Find your voice – and make it sing

Recently I had the privilege of media training an eminent professor who had spearheaded the clinical trial of a promising and much-needed new drug.

The Prof was easily on top of his game in terms of his messaging. He had an impressive grasp of the scale and the impact of the conditions the drug was designed to treat, the significance of the trial results and the potential of this innovative treatment to make a real difference.

The trouble was that when it came to our practice interviews, he delivered those messages in a dull monotone, every sentence ending on a dying fall.

Despite my efforts to draw attention to these deficits and elicit improvements, his second interview was only marginally better than the first.


Why your words are not enough

As any trainer worth their salt will tell you, the words you speak are only one cog in the wheel of effective communication – and not always the most important.

If those words are not supported by congruent vocal signals and body language, they will fall far short of their mark and may even achieve the opposite of what you intend.

Because we humans are still governed by primitive brains, highly attuned to signals of danger, we tend to pay more attention to the subtle cues offered by tone of voice, stance, movement, gestures and eye contact than we do to the relatively newer and cruder vehicle of language.

I know this is a sexist example but I am going to use it anyway: if a man asks an obviously distressed or offended woman what’s wrong and she replies (as, let’s face it, we women sometimes do) with ‘nothing’ (delivered in a tight voice with an averted face), he’d be an idiot to believe her.

And if a child asks its mother whether he can stay up all night on Christmas Eve to see Santa deliver the presents and she says ‘maybe’ (in a non-committal tone, with no eye contact), even a four-year-old knows that the real answer is ‘no’.


Your voice needs energy, enthusiasm, excitement

If you are imparting positive news to an audience – whether that be about a new product, a rise in profits or a fall in the death rate – your voice needs to throb with energy, enthusiasm and excitement. If you deliver such news in a flat monotone, your audience can be forgiven for thinking that you don’t believe what you are saying, or you have something to hide.

The converse is also true: that if you deliver bad news in an inappropriately upbeat and cheerful tone, people are going to think either that the news is not as bad as you are making out, or that you don’t care.


Five ‘Ps’ and a V

When I coach people on how to use their voice in presentations, interviews and meetings, I like to focus on what I call Five ‘Ps’ and a V.

The five ‘Ps’ are, in no particular order:

Power/projection – if you can’t be heard, you fall at the first fence.

Passion – for which read enthusiasm. If you don’t sound enthusiastic about whatever you are promoting, recommending or selling, you are unlikely to generate enthusiasm in anyone else.

Pitch – is about inflection and the rise and fall of your voice. Listening is hard work, and nothing is as hard to listen to as a flat, monotonous voice. The most beguiling voices rise and fall in a natural rhythm, putting emphasis on the most important words and phrases and maintaining momentum until the end of sentences.

Pace – is about your talking speed. If you speak too fast, your audience will find it difficult to keep up with you. Too slow and you will lull them into a coma. (But see ‘variation’, below).

Pauses – are the natural breaks that work as oral punctuation to signal a change of topic or mood, or the presentation of a new slide. Sometimes pauses can be used for dramatic effect to draw attention to a killer point you have just made – or are about to make. Sometimes they can be used to refocus attention when you feel it is slipping.

When someone talks without pausing it’s akin to being force-fed: you can’t taste, savour, swallow or digest the brain food you are being offered. And you’ve no time to prepare for the next ‘mouthful’.

The ‘V’  stands for:

Variation. Speaking at a constant volume, pitch and pace is an attribute of a robot. The human voice is an instrument, and just like any other musical instrument, it is capable of infinite variation to add colour, depth and emphasis to its ‘tune’.


Common causes of vocal problems

Vocal infelicities in speakers and presenters are common and usually attributable to one or more of the following:

  • nerves
  • inexperience
  • lack of confidence
  • incorrect breathing – from the upper chest rather than the diaphragm
  • the strain of speaking in a language that is not your mother tongue.

Only very occasionally do I notice a genuine problem with voice production, which is beyond my pay grade and calls for referral to a specialist vocal coach.

How Clearsay can help

We help business and thought leaders to communicate effectively through presentations, media interviews, negotiations and meetings of all kinds. For details of our courses, click here.