Losing your voice is an incredibly painful, frustrating, and debilitating experience. I’ve lost my voice a few times at conferences, especially in the first couple of years when I was new to the scene and wasn’t aware of how all the stresses could overwhelm me. I’m not a professional, but I’ve learned a few things, tried some other things, and haven’t had trouble with my voice for many years. Here’s what works for me.

First, recognize the stresses a conference can place on your ability to speak:

  • You likely flew to the conference in an airplane, which is a very dry environment.
  • You’re probably off your normal sleep, exercise, eating, and drinking schedule.
  • You may be exposed to smoke, for example if the conference is in Las Vegas.
  • You’re potentially drinking alcohol.
  • You’re probably spending time in loud places where you’re trying to be heard over lots of people, such as at an expo hall or a cocktail reception.
  • You’re nervous about performance, such as the presentation you’re going to give, and your overall stress and tension is high.

All of these factors can contribute1 to laryngitis, which can range from mild soreness and hoarseness to complete loss of the ability to make any noise above a whisper. And this can take days or even weeks to recover.

Here’s what I have learned to do:

  • Stay out of loud places. If I’m in a loud place, I do not try to compete with the volume around me. I get out if I can. If there is a factor that’s encouraging loudness, I try to mitigate that.2
  • I’m very careful with irritants such as coffee, secondary smoke, and alcohol.
  • I hydrate to compensate for the dryness of the plane and/or the air at the destination. If my lips feel dry, I know I’m stressing my throat, and I’m more careful.
  • I drink some warm herbal tea with lemon and honey. A stressed throat starts to generate mucus. Clearing my throat and coughing is additional stress. The lemon and honey help me reduce the amount of phlegm I need to clear, avoiding some of that stress. Similarly, I avoid drinking milk, which causes mucus production in the throat; and I basically don’t like coffee unless it has milk, so that’s another reason not to overdo the coffee.

I’ve learned that saliva is what moisturizes and soothes the throat, and staying hydrated prevents a dry mouth, which prevents a dry throat. I want my throat to stay in the middle ground between excess moistness and dryness.

I’ve also learned not to go to conferences where I can’t avoid things that make me ill. I do not go to Las Vegas. I have never been able to avoid secondary smoke there, no matter what measures I’ve taken. Even the hotel elevators, even at expensive hotels, even when I get a nonsmoking room, have cigarette smoke in them. It’s horrible. No more Vegas.

Above all, I try to talk less, and more quietly. By the time I’ve noticed that I’m getting hoarse, it may be too late: I’ve gone to bed slightly hoarse and woken up completely mute. I’ve learned to take this very seriously and not push my limits.

  1. I am not a doctor and this blog post is not medical advice. [return]
  2. If you’ve seen me go to the conference organizer and ask them to turn the music down in the expo hall, that’s me putting this advice into action. Hundreds of people competing to be heard over a DJ is just a downward spiral. [return]

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