How to use vocal variety when speaking (in-person or online)
By Dan Magill, Toastmasters International
What do we need to be engaging business speakers both in-person and online?
To keep an audience entertained, especially if you’re speaking online, you’ll need bags of energy, enthusiasm, passion and vibrance. To put it another way, you need heart.
For me, there’s only one true outlet for the heart – and that’s through your voice.
The way we use our voice when we speak determines whether our words live or die.
An audience, struggling to stay alert, would prefer to listen to us deliver poor content in a lively, engaging way, rather than listen to us give them pearls of wisdom with a dull delivery.
The trick is to add effective cadence to our voice when we speak. So, how can speakers achieve this? Let me share some tips.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve suggested to clients that they add more vocal variety to their speaking, and they say, “Well, it’s just not me. I’d be embarrassed to do silly voices.”
I said the same thing when I started out with my speaking. But it’s important to understand that nobody is asking you not to be you. Simply use your voice to add heart and passion to your speaking.
When you speak, you should be you. But you should be a bigger, an exaggerated version of you.
People often tell me they can’t believe the difference between the me that speaks on stage and the me that goes for dinner with them afterwards.
Of course they are both the same me. However, the stage me understands that to engage an entire audience – I must be an exaggerated version of myself, and I need to make the effort to really exaggerate my voice.
You can do this too. Be prepared to exaggerate your voice, modulate your voice, and use YOUR voice to help us go on that journey with you.
Listening to Yourself
When you’re working on your vocal variety listen back to yourself.
Once, I gave a speech about the Three Little Pigs. I decided it would be more engaging if I had a different voice for each pig. I gave the talk and I really worked hard on each of my pig voices.
Afterwards, a friend of mine called me and said, “Great talk, Dan. I loved your story. My only suggestion would be that you use a different voice for each of the pigs. Make it a bit more fun and engaging for the audience.”
That night I watched the recording of my talk. She was completely right. All three pigs had the same voice!
The voice we hear in our head isn’t the voice other people hear when we speak.
Record yourself when speaking, or rehearsing. It can be tough to listen to our own voices played back to us. But try it. You’ll hear what everyone else hears and you’ll discover if there really is any variety in your voice.
I thought I was doing a distinct voice for each little pig. However, I needed to exaggerate those voices far more.
Don’t be embarrassed. We might feel we’re being too silly and we’re adding too much – but to the audience, it’s probably not even enough.
Listen to yourself as often as possible.
Learning from others
Did you choose your accent? Probably not. But you have one anyway because you listened to the people around you as you grew up.
We begin mimicking voices from the moment we start speaking. So, why not do this with our public speaking too?
I find it helpful to mimic the vocal style of people I see on TV. After all, if we’re going to be presenting online, we’re essentially looking for the same vocal qualities that broadcasting professionals have.
It might be an actor, a comedian or a news anchor. It is good to mimic any kind of TV or film entertainers because they’re usually the ones doing the most with their voices to try to engage us.
This doesn’t mean you should start trying to do impressions of them. There might just be little things here and there that you like. Small things they do that you can try and incorporate into your own speaking when you’re on stage.
Let’s have a look at some specific tools we have at our disposal if we want to use our voices to create more engaging talks.
Changing Your Volume
Changing your volume can enhance the engagement your audience feels.
If you’re online, lean towards the camera and whisper something that might be a secret or a reveal for your audience. If you’re in person – do the same by leaning towards your audience in the seats in front of you.
Shout out the punchline to a joke or a big realisation.
Modulate your volume as you speak. A sudden change from a lower volume to a higher one can really jump-start your audience and bring them back into a speech that they might have been drifting away from.
Winning the battle for attention
Varying the pace at which we speak helps us win the battle for our audience’s attention.
If we speak at one pace the entire time, an audience quickly becomes used to it. They quickly become bored by it. They quickly stop listening to it.
Think of ways you can really vary the speed at which you’re talking as you move through your talk.
You might be telling us a story where everything is happening very quickly and frantically, and you’ll speed up your voice to emphasise that.
Or you may want to powerfully deliver an important message and you’ll slow down the pace and really give the audience time to take it in.
Pitch and Intonation
Your ability to change your pitch is the most important vocal tool you have at your disposal.
It’ll include using a deeper voice or a higher voice, but it’s also how you’ll express your emotions as you speak, for example, sadness, happiness, laughter, pain, joy, guilt, tiredness, sympathy, sarcasm. There are many ways of saying the same sentence, but using a different pitch to convey emotions.
Have a play with the following sentence and convey happiness, then relief, fatigue, sarcasm:
By changing how you use your voice you can share the different emotions with your audience.
Every sentence we speak can convey different meanings, depending on how we deliver it.
When we use vocal variety in our speaking, it is if we’re switching from sharing an uninspiring black and white movie to a one of vivid colour and high engagement.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dan Magill is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org