Most of us think of our voices as indestructible – a part of us that can’t be damaged or destroyed. Yet we rely on two small muscles when using our voice, our vocal cords. Like other muscles, these can be damaged by overuse, so it’s important to take care when using voice-activated computing.

In fact, people who use their voice in their work often develop vocal problems. For example, 22% of teachers regularly experience voice problems; many singers have had to give up promising careers because their voice failed them and you may remember politician and Premier of New South Wales, Neville Wran. His voice was so tested by a sore throat during an election campaign that he required an operation and has never sounded the same since.

People who take up voice-operated computing can experience the same problems. “When I first started voice-operated computing, I lost my voice a number of times as a result of overdoing it”, says one RSI sufferer. Another member was using voice-operated computing in the days when you had to dictate one word at a time: “I began to suffer from intense headaches and jaw problems … and was actually diagnosed as having an overuse injury of the jaw.”

Have a comfortable posture

There are precautions you can take to minimise the risk of voice overuse. Firstly, good posture is just as important when using your voice as when using the rest of your body. One suggestion is to try dictating without looking at the monitor, because this allows you to stand up, move around and reduce tension in your body.

Take breaks

Equally, you’ll need to give your voice muscles a rest, just as you do with other muscles in your body. When you take up voice-operated computing, the muscles you work with are no longer resting when you go to a meeting, have lunch with friends, talk on the phone, or sing along with the radio. You’ll need to plan rest breaks for your voice and build up dictation gradually, from maybe half an hour a day to a maximum of three hours a day at most.

Speak naturally

It’s also important to try to use your voice as naturally as you can. Some people adopt an unnaturally quiet voice when using a voice-operated computer, while others speak in a monotone; both of these put a strain on your voice. Try to vary your pitch and delivery in the same way that you would when you’re speaking to a friend.

Continue training

Voice-operated computing can be very stressful, especially when you’re first learning to use it. Sometimes, the software seems to refuse to recognise practically anything you say and this can make you feel very frustrated. You need to develop strategies to deal with this; one member says she just stops using it and does something else. Other strategies include:

  • getting extra tutorials in voice-operated computing to help improve your technique
  • training the software in new vocabulary or any words it finds difficult to recognise
  • doing some more training
  • checking the audio levels
  • checking that your microphone is properly positioned.

Look after your voice

Two things that your voice needs to operate well are warmth and lubrication. Your vocal cords need to be moist to work properly: this means that you’ll need to drink plenty of room temperature water before you start working, and you need to keep drinking as you work. You may need to increase your intake of liquids if you’re working in a very dry air-conditioned environment. Dehydrating substances like alcohol and caffeine should be avoided and smoking won’t do your voice any good either.

Check with your doctor about medications you may be taking—some of these can have a dehydrating effect as well. Other things to avoid include:

  • coughing or clearing your throat (try sighing instead)
  • yelling
  • whispering
  • trying to talk over noise
  • slumping
  • saying the same thing over and over again.

Many people find that particular commands can strain their voice and macros can be helpful here.

Be realistic

Finally, don’t be tempted to maintain the same work habits that could have contributed to your overuse injury when you switch over to voice-operated computing. Behaviours such as perfectionism, taking work too seriously, working to impossible deadlines without sufficient breaks and not making time to relax and exercise can all contribute to voice injury.

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