• Tue. Jul 16th, 2024

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How to improve your presenting and public speaking with vocal variety

By Dan Magill, Toastmasters International

I watched the Wizard of Oz recently I appreciated what a relief it was to be engrossed in a hugely entertaining movie classic, as opposed to being in front of my laptop screen, utterly bored by the latest online meeting.

During the last couple of years, we’ve been down the Yellow Brick Road of online meetings.

At first, it was fun. There were lie-ins and quizzes and bare feet – oh my!

However, as time went on, and screen time went up, most of us started to feel less over the rainbow and more Wizard of Zzzzzzzz(oom).

But no matter how much we wish we could go back this new world of online communication is here to stay.

Let’s look at some of the tools we need to be effective speakers both on and offline.

We need a brain, of course. We need to be able to think clearly about what we’re going to be saying. Speaking coherently is very difficult without a brain.

We also need courage. Whether you’re giving your first-ever presentation in a brand-new role, or you’re tasked with pitching for a big client; you’ll need a certain amount of courage every time you speak.

But, most important for speakers, is the heart.

To keep an audience entertained, especially if you’re speaking online, you’ll need heart. You’ll need bags of passion, energy, enthusiasm, and vibrance.

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 awake and alert, would find it much easier to listen to us deliver poor content in a lively, engaging way, than they would listen to us giving them pearls of wisdom with a dull, dreary delivery.

The problem is that so many of us find it so difficult to add effective cadence to our voice when we speak.

Exaggerated You

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve suggested to my 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 get it. 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. You don’t have to step up and give an award-winning dramatic performance.  Simply use your voice to add heart and passion to your speaking.

When you speak, you should be you. But you should be 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.

Well, they’re both the same me.

But the stage me understands that to engage an entire audience – I must be an exaggerated version of myself. I need to make the effort to really exaggerate my voice.

If you’re the kind of speaker that thinks vocal variety just isn’t you; remember, nobody is asking you not to be you. Nobody is asking you to sing, and dance and do silly voices.

Just be prepared to exaggerate your voice, modulate your voice, and use YOUR voice to help us go on that journey with you.

Play-Back Pays Back

The next thing to think about when you’re working on your vocal variety is listening back to yourself.

A few years ago, I gave a speech about the Three Little Pigs. I decided it would be fun and more engaging if I had a different voice for each of the three pigs. Nothing too silly. Just a different voice for each.

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.”

What? I did!

That night I watched the recording of my talk. And she was completely right. All three pigs had the same voice!

We all know that the voice we hear in our head isn’t the voice other people hear when we speak.

Record yourself when you speak, or even just when you’re rehearsing. Of course, it can be horrible to listen to our own voices played back to us. But try it. You’ll hear what everyone else hears and you’ll quickly discover if there really is any variety in your voice.

I thought I was doing three very distinct voices for each pig. I wasn’t.

I needed to exaggerate those voices far, far more than I realised.

And it brings us back to the point about being embarrassed to be too silly with our voices.

We might think we’re just being too silly and we’re adding too much – but to the audience, it’s probably not even enough.

Listen to yourself back as often as possible.

The Imitation Game

Did you choose your accent? Probably not. But you likely have one anyway. And you have an accent because you listened to the people around you as you grew up.

We begin mimicking people’s voices from the moment we start speaking. So, why don’t we start doing that 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 a comedian, an actor, or a news reader. It is good to mimic any kind of TV or film entertainers because they’re usually going to be the ones doing the most with their voices to try to engage us.

This doesn’t mean you should start trying to sound exactly like them or doing impressions of them. There might just be little things here and there that you like. Small things they might do that you can try and incorporate into your own speaking when you’re on stage.

All of us got the voices we have from other people. So don’t be afraid to use other people to develop your own vocal variety for public speaking. Soon enough, it will stop being you mimicking somebody else and will just become your voice. The voice that you use when you speak to an audience.

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.

Pumping Up the Volume

Changing your volume as you speak can add a lot to how engaged your audience feels.

If you’re online, lean into the camera and whisper something that might be a secret or a reveal for your audience. If you’re in person – do the same with the live audience.

Shout out the punchline to a joke or a big realisation.

A sudden change from a lower volume to a higher one can really jump-start your audience back to life and bring them back into a speech that they might have been drifting out of.

Always try to modulate your volume as you speak.

The battle for attention

Varying the pace at which we speak is going to go a long way toward helping 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 Perfect

Your ability to change your pitch is the most important vocal tool you have at your disposal.

To speak effectively, you’ll need to be varying the pitch of your voice, the entire time you speak.

The pitch of your voice is what makes you, YOU.

It’ll include using a deeper voice or a higher voice, but it’s also how you’ll express your emotions as you speak. You’ll alter your pitch to express anger, sadness, happiness, laughter, pain, joy, guilt, tiredness, sympathy, sarcasm. There are so many ways of saying the same sentence but using a different pitch to convey emotions.

Have a play with the following sentence and see how it changes the meaning each time:

  • I really am so happy to see you

Challenge yourself to say the sentence above, five times. Each time, try to change the way you use your voice so you can convey the following emotions to your audience: Happiness, Anger, Relief, Sarcasm, Fatigue.

Every sentence we speak when we’re giving any kind of presentation can convey different meanings, depending on the way we deliver them.

Enjoy the process of developing more vocal variety in your speaking and see your future audiences engaged and alert.


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

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