The Secret of How to Overcome a Sore Throat When Speaking on Solar Neutrinos (or Anything Else)

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Sometimes physics advances too fast. Haste often creates problems. For example, when physicists developed the idea of the neutrino – a theoretically massless waste product from the thermonuclear furnaces powering stars – they calmly set up several underground experiments to detect these little critters as the sun spit them out. Trouble was, scientists couldn’t see enough of them to satisfy their hypothesis. “The data didn’t fit the theory,” claimed the academic elite, “so there must be something wrong with the data.” For forty years, our leading brains winced at the dilemma of the under counted neutrinos – an apparently unsolvable problem.

Your throat's getting worse. You've got to speak in two hours. How can you do it?

Your throat's getting worse. You've got to speak to the Rotary in just two hours. How can you do it?

But, I’m sure not many of you have visited here to learn how to solve the unsolvable problem of missing solar neutrinos. Here’s a more practical quandary: You’re scheduled to speak in a few hours and you’ve just come down with a cold. Your manager says you can take some over-the-counter thingamajig to solve the runny nose and fever, but that sore throat has you on the edge of laryngitis. What’s a great speaker to do?

I relearned the answer this morning thanks to my daughter. With a borderline fever, a pale complexion and a scratchy voice she went to teach catechism knowing she had to serve as lector at Mass immediately after tutoring her pupils. Since the good Sister scheduled me to pronounce the second reading, we had a “Plan B” should her illness have increased during her class. Sure enough, as she approached me right before Mass, her voice feebly spoke to me. I asked her if she felt good enough to go on.

To go on. As in, “the show must go on.” Sure she felt good enough, she didn’t hesitate to inform me through an obviously irritated esophagus. And wouldn’t you know it, when she went to the podium and spoke into the microphone, her voice flowed velvety smooth. Unsolvable problem solved.

How did she do this?

A half a lifetime ago, I danced the airwaves as a prime time radio personality. Once a week, every Thursday night from 9:00pm to midnight, I’d spin disks and talk. I talked so much people called to complain. But they kept listening. My voice became my tool, my weapon, my one true value added. And it seemed to work.

Then one day several years into this stint, I woke up with a sore throat, a really bad sore throat – so bad I feared losing my voice. Worse, the show loomed only hours away. I had never gone on the air with a tarnished voice. A nervous anxiety permeated my psyche. I’ve had coughs before, but that doesn’t matter on the radio. If you didn’t already know this, there’s a panic button on the DJ’s panel board made especially for hiding hacks and silencing sneezes. It takes you off the air long enough to get your business done. Of course, that only works in the short-term. It can’t cover up a coarse delivery.

Nonetheless, I dutifully arrived at the studio upon the appointed hour. I gulped at 8:59pm and then, for the next three consecutive hours, parlayed my pomp in perfect pitch. The show did go on – with great success and nary a disparaging thought among my listeners. Unsolvable problem solved.

Here’s the secret I discovered decades ago and my daughter discovered just hours ago: When speaking, the veteran will overcome most cold and flu induced vocal trauma and kick into the “professional” voice. Think about it. Well into his 70’s, Frank Sinatra still had The Voice. Why? Because he used it every day. All of us can attain this voice. It only demands diligent practice. For me, it’s the voice I had developed over time hosting countless radio shows. For my daughter, it’s the voice she’s used to project as a dramatist. For you, it’s probably the voice you’ve learn to use whenever someone sticks a microphone in front of your face. In either case, it’s innate. You’re so used to “the voice,” you need only rely on your subconscious to trigger it. So next time you’ve got an annoying sore throat before a big presentation, don’t sweat it. After all, the show must go on. There. Unsolvable problem solved.

So, that takes care of sore throats. But what about when you’ve got a frog in your throat and the only way to resolve the issue requires interrupting your speech and coughing it out? Unfortunately, no dais has a panic button – at least the last time I looked. The best thing to do: Go ahead and cough. Get it over with. Quickly. And then maybe add a little joke. Say, for example, “Whoops! Sorry. Must’ve accidentally swallowed one of them there neutrinos.”

N.B.: Scientists early in the new millennium solved the riddle of the neutrino not by changing the data, but by changing the theory. Astrophysicists now believe neutrinos – once thought to contain no mass –do have some heft. In fact, once scholars put a tad bit of weight on these buggers, everything all worked out. In the end, it’s amazing how often you can solve unsolvable problems merely by adding a little Mass.


  1. When all else fails, I gargle with tea, as hot as I can stand it. My voice comes back.

    Also, when I taught, I found that the classes where I had to speak softly because of my throat forced everyone to truly concentrate on what I was saying and were very effective.

  2. Chris Carosa says

    Thanks for the comment Renee. You’re right about speaking softly, especially in front of small group. In large halls, though, the voice needs to command attention lest the audience get frustrated. (Though at least in that venue they’re more likely to blame the sound technician than the speaker.)

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