Vocal Variety

by Steve Evans | Blog, The Gym

Connect and Stay Connected

How many times have you been in a room where someone grabs the clicker, begins their presentation and immediately whips the audience into a coma (as some comedian somewhere once said). The first thing you, as a speaker, need to do is connect with the audience and engage them in what you’re saying and then, keep them engaged. They won’t hear a word you’re saying unless they are tuned in.  They’ll be on their cell phones, checking their Facebook page or, if polite, they’ll be looking at you with a blank stare while their mind is a million miles away.

Board People

Remember, you have a message to get across to this group so, obviously, they have to be listening to what you’re saying.  You have to connect.

Here’s a Quick Review

 There are 4 elements to a speech or presentation:

The words you say

How you say the words

How you look when you say the words

How you feel when you say the words

How You Say the Words

I’ve already talked about “The words you say” in my post on “How to Write a Really Good Speech (Quickly)”. There will be more on that later. Now that you have the words down on paper, it’s time to think about how you’re going to say them.  How are you going to deliver your message, so the audience actually hears and understands your message. Here’s a hint; you don’t do it speaking in a monotone.  You do it by speaking with vocal variety.


Your Vocal Variety Toolbox

There are the tools you can use to keep your audience engaged so you can deliver your message with maximum impact.  These techniques have to be used appropriately and not just for the sake of using “vocal variety” (more about that later). You don’t want to sound like some sort of deranged yodeler.  Here they are:

Pacing     Pausing     Intonation     Volume

Not Sold Yet?

Here is an example of why vocal variety is so important.  Read this short paragraph aloud in a monotone with no inflection or variation of pace, pausing, pitch or volume:

It was a bitterly cold night.  There was snow on the ground and the wind was howling. Unfortunately, on this stormy night, I had to walk 3 miles back and forth through the snow to a little country store for one very small but very important item.

Now read it aloud varying your pace and using a pause or two.  Vary your intonation and volume. Pretend you’re reading it like you would read a bedtime story to a small child. Which reading was more interesting, engaging and more likely to keep an audience engaged?  It’s obvious, right? You see, this isn’t brain surgery.  You already know how to do this.

Job #1 is to Constantly Reengage the Audience

We use vocal variety because it is the change in our speaking pattern that keeps your audience tuned in.  As speech coach Patricia Fripp says, “The enemy of any speaker is sameness” and, I might add, it’s no picnic for the audience, either. Once the audience gets used to how you are speaking, you begin to lose them.  If you are constantly changing things up with pacing, pausing, volume and intonation, however, they’ll stayed tuned in, almost subconsciously, just to see what’s going to happen next.

Engaged audience

When the audience hears a change in your pacing from slow to fast or fast to slow, they reengage.

When you pause, the audience reengages to hear what you’re going to say next.

When you change your pitch and use more of your vocal range, your audience will reengage.

When you change your volume by speaking more loudly or softly, the audience will reengage.

Don’t Go Overboard

As I said earlier, you don’t want to use these techniques without a reason.  So, the question is, how do you know how to use this variety thing?  The words will tell you.  The words will inform how you should say them to be most effective.  Read the following sentences and just let the words dictate how they should sound.

I sat on the dock and watched the river flow slowly by as the crickets chirped and the bright orange sun gradually set over the horizon.

 When the elevator doors opened, I entered an office that was a beehive of activity with people talking, shouting and running about in a wild frenzy.

The first line should, obviously, be delivered slowly, in a relaxed tone.  The audience should feel like they are there with speaker, relaxing, sitting on the dock with their legs dangling in the river as they marvel at the sight of a brilliant sunset over the water.

The second line should be delivered quickly and loudly with lots of energy.  The audience should feel like they are in the middle of this hectic, energetic, chaotic environment.

There is no right or wrong way to do this.  That’s what makes it fun and something that will be distinctively, yours.  Experiment with several ways to deliver the same line and see what you think will have the biggest impact on the audience. You can practice this by reading a book aloud in the privacy of your home or office where you can really go overboard with the copy.  Read the lines and try different pacing.  Pause in places to see how it feels and experiment with your entire vocal range.  Change your volume from soft to loud and everywhere in between.  Get used to giving the words life so the audience sees, feels and understands what you are saying.  Have fun with it.

Problems with the Pause

Many speakers have a problem mastering the pause.  The pause can be a very strong tool that can be used to add drama, suspense, and to emphasize various points you would like to make in your talk.  It’s a great way to keep the audience engaged but many speakers find it difficult to use.  This is because when they take the stage, they’re nervous, full of adrenaline and their sense of time becomes distorted.  As a result, they race through their speech barely stopping to take a breath.  This can be as difficult to listen to as someone who drones on in a monotone.

I’ve had a problem with the pause in the past because of my time spent in radio as a DJ.  Radio Program Directors don’t like to hear “dead air” which is when there is dead silence and nothing happening on the airwaves.  In the days of Top 40 radio, this usually meant that the DJ was asleep, in the bathroom or reading a magazine article and not listening when the record ended.  This could be dangerous to your career back in the day so like a lot of other DJs, I developed a habit of filling every minute with at least the sound of my own voice to avoid the dreaded “dead air” and also to stay employed.

The Harvey Pause

There were exceptions to this radio rule.  Some broadcasters like Paul Harvey, were masters of the pause. Paul Harvey was a very popular conservative news commentator years ago and he would end each broadcast with his signature: “Paul Harvey. (long pregnant pause) Good day!”  I heard that he once stretched this pause out to something like 18 seconds and still held the audience… and his job.  Quite an accomplishment.


The Power of the Pause Exercise

If you would like to practice your ability to pause, here’s a great exercise.  Practice delivering one of your prepared speeches at your normal pace and time how long it takes.  Then, do it a second time and try to deliver the speech in twice the time.  For instance, if your speech took 5 minutes to deliver at your normal pace, try to deliver it in 10 minutes.  Don’t speak slowly, stretching out the words.  Use pauses to extend the length of the speech.  You’ll find yourself pausing in places you didn’t know were places.  This will allow you to get comfortable with silence and acquaint you with the power of the pause.

Save the World from Bad Presentations

As we all know, it’s no fun listening to a speaker drone on in a monotone, delivering their speech with no acknowledgment of the actual content of their presentation or the audience in front of them.  They might as well just pass out copies of the speech or PowerPoint deck and let the audience read it for themselves.  Be the type of speaker that brings the content to life and tries to make the world a better place one speech or presentation at a time.  Remember, you are taking up valuable time in other people’s lives.  Make it time well spent.  One of my favorite books on speech is Perfect Pitch by Jon Steele which he wrote to save the world from bad presentations or as he puts it, “I’m just plain sick of sitting through other people’s shitty presentations.”  Use all of the speaking tools at your disposal and make sure your audiences never say something like that about your presentation.

Book Perfect Pitch

Vocal variety is one more element in a winning speech or presentation.  Next, we’ll take a look at how you look when you say those words.

Steve Evans, Speech Enthusiast



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