Five vocal vices to avoid in presentations

Vocal technique is one of the three ‘pillars’ of effective presentations, the other two being content and body language. In the best presentations there is a pleasing congruence between the three pillars, with voice and body language supporting and reinforcing the words being uttered. In the worst there is a jarring dissonance between content and delivery, which makes a presentation very hard to follow, understand and remember.

In the 10 years I have been coaching presenters, the same vocal vices occur again and again. Here are the main culprits:

  1. Poor pacing

Many reluctant presenters – and there are plenty of them – think the solution to their problem is to get through the ordeal as quickly as possible. So they start fast and then gather speed like a runaway train so that by the end they are literally gasping for breath. Even if the audience could follow the argument, their attention would be distracted by the hapless presenter’s evident anxiety and distress.

The best approach is to vary your pace, much as you would do in normal conversation or when performing a piece of music. Sometimes the content suits a measured pace; sometimes it feels right to speed up and sometimes – particularly when emphasising a key point – you will want to SLOW RIGHT DOWN. This varied pacing makes it easier for your audience to listen to you, to follow your argument and digest and remember your take-home messages.

  1. No pausing

This often accompanies – and exacerbates the effects of – poor pacing. Some presenters have a horror of leaving any gap between one word and another, and their talks are the oratorical equivalent of force-feeding, making it impossible for the audience to digest what they are saying.

Pausing is a necessary form of vocal punctuation. If you want to hold your audience’s attention, you need to pause – for two or three seconds at least – between one thought and another, between one section of your talk and another and between one slide and another. Long pauses are also a great way to make your audience sit up, re-engage and refocus their attention on you.

  1. Plugging gaps with filler words and sounds

I have endured countless presentations where every new thought starts with ‘So…’ and are interspersed with regular appearances of ‘okay’, ‘well’, ‘right’ and ‘you know’. Some speakers don’t even use regular sentences but just link successive thoughts with ‘and’ as if the presentation is one long stream of consciousness. Other regular filler culprits are ‘um’,’er’, ‘ah’ and variants thereof.

Presentations have much greater impact when not only every word but every sound counts. Strip out all unnecessary fillers and replaced them with more meaningful pauses (see above).

4.  Strange or absent inflections

Speech is most intelligible when the emphasis falls on the key word – or words – in the sentence. Often that word comes right at the end of a sentence, so you need to maintain the vocal energy until you get there. Emphasising the wrong words or no words at all militates against comprehension.

So does making statements sound like questions. I am a great fan of the Amazon comedy drama Mozart in the jungle. And the bit I quote most often is where the maverick young conductor Rodrigo, interviews a young would-be assistant, whose voice tends to rise at the end of sentences. ‘Are you telling me your name or asking me your name?’ he asks, muttering as an aside: ‘She talks in rising arpeggios!’

This irritating modern vice, widely attributed to the influence of Australian ‘soaps’, is technically known as ‘uptalk’ and is best avoided in presentations – or indeed any business context – because it makes you sound uncertain, hesitant and therefore unconvincing.

  1. Inappropriate tone

When we listen, most of us probably pay less attention to the words being spoken than to the tone in which they are uttered. If there is a mismatch, we tend to give more credence to the tone. So if you announce good news in a flat voice, I won’t believe you; if you