This is an ongoing series of posts on presentation and listening skills, starting with "10 Things You Can Do To Help Your Audience Listen Better." There’s few more powerful ways to engage your audience when demonstrating positive eye contact, a strong voice and natural gestures.
The second way to engage the audience, your voice is how you aurally demonstrate your personality and passion to the audience.
A presentation voice has five characteristics.
1. Volume or loudness
2. Pitch: how high or low a voice is. Pitch is the rate of vibration of the vocal chords. The faster the vibrations, the higher the voice. The vibrations are dependent upon the length and thickness of your vocal cords, as well as the tightening and relaxing of the muscles that surround them. Other factors contribute too, such as emotion and moods – namely, fear.
3. Tone: the emotion of the voice. Tone vocalizes what the speaker is feeling. A positive tone might be described as “friendly” or “confident,” while a negative tone might be “bored” or “fearful.”
5. Speed or pace
Here are some suggestions to create a strong voice.
Breathe from the diaphragm, not from the chest. When you inhale – slowly and deeply – the chest should not rise. Instead, your stomach should rise as your diaphragm expands. Image your belly button moving away from your spine. This will give you a full tank of air. Release it slowly as you talk: it’ll give you better control of your vocal cords.
Be prepared for the rush of adrenaline. When you get nervous or fearful, your body releases adrenaline into the blood stream. Among other symptoms, your vocal cords are restricted and your breathing becomes more quick. When your brain realizes you’re not in mortal danger, it stops releasing adrenaline – usually after 90 seconds up to 2 minutes. You can't control the release of adrenaline, but you can be prepared for it by fully rehearsing the first two minutes of your presentation so it's flawless. It not only gives you confidence by starting well, it also cements the audience's positive first impression of you.
Speak louder than you normally do. Your presentation voice is not your talking voice. Speak loud enough so the person farthest from you can easily hear. That’s hard to self-fix in a presentation since you’ll always sound loud to yourself. You need an objective ear to signal that you're too quiet. If possible, place a friend or colleague at the farthest point. A secret gesture will tell you if you’re not loud enough.
Change the pace of your voice. Most experts say a slow, deliberate presenting voice is best. There’s good reason to agree. A slower speed allows for better enunciation, clarity and understanding. People who speak quickly often give the impression they’re reckless, nervous and out of control.
At the same time, there’s research (Speed of Speech and Persuasion and Celerity and Cajolery: Rapid Speech May Promote or Inhibit Persuasion through its Impact on Message Elaboration) that shows talking fast signals confidence, intelligence, objectivity and superior knowledge. The general research conclusions are this:
- A faster voice is more persuasive when the audience won’t like your messages. (Their internal voice can’t catch up to create counter-arguments, so they may see you as more persuasive.)
- A slower voice is more persuasive when the audience will like your messages. (A slower voice allows more time for the audience's self talk to revel in the good news, so they see you as more persuasive.)
Agree or disagree, one thing is universally true: a flexible voice is most comfortable and interesting to listen to. Generally, keep your pace at a moderate clip – neither fast or slow. But speed up slightly to add energy, and slow down when you want to add emphasis or gravitas.Smile. A natural genuine smile – not a toothy grin – is the most effective and easiest way to emotionally warm up the voice, not to mention makes you look more approachable.
Keep the voice lubricated. Always keep water at hand. Not caffeine (it’s a diuretic.) Not alcohol (it’s drying). Not milk (it creates phlegm – and for that matter, so does chocolate). And definitely not a cigarette at least 30 minutes prior to your speech. Water at room temperature is best.
Speak in an arc. You breathe between sentences, never in the middle of one. With a good lungful of air, speak from the beginning of a sentence to the end without any stop or break. It’s so much easier to listen for the audience to listen to understand you when you don’t break apart … the sentence … in odd … places.
Avoid filler words. I’ve already written a post on vocal fillers or tics: Er, Can I - um - Eliminate - uhhhs - When I Speak?
The post also includes additional recommendations on creating a strong voice. The best first step: record your voice so you know what you sound like.
Finally, a word about silence.
Every now and then, it’s important to stop talking for a moment. If you don’t, when do you give the audience a chance to think about what you’re saying? And it’s good for you too. A moment of silence gives you the chance to breathe completely and perhaps take a sip of water to wet the mouth.
The use of eye contact, voice and gestures depends greatly on the culture, status, age and gender of your audience. If you travel for work internationally, adapt and match the style of your presentation skills to your audience, not vice versa. Do research and show the utmost respect for your host’s culture.