Giving a great presentation: the gift of your voice

VoiceHow do you give a great presentation?

In this post I want to focus in on one key elements of presenting: what you do with your voice.

Nothing is as important to your presentation as your voice.  This is what makes or breaks your speech.  Voice problems can appall an audience, or mangle your message.  Successful voice wins attention and converts.  It really is that simple and essential.

How you use your voice depends on a lot of conditions: your own personality, your style, and what you want to accomplish with a given audience.

Caveat: I’m not a voice coach, and you can learn an awful lot from working with one.  As a child I apparently suffered from elocution issues, not to mention shyness, and a speech teacher helped me out.  I owe a lot to her.

One key point: try slowing the heck down.  Many people scared of public speaking with race through sentences to get the pain over with as quickly as possible.  This costs audience understanding and engagement.  Please give your words time to seep into the audience’s brains.  Slowing your self down also helps with enunciating tricky words.

(Few people actually speak too slowly for presentations.  They need to speed up, of course.)

One mandatory practice: speak loudly enough for people to hear you.  Use the room’s acoustics and presentation technology to help, but on your own be sure to reach every person with your voice throughout your session.    (Thanks to Joy Pixley for the nudge)

One tricky lesson: your distinct voice is something audiences appreciate, especially on recordings.  We don’t actually enjoy uniform speaking voices.  Indeed, the way you speak is a powerful sign of who you are.  The Center for Digital Storytelling refers to “the gift of voice“, the unique character of what you sound like.  Embrace that.  In my digital storytelling work I’ve found most people hate the sound of their voice.  You have to set that aside.  Audiences want your character.

So record your presentations and listen to your voice.  I know how embarrassing this is, so listen in private at first.  Experiment with new techniques (see below) and practice.

Varying your voice: people despise monotonous speaking voices.  They really do.  A relentless drone is at best soporific, and at worse a summons to flee a presentation.   I’m not sure why people do this deliberately.  There’s an American school of reading aloud which is very cold and affectless, which might be partially to blame.  Ruth Sherman blames corporate culture.

His Master's Voice, old RCA

Alan Levine was not harmed during the making of this post.

So vary what your voice does:

  • Emphasize key words.  Sometimes this is obvious, as when you are naming something important.  Otherwise be sure to nail verbs in longer sentences.
  • Shape the end of sentences.  Drop your tone down a little for a period.  Be sure to indicate a question with upspeak, or a querulous tone.  Rise up for an exclamation point!
  • Give other voices other voices.  If you’re paraphrasing or quoting, speak differently.  If you can do an impression, great. Otherwise just pick a different way of talking, such as a lower or higher pitch.  This adds color to your verbal palette.
  • Vary your speed.  Slow… down for significance.  Speeduptoindicateenergy or a lot of items.  Use pauses sparingly, not like Shatner, but to surprise your audience, to break up an ordinary phrase, to draw attention to key words.
  • Allow silences.  These can act like giant punctuation marks, telling your audience that the words just said were especially important.  They can also emphasize the gap between points.  Think of big pauses as paragraph breaks, and moments for the audience to reflect and organize their response to what you’re saying.
  • Vary your pitch.  Many of us do this anyway, not always deliberately.  Learn to speak higher and lower, and to apply these to certain points and sentences.
  • Make repetition count.  We know repetition can drive some key points home.  Do this sparingly, and be sure to vary the second and subsequent iterations.  Raise or lower your pitch, for example.

A fine way to improve your presentation voice is to listen to and learn from great speakers. I admire the way Larry Lessig speaks of very technical subjects. I’m astonished at how Jim Dale creates – and maintains – so many voices, and easily switches between tones (a sample). As a podcast fan I pay close attention to my favorite readers, like Clarkesworld‘s Kate Baker. or the late great Larry Santoro of Tales to Terrify.  Once you start paying attention to these speakers’ form – how they speak, not just what they’re talking about – you’ll discover libraries of tricks and tactics.

I also like to immerse myself in an audience before I address them, so as to get a feel for their speaking habits.  This gives me a sense of speed, for example (think New York City versus rural Georgia).

Back to your body.  I posted about using your body earlier, and don’t want to repeat that here.  Let me offer a few suggestions specifically about the physicality of speaking:

  • BREATHE.  I often find that the more nervous someone is, the shallower their breathing.  That limits their vocal range, and makes it hard to hear them.  Suck air in, all the way to the pit of your stomach.  If you have a hard time remembering to breathe during a talk, put reminders into your text.
  • Hydrate.  Keep your voice box lubricated.  You’ll dry out fast, and that can vitiate your speech.
  • Use your whole speaking apparatus.  Don’t just talk with your lips – have you seen and heard people do this? – but with your entire mouth.  Draw up air from your torso to give your words depth and volume.  Inhale through your nose, too.  Project out with as much of your body as you can.
  • Don’t inhabit your nose.  Nasal voices can be funny, but often grate.  Haul your voice down into your mouth, and connect with your torso.
  • Keep your chest open.  I like to open my arms wide for this.
  • Consciously shape facial expressions.  I mean really smile, frown, pout, bug out your eyes.  Your audience might be too far away to see subtle expressions, so go all out.  And this will make you conscious of your head as speaking instrument.

Have you used any of these techniques?  Are there others we should know?

(thanks to Matthias Ripp for “Voice”; thanks to Beverly for “His Master’s Voice”; )

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6 Responses to Giving a great presentation: the gift of your voice

  1. CogDog says:

    Brilliant stuff, Bryan, I’m eager to give the breathing and pace ideas more focus next time I have a stage.There’s an aspect too here of what I try to do with visuals but had not thought of with voice- adding the surprise or unexpected element. Let them think you are going one direction, and then make a sharp turn.

    The gramophone did not harm me, no. I did have some sort term ringing 😉

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  2. Joy Pixley says:

    Great ideas, Bryan! It’s good to remember that we really are acting up there, and can use that same range of voice and physical options to engage the audience.

    One thing I notice you didn’t mention is volume. Few of these other issues matter if I can’t hear what the speaker is saying. Sometimes I see this with shy speakers who mumble, but other times the speaking voice is fine but the person isn’t using the microphone effectively. Less frequently, I see the opposite, but it’s even more annoying: someone talking so loudly relative to the room size that it feels like they’re yelling at me the entire talk.

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  4. Pingback: What makes a great webinar? Part 1 | Bryan Alexander

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