Avoiding phlegm in your throat with voiceovers (Voiceover)

When you’re recording screencasts, a lot of people think about microphones, and focus on the technical setup behind your sound. But really, your audio starts with the vocal cords in your larynx, the upper part of your throat.  Your voice is your main instrument, not the microphone. (Here’s a picture of some vocal cords.)

One of my biggest problems when narrating a screencast is that my throat gets all clogged up. I have to hit the pause and resume key every minute or so to clear my throat. Voiceover actors have learned to deal with this problem, since they often don’t have the benefits of a pause and resume key (F9 in Camtasia Studio, P in Audacity).

You can reduce the amount of phlegm that accumulates in your throat by chiefly doing these two things:

  1. Hydrate. Drink lots of water, one or two hours before you start recording. Look at how wet and slimy the vocal cords look. If they’re properly hydrated, they’ll function better. Experts recommend that you drink warm water because it will loosen up your vocal cords. They also discourage caffeinated drinks.
  2. Avoid dairy, such as milk and cheese. Dairy contributes to the phlegm that collects in the back of your throat.

I’ve read a smattering of other advice. In The Art of Voice Acting, James Alburger says to eat a green apple (not red). Apparently green apples cut down on the phlegm. He also says some voice actors eat greasy potato chips to reduce phlegm. Others squeeze lemons into the water they drink.

Since I’ve been recording screencasts lately, I’ve tried to avoid dairy and drink more water. But yesterday I had Alfredo-cheese pizza and tapioca pudding for lunch. I thought hey, it won’t make that much of a difference.

For the next few hours, my throat seemed like it had a slug stuck in it. I kept clearing my throat, hitting pause and resume after every 10 to 15 seconds, and then continuing.

It turns out clearing your throat is also bad. Peter Drew says,

If you feel mucous building up on your vocal cords, do not clear your throat. Throat clearing grates the edges of the folds of your larynx against each other causing irritation and it just moves the mucous to the side, ready to slide right back over your vocal cords. Drink some water, gently cough, or do the “panting puppy.” Simply stick out your tongue, pointing it downwards, and gently breathe in and out through your mouth, panting like a puppy. Be careful not to hyperventilate!  The panting will dry out the mucous.

The panting puppy? Yeah, just make sure your colleagues aren’t looking when you start doing that. I’m not exactly sure how to clear my throat with the panting puppy maneuver, but apparently a lot of others caution against throat clearing as well. Clearing your throat doesn’t get rid of the phlegm/mucous, it just moves it to the side, which explains why I kept having to clear my throat so often.

LiveScience also warns against throat clearing:

Don’t clear your throat too often. When you clear your throat, it’s like slamming your vocal cords together. Doing it too much can injure them and make you hoarse. Try a sip of water or swallow to quench the urge to clear. If you feel like you have to clear your throat a lot, get checked by a doctor for such things as acid reflux disease, or allergy and sinus conditions.

The more you clear your throat, the more you stress your vocal cords, and before you know it, they’re inflamed and hoarse.

James Alburger recommends gently coughing or humming to clear your throat:

When you need to clear your throat, do it gently with a mild cough rather than a hard, raspy throat clearing, which can actually hurt your vocal cords. Try humming from your throat, gradually progressing into a cough. The vibration from humming often helps break up phlegm in your throat. Always be sure to vocalize and put air across your vocal cords whenever you cough. Building up saliva in your mouth and swallowing before a mild cough is also beneficial. (The Art of Voice Acting)

Let’s sum up the advice we’ve read. To maintain a strong, clear voice without phlegm or mucous building up in your throat, drink a lot of warm water, avoid dairy, eat a green apple followed by a bag of greasy potato chips. If you feel your throat clogging up with mucous, don’t clear your throat. Instead, do the panting puppy, sip some water, hum, and gently cough.

I’m starting to learn the weird rituals of voiceover acting.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for a gamification company called Badgeville in the Silicon Valley area in California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), content development (DITA, testing), API documentation (code examples, programming), web publishing (web platforms, Web design) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS or by email. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

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