Chapter 3

Your Voice During a Presentation

To communicate a message effectively, you need to use your voice properly. The way you sound as you speak can bring your words to life — or sap them of their power.

3.1

Warming Up Your Voice

As with the rest of your body, your voice will function optimally when it has been prepared for its task. For example, humming scales and drinking some water before your talk can help you sound your best. You may have your own favorite preparatory exercises. Whatever warm-up technique you use, make sure your voice is ready for action before your talk begins.

3.2

Projection and Articulation

To ensure that you get your points across, you must speak loudly and clearly enough that your listeners hear and understand what you are saying. Even a person in the furthest corner of a room should be able to comprehend your words without straining. Projecting your voice also helps your personality show.

A strong voice conveys confidence. Speaking too softly, mumbling, or trailing off at the ends of sentences can suggest uncertainty or timidity and will undercut the strength of a presentation. If you’re not sure a word or phrase is worth saying, don’t say it. If it is worth saying, say it like you mean it.

The easier you make it for your listeners to receive your message, the greater your impact will be. Auditory impediments will distract listeners from the substance of what you are saying.

If you happen to use a microphone, keep in mind that while the microphone may add decibels, it cannot give your voice strength or personality.

3.3

Pace

When a reader wants to reread a sentence or paragraph, he or she can easily do that. A listener has no such luxury, so the speaker bears responsibility for maintaining a pace that allows listeners time to digest the content. Such a pace also gives the speaker time to think about what he or she is saying and to maintain a meaningful connection to the content.

3.4

Variety

Vocal variety is the spice of speech. Tone, pace, and volume should all be varied over the course of a presentation.

If you have ever had to listen to someone speak in a monotone, you may well have drifted off into your own thoughts. It is no coincidence that the word monotonous can mean not only (1) lacking variation in pitch, but also (2) boring.

Variations in tone, pace, and volume occur naturally for a relaxed and engaged speaker. They illustrate the speaker’s connection to what he or she is saying, helping the audience to connect as well. Variety also simply makes the words more interesting to hear.

3.5

Inflection

A common problem for speakers involves inflections (changes in pitch) at the ends of sentences. Inflections are typically different for questions than they are for statements. For example, if you answered the phone and didn’t hear anyone on the other end right away, but thought it could be Kathy, you might say, “Kathy?” This would be a question; the pitch at the end of Kathy would be higher than at the beginning. However, if someone were to ask Kathy her name, she would reply, “Kathy.” This would be a statement; the pitch would go down at the end of Kathy. Say it both ways and listen to the difference.

Some speakers use inflections typically associated with questions when they are actually trying to make statements. For example, if someone asked Kathy her name, and she replied, “Kathy?” with an upward inflection, she would sound tentative, as if she were asking a question.

An upward inflection at the end of a statement can also indicate that there is more to come, that the speaker has not yet concluded his or her current train of thought. Therefore, misplaced upward inflections at the ends of sentences can have the unintended effect of stringing together ideas that should in fact be distinct.

3.6

Silence

Silence can be powerful.

Whether you use it to focus the audience before the first words of a speech, or for emphasis after an important phrase, silence is often an extremely effective tool. Silence can convey confidence; it tells the audience that the speaker does not feel compelled to fill space with sound in order to justify his or her place at the front of the room or at the table.

The impulse to avoid silence is a common one — and often leads to the proliferation of fillers such as um or uh. Fight the impulse. Such fillers can quickly drain energy from a talk and may suggest a lack of confidence to the audience.

When you don’t know what you want to say next, simply pause for a moment to think; when your next thought comes to you, continue speaking. While a second may feel like an eternity to a speaker searching for the next word, for the audience it really is just a second.

3.7

Breathing

Without breath, there is no voice. Timid breathing can support only timid speaking. In contrast, deep, relaxed breathing provides a foundation for a strong, flexible speaking style.

Don’t be shy about taking a full breath; everyone needs to breathe. By having enough air, you will have more choices about when to take your next breath, and you can avoid gasping mid-sentence or trailing off at the end of a thought.

Focus on breathing from your diaphragm. Feel your abdomen expand as you inhale, and contract as you exhale. This area is the control center for your breath.