Stand up, relax your shoulders and take in a deep breath. Hold it for a second and then let the air out slowly through loosely closed lips. While doing that, hum a single continuous tone. If you’re doing it right your lips should vibrate as the air passes between them. This is a vocal technique known as ‘the motorbike’. It probably sounds like a rather flatulent motorbike for the moment, but with practice you’ll get it purring nicely. You’re probably asking yourself – standing there feeling utterly ridiculous – why would anyone bother?
The motorbike is one of the most common vocal exercises used by singers, actors and other voice professionals. Regular practice builds a range of useful strengths. The relaxed breathing – deep down into the abdomen – builds lung capacity. The slow release of air develops breath control. The vibration of the lips warms up and tones the muscles of the mouth ready for action. The hum – a relaxed form of vocalisation emanating from deep in the chest – builds resonance. Singers use the motorbike to develop tonal range and tuning. For all its apparent silliness, the exercise distracts the self-judgemental mind, allowing the voice to pitch naturally and reach up (and down) to notes you never thought you’d reach.
All very well for actors and singers, but what has this got to do with leadership?
Quite simply, anyone in a leadership position is also a voice professional. You may not sing your way through the working day, but you use your voice constantly. The voice is your primary interface with your management teams, your professional services colleagues, your clients, and your customers. The strength and tone of voice affects the nature and quality of these interactions. Carrying everyday tension into a conversation conveys stress, anxiety or indecisiveness. Trying to overcome nerves by being overly authoritative is aggressive and, paradoxically, weak. Being unaware of the emotional temperature of a meeting can see it spin out of control.
In his recent book about the techniques of good writing, First You Write a Sentence (Viking 2018), Joe Moran is very clear about the wider importance of the embodied physicality of the voice. As he puts it (p115-6):
Speech is the vibration of that very stuff of life, air, as it moves up from the abdomen to the lips. A voice is a breathing body, the audible proof that a human being is alive at that moment, trying to make itself heard. A beautiful voice can soothe and bewitch the hearer in ways that inked words can’t. Speak in a sonorous voice and you change the weather in a room.
How often do you find yourself wishing you could affect that weather? From the squalls and tempests of a board meeting, through the chilly winds blowing through a ‘difficult conversation’, to the searing exposure of a pitch, we could all use some meteorological magic from time to time. The voice works that magic because it is always interpersonal – it forms a tangible connection between people at a distance. Whether you are speaking to one person or one hundred, face-to-face or through a camera, the resonant voice uses nothing more than vibrations in the air to transmit a rich blend of information, emotion, empathy, argument. The taken-for-granted voice often misses the possibilities this affords. Worse, the cold unacknowledged voice carries it all anyway, but without regard to the weather it creates.
Roffey Park Institute is developing a range of programmes and modules to explore and enhance the power of the voice. These include foundational work on the physical voice itself, extending to story-telling, harmony, improvisation, writing and beyond. This is not just about being a more effective leader. A wealth of research shows that developing the voice of everyone in your organisation contributes to welfare, wellbeing, confidence, and both personal and collective resilience. Daft though it may seem, regular runs on the motorbike help lay the foundations of that sought for sonority, that beautiful, bewitching voice. And that changes the weather.
Find out more about our new programmes and modules.
Moran, J, 2018, First You Write a Sentence, London, Viking.
 Do try it though. You never know where it might lead.