that we sometimes slip into speech habits that may work against the impression we’re trying to make. This is especially true when we’re nervous. Some speakers worry that their voice makes them sound uncertain or unsophisticated, or that they speak with less power and conviction than they feel.

Before addressing these vocal issues, it is important to point out that a number of commentators have characterized some of the public attacks of “bad voice habits” as barely camouflaged attacks on women, especially young women. As Rachel Thompson puts it:

Women are constantly being told that their voices sound too high-pitched, too “Valley Girl,” too shrill. Women are told they apologise too much, that they use too many discourse markers—”like,” “ya know,” “I mean”—and that they’re exhibiting vocal fry and upspeak. [. . .] Once we had the words to define the perceived problem, critics couldn’t stop using them to belittle women. But the kicker is, in some cases, these behaviours are just as prevalent in men. [. . .] The internet is littered with utility posts instructing women how they can ditch these speech patterns to sound more professional, more confident, more capable. But the same isn’t true for men.[2]

Other cultural commentators, including the prominent feminist author Naomi Wolf, have suggested that young women can face disadvantages in the workplace and in politics because of vocal habits that come across (according to Wolf’s sources) as insecure, immature, or incompetent. As Wolf writes, “The most empowered generation of women ever—today’s twentysomethings in North America and Britain—is being hobbled in some important ways by something as basic as a new fashion in how they use their voices.” Wolf encourages women to “reclaim their voice,” writing, “we should not ask young women to put on fake voices or to alter essential parts of themselves. But in my experience of teaching voice to women for two decades, when a young woman is encouraged to own her power and is given basic skills in claiming her own voice then huge, good changes follow.”[3]

Although the debate around whether these vocal habits are a problem has focused on young women, it is important to note, as Thompson points out, that these vocal characteristics are common among both men and women. (In fact, one study found that men use more vocal fry than women.[4]) We are presenting this information here to help you identify and understand your own vocal patterns and decide for yourself how you want your voice to be heard.

Vocal Fry

The vocal fry register (also known as creak, glottal fry, glottal rattle, or strohbass) is the lowest vocal register and is produced when loose vocal folds vibrate together. This permits air to bubble through slowly with a popping or rattling sound of a very low frequency.

What is vocal fry?

In this video, Lauren Vogelbaum discusses the physiology of vocal fry:

You can view the transcript for “How Does Vocal Fry Work?” here (opens in new window).

Controversy: Are criticisms of Vocal Fry Sexist?

This report from CBC News summarizes the recent debate about the voice pattern known as vocal fry.

You can view the transcript for “Vocal fry: An attack on women?” here (opens in new window).

To prevent vocal fry, the simplest method is to make sure you have enough breath to support the end of your sentence. Test the difference between saying a sentence after exhaling all the air in your lungs versus saying the same sentence after filling your lungs with air. Vocal fry often occurs at the end of long statements when the speaker runs out of air. Instead, use shorter sentences and don’t forget to breathe when there’s a natural pause in the sentence. Also, since vocal fry occurs in the lowest registers of pitch, you can try using a slightly higher pitch.


“Upspeak,” also known as the high rising terminal (HRT) or “uptalk,” refers to a tendency to end declarative sentences or parts of sentences with a rising-pitch intonation, as though the sentence were a question. Although upspeak, like vocal fry, may simply be a value-neutral evolution of spoken English, some listeners consider it off-putting. Since English speakers are used to hearing a rising pitch at the end of questions, some listeners find that a declarative sentence (that is, a statement, not a question) that seems to end in a question mark can make the speaker seem hesitant, uncertain, or insecure. It is important to note that both men and women use upspeak frequently, although some experts have suggested differences between how men and women use it.[5]

One of the best ways to discover whether you use more upspeak than you’d like is to record your speech and pay attention to your intonation while watching it. If you do find that you’re ending statements with a rising intonation, you can mark up your notes to remind yourself to end declarative sentences with a falling intonation. Some people use down arrows to remind themselves to do this, while others end important sentences with exclamation points.

