Body Language – Voice

How to sound your best when speaking in public

Your voice is your main means of communicating the content of your message. The way you say something can have a great impact on the audience. Yet, people rarely think about how their voice sounds or how it can be improved. They think, mistakenly, that they are stuck with the voice they are born with. However, there is much you can do to learn how to use your voice confidently and clearly, and to develop a strong vocal image and identity.

Qualities of voice include three main elements: intonation, pitch, and pacing. Intonation refers to the rise and fall of your voice, which has the potential to engage and hold the listener or tune him out. This quality may vary greatly in different cultures. Pitch, on the other hand, means how high or low your voice sounds. Many presenters use a thin, high-pitched voice which could sound harsh and lacking in authority. If this happens to you, try consciously lowering the pitch of your voice a little at a time. Pace refers to the speed and tempo of our speech. Varying the pace for emphasis will make your presentation more energetic.

Public speaking is not the same as speaking to your friend on the street. Paying attention to the factors below will improve the tone and quality of your voice.

Speak Up

Your voice should be loud enough that no one in the audience should have to strain to hear you. Project your voice to the back of the room, but don’t shout either. If necessary, arrange to have a microphone available. If the members of your audience cannot hear you, all your preparation is useless.

Breathe Normally

In ordinary conversation, your sentences are short and you can complete them without running out of breath. Do the same with your presentation. It’s not a race; it’s a presentation. Take ownership of the time, however short or long it may be. Remember that you don’t have to fill every single second with the sound of your voice. One of the most obvious signs of an inexperienced speaker is one who keeps running out of breath during a presentation. Pause between sentences. Pause between sections. Pause between slides. Doing this will not just give you time to breathe, but also provide a nice break for the audience to digest what you have been saying.

If you have trouble with your breathing, you may want to work with a voice coach who can suggest a number of useful exercises to overcome this difficulty.

Use Good Diction

Pronounce your words clearly so that the audience can understand you easily. Don’t mumble or speak too fast. A common problem of native English speakers, even at international conferences, is that they presume everyone can understand them. In today’s multicultural world, you should expect members of your audience to be from different national, racial, and linguistic backgrounds. English may not be their first language. Take this into account and enunciate clearly. The effort will be greatly appreciated by non-native English speakers, especially if you speak after a number of others who mumble along or speak as if they were on home ground.

Speak With Variety & Enthusiasm

Use a well-modulated and varied tone of voice, as you would in normal conversation, so that you don’t sound monotonous. Vary the volume, speed and rhythm of your voice to keep your listeners engaged. Use emphasis when necessary to draw attention to key information and differentiate it from the rest. Otherwise, use a pleasing tone and speech rhythm. To practice speaking with variety, you could try reading poems or proverbs aloud, with different tones of voice.

If your voice sounds enthusiastic, your listeners are more likely to stay tuned in to your message. If you sound indifferent, tired, or monotonous, it will be difficult to capture or retain your audience’s attention.

Emphasize Appropriately

To help your audience receive the correct message, make sure you place emphasis on the correct words in your sentence. It can change the implied meaning drastically. Look at the example below:

  • I work on the weekend. (I work then, but you don’t.)
  • I work on the weekend. (I don’t sit around or relax — I WORK!)
  • I work on the weekend. (Emphasizing when I work, and that I am not free at that time.)

Sound Calm & Friendly

Voices not only convey information, but also attitudes. Your voice can reveal how you feel about many things –- yourself, your audience, your product, your job, and even your life. Your voice can make you appear approachable, so people are more likely to interact with you or ask questions. A calm, friendly-sounding voice can invite people to make contact with you, in order to clarify, understand, or buy from you or your company. If you sound annoyed or condescending, you may turn off your listeners. Be especially careful when answering questions from the audience, as a particular question may catch you off guard, even if your presentation has gone over well.

Don’t Rush

Maintain a moderate to slow pace. The speed and rhythm of your speech is important, as clear communication demands appropriate pauses to support your words. This is especially important if you are speaking in a language that is not your native language and in which you have an accent. People need time to adjust to your accent and understand what you are saying. Give them this opportunity by speaking much more slowly than you think is necessary.

If you have a lot of material to cover in your presentation, the answer is not to hurry through your presentation. Think of other ways to provide the information to the audience. You could give handouts, which elaborate on your key points. You could arrange in advance to have more time to speak. You could cut down the length of your speech. Plan to cover your main messages at a reasonable pace, rather than rushing through.

Avoid Crutch Words

Some people have the habit of using filler sounds — such as uh, eh, or ahhh — while they are thinking about what to say next. Other people overuse crutch words, such as you know, basically, or actually. Aside from sounding unprofessional, this can be annoying for the listener. To discover whether you have this tendency, record yourself on a tape recorder or videotape your presentation. While listening or watching, jot down any sounds, words or expressions you use repeatedly. Work on consciously minimizing their usage over the next few days, with family members, friends or fellow employees.

If you tend to use these words when you are nervous or forgetful, remember that you don’t have to speak all the time, especially if you are trying to fill the empty spaces. Simply pause, keep quiet and carry on when you are ready. If you are pausing too often to reorient yourself, it may be an indication that you don’t know your material well enough and need to review or rehearse more often.

Straightforward Language

Simple, natural, and sincere speech is best. Avoid complex sentence structures, unusual vocabulary, or confusing jargon. Be especially cautious if you are speaking from prewritten materials. Written English is much more formal than spoken English. What works in writing will be difficult to deliver in speech. Your listener should not have to sift through your words and sentences to understand your message.

Eat & Drink Consciously

Speaking for any length of time makes the mouth go dry. Anticipate this in advance and make sure you always have a bottle or glass of water during your presentations. Make sure to have a small sip of room-temperature water before your mouth feels dry. You could also drink plain warm water with a squeeze of lemon.

Avoid hot beverages like coffee, tea, or hot chocolate as they can lead to congestion and force you to have to clear your throat more often. Also avoid cold soft drinks just before you speak as they make your vocal chords contract. Avoid dairy products such as milk, cheese, chocolate or ice cream or butter, which can coat your vocal cords and affect the clarity of your voice. In general, stay away from very hot or very cold foods.

Exercise Your Vocal Cords

To strengthen your vocal cords, try doing the following humming exercise. Start by inhaling normally. Then exhale slowly and say the word hum. If your voice flutters or makes extra sounds, it indicates that you are tense and need to relax. Repeat the exercise for a few minutes and try to hum without fluctuations and interruptions.

You can do a similar exercise, using the word ‘sigh’. Start by inhaling normally; exhale and say the word ‘sigh’. Make the sound softer and softer as you exhale.

Avoid shouting, screaming, or straining your voice, which can damage and weaken your vocal folds.