Meet Mr and Ms Monotone
You have probably attended a speech or presentation in which either Mr. or Ms Monotone was speaking. You could easily recognise them by the flat, colourless drone of their voices. It was like listening to a song except that the song was made of only one note and instead of being 5 minutes long, it went on for 10 or maybe even 15 minutes! By the end, you were singing a song of your own – probably also in one note – snore!
Variation in voice is one of the least applied yet most effective methods to keeping your presentation out of the boring realm. In this article, I will share some tips you can apply immediately to improve your effectiveness with your voice so that your presentations are more engaging and persuasive. Let us begin.
Why even bother about your voice?
If you will get and hold your audience’s attention, you must be aware of how you are coming across audibly. Without attention, it is difficult to persuade. And sound is after all the main medium of speech.
Attention is the currency of persuasion
How you sound matters and makes an enormous impact on the audience. Your voice sends unconscious messages that alter how the audience perceives your intelligence, enthusiasm and even your honesty.
I would say the impact of your voice is important under two major headings.
1. Your voice has a psychological effect on people
An energetic and enthusiastic voice will create a positive vibe of energy and interest in your audience. On the flip side, a listless speaker, like an unwitting wizard, will suck the life force out of any unfortunate person within earshot. This is not the enchantment you are likely going for. A speaker wants the audience excited and enthusiastic about their ideas. And that’s hard to do when the speaker has the vocal interest of radio static.
They judge me too. Heck, you would judge me by my voice too, probably. Have you ever talked with someone on the phone and then met them and they looked nothing like how they sounded?
We understand that a person’s voice is no indication of their appearance yet we all have a picture of what someone would look like based on their voice. Now let us apply that to you.
In most presentations, the audience will not have to guess what you look like, however, beyond looks, your voice is a very important indicator of your energy, enthusiasm, confidence, credibility and personality. The voice can also be used to convey authority. No wonder law enforcement agents are specially trained in the use of their voices to command compliance. You should see the drills they go through. Below are a few tips of my own. But don’t worry, they involve no yelling and no commands to “freeze”.
Five tips on effective voice use
Whereas voice coaching is well worth it if you intend to give a lot of presentations, there are only a few core aspects of your voice that you need to tweak to make a big difference in the impact your voice has in making your presentation a success. Let’s look at these.
#1 – Vary your pitch – with purpose
Pitch is how deep or high your voice sounds. Men have deeper voices than women do, in general. Regardless, both men and women can benefit from variations to pitch in their voices when speaking.
We all have a default pitch range in which we speak when we are at ease. For most people, the nervousness of public speaking causes the pitch of their voices to rise and can send an unconscious message of being, well, nervous. At its extreme, a speaker may sound like a munchkin, if only for a few seconds. Probably not what you want.
The indirect (and more effective) way to fix the nervous high pitch issue is to relax deeply before speaking. Your relaxed state will be transmitted in natural variations in pitch that will convey your message with the least level of awkwardness and self-consciousness. You can read more about how to calm pre-presentation nerves in my post on overcoming the fear of public speaking.
The more direct (and less effective) way is to consciously try to deepen your voice while speaking. I don’t recommend this often but for some of us, we simply need to “fake it until we make it”.
Whatever you choose, do make some effort to control this aspect of your presentation. We, as humans, associate deep sounding voices with importance and gravitas. But that does not mean that a higher pitch is not useful too.
A high pitch can be used to indicate excitement and a fast pace of events such as in a story for example.
Overall, vary your pitch – let it reflect the emotional tone of your content and your entire message will be more congruent and compelling.
#2 – Volume is good for other things than your hair – keep it at arm’s length
A loud voice communicates confidence, strength and vigour. It can also add to the perceived level of your enthusiasm in your subject. Then, of course, there is the quite basic function of being heard. I would say that is important, wouldn’t you?
A good rule of thumb I learned from an old book on the topic of volume and voice projection is best illustrated by an exercise I’d like you to try. This exercise will help you determine how loud you should be speaking at for most of your presentation. Here it is – stretch your arm out in front of your face – at arm’s length – with your palm facing you. Then try to “throw” your voice as far as your palm. It sounds weird I know but try it and it is likely you would have found the optimum volume for most public speaking situations.
Now if you are soft-spoken, you are likely thinking – hey, that’s too loud. And if you are of a more boisterous bent, you might be wondering what good arm’s length is when the audience is 20ft away? Read on.
Sound travels as a wave and volume is a physical property that reflects how “big” that wave is – its amplitude. “Throwing” or, more accurately, projecting your voice to arm’s length is a rough guide to getting a big enough wave that spreads effectively across the room. It also ensures that there is enough energy behind your voice to make it powerful and engaging.
Any bigger, and you will likely be shouting – hurting your voice, your message and also your audience, sort of. Any lower and you risk not being heard.
Again, as much as possible, let your volume vary with your content. And be as natural with this as possible. Avoid being theatrical – most of us speak in professional contexts and not on Broadway so leave the musical modulations to the actors.
#3 – Pace yourself – lead the audience
Your pace is simply your word rate – how many words you speak per minute (or per second for some of us faster talkers). In general, you want a pace that is fast enough to keep your audience engaged, but not so fast as to exhaust them. Remember they are mentally processing your words in real-time, so be kind.
But what is the perfect pace?
Some people go as far as counting and adjusting for an optimum word rate in words per minute. For me, I have never bothered with this – and I don’t think you need to either. Here I have a rule of tongue for you – strive to speak at a pace close to the average pace of day-to-day conversation. Most audience members are used to this average pace and will naturally sync with you. The key word is average.
I have a rule of tongue for you – strive to speak at a pace close to the average pace of day-to-day conversation.
If you are a slow talker, you may need to pick up the pace to reach average. And if you are a bit of a speed speaker, then dial it back a notch or two. Not sure which you are? Pay attention from now on or ask a close friend.
Using varied pace
Varying your pace can make your presentation a lot more engaging and interesting. Even with what might be considered an insipid subject, voice pacing can transform your audience’s experience. For example, dry data can be made more interesting through proper pacing. See this example from Professor Hans Rosling here. Prof. Rosling is passionate about his data and it shows. This might not be your style. But it is likely his pacing kept you interested and engaged like it did for me.
The key? Match your pace to your content. You can also slow down where needed – perhaps where some thought and reflection are required or at a sad point in a story. Try things out and let the content be your guide.
Pause for emphasis and for empathy
Pacing is as much about speaking as well as keeping silent. Pausing for emphasis is allowing a few seconds after an important or complex idea has been communicated. It can also be used after a question (even a rhetorical one). The pause signals to the audience to think and, more importantly, allows them the space to do so. Both are crucial to your success. It also allows the audience time to rest. Respite is especially important in content-heavy presentations like lectures or seminars. Put yourself in your audience’s place – they may not be as familiar with the content as you are. Show some empathy and pause. The silence can be just as important as the talking.
While teaching the concept of pausing to a student of mine one day she shared a beautiful quote on the subject. Let me share it with you – A picture is a art painted on canvas, music is art painted on silence.
A picture is art painted on canvas, music is art painted on silence.
Unfortunately, neither her nor me has been able to find its source. But I think it captures my point eloquently.
Good timbre makes you pleasant to listen to. Maybe you know someone with lovely voice timbre – you could listen to them speak all day no matter what they say because they just sound so freaking good! But what is timbre anyway?
Voice timbre is hard to fully explain especially in such a short post. Indeed, there are professional voice actors and singers who spend years developing specific timbres and flexibility in timbre for their voices. I will attempt to provide you with a short, practical and useful paragraph on voice timbre for speaking below.
In short, timbre is the unique sound of your voice as distinct from another person’s and is not based on pitch or volume. It is essentially the quality of your voice. It is hard to teach timbre but one of the best bits of advice on this aspect of voice I ever received was from a voice coach many years ago who taught me to think of timbre not audibly, but visually. He told me to strive to make my voice “fully rounded” (i.e. not having rough edges), “glowing” (infused with energy) and “golden” (just all around beautiful – your chosen colour may be different, but I think gold is a winner). Being a visual and auditory person, these tips made instant sense and transformed how I began to use my voice in presentations. I hope they help you too.
I mean this both literally and figuratively.
Caring about your physical voice means taking care of yourself – getting adequate rest, staying hydrated, minimizing stress and cultivating calmness in your personality. Avoid talking over loud noises such as in a busy bar or around loud machinery. This makes you shout and strain your voice leading to damage to your vocal chords. Also, rest your voice often by being silent for extended periods. This is easier for some than others but beneficial to all who speak. Some silence in the hours (or minutes) leading up to a presentation will help you rest your voice and collect your thoughts.
…if you believe in the value of your content, you can find something to get excited about.
Caring about your voice in the figurative sense means caring about your message. A lot of the techniques shared here will come more naturally (and as a result more effectively) when you are enthusiastic about your presentation. Think about your presentation as a conversation with your audience in which you have something valuable to share. I know it can be hard to get passionate about routine presentations but if you believe in the value of your content, you can find something to get excited about. You can read more about this in chapter 5 – of my free mini e-book. Like with most skills, you will get better at it the more you practice.
Monotone no more
With these techniques, you are sure to greatly improve the chances of your presentation being a success instead of a snooze fest or worse, a shouting spree. The best way to apply these tips is one at a time. Pick one technique and incorporate it into your next presentation. Then another one for the next and so on. Before long, you will be using them all harmoniously like a master. Your voice will be heard – loud and clear.
Till the next post, speak with skill.