Breathy, Nasal, or Strident Voice

A breathy voice allows too much air to escape while speaking and therefore isn’t supported by the diaphragm. The actress Marilyn Monroe performed, famously, with a breathy voice. This can be fixed by lowering the pitch of the voice and working on speaking from the diaphragm.

A nasal voice pushes all the air through the nose rather than using the mouth. To correct this vocal problem, lower the jaw when speaking and drop the pitch of the voice down. This will bring the resonance into the mouth and away from the nose.

If you feel like your throat is sore after speaking, you may be tensing your vocal chords too much while speaking. Not only is this uncomfortable and tiring, it can also sound harsh, strained, or strident. (The comedian Gilbert Gottfried performs with this kind of voice, especially when he voices cartoon characters like the parrot Iago from Aladdin). To correct this problem, the throat needs to be relaxed. Some speakers apply a warm washcloth to help relax the throat muscles, or drink warm tea to relax the vocal chords. Try to speak from your diaphragm and pay attention to breathing. You can also experiment with different pitches until you find one that allows you to relax more while speaking.

Filler words

In linguistics, a filler or filled pause is a sound or word that is spoken in conversation by one participant to signal to others a pause to think without giving the impression of having finished speaking. In American English, the most common filler sounds are ah, uh, and um. Among younger speakers, the fillers like, you know, I mean, okay, so, actually, basically, and right are among the more prevalent. While there are many different reasons for using filler words, sociolinguists have identified six main reasons for doing so: pausing to give time for the speaker to gather their thoughts, speaking more indirectly in order to encourage politeness, approaching delicate topics gently, emphasizing ideas, providing clues to emotions or behaviors, and communicating uncertainty.[6]

If you worry that your use of filler words might be distracting for your listeners, or if you’ve been told that you say um or like too much, you might consider watching a recording of yourself speaking. Often, we don’t even notice that we’re using filler words (especially since they tend to arise when we’re thinking hard about what we want to say next). By making yourself aware of your habits around filler words, you can put in the extra mental effort to reduce your reliance on them. The best way to stop using filler words is to get used to silent pauses instead of filling the silence with a filler sound. If you write pauses into your notes, this will remind you to pay attention to the way you use the pause to collect your ideas and refocus your audience.[7]

vocal Exercises

In this video, vocal coach Jessica Hansen offers some exercises for sounding more natural when speaking into a microphone.

You can view the transcript for “Three tips for training your voice | NPR Training | NPR” here (opens in new window).


  1. "Speech and Language Disorders in Children." Edited by Sara Rosenbaum and Patti Simon. National Academies Press, 2016, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK356270/
  2. Thompson, Rachel. "Stop Telling Women How They Should Talk." Mashable, 22 Aug 2018, https://mashable.com/article/vocal-fry-upspeak-women/
  3. Wolf, Naomi. "Young Women, Give up the Vocal Fry and Reclaim Your Strong Female Voice." The Guardian, 24 Jul 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/24/vocal-fry-strong-female-voice
  4. Irons, Sarah T. and Alexander, Jessica E. "Vocal Fry in Realistic Speech: Acoustic Characteristics and Perceptions of Vocal Fry in Spontaneously Produced and Read Speech." The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 140:4, 2016.
  5. Rutter, Virgina. "Men and Women Use Uptalk Differently: A Study of Jeopardy!" Sociological Images, 28 Dec. 2013, https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2013/12/28/men-and-women-use-uptalk-differently-a-study-of-jeopardy/
  6. "Exploring linguistic fillers". Nimdzi. https://www.nimdzi.com/exploring-linguistic-fillers/.
  7. Zandan, Noah. "How to Stop Saying 'Um,' 'Ah,' and 'You Know'." Harvard Business Review, 1 Aug. 2018, https://hbr.org/2018/08/how-to-stop-saying-um-ah-and-you-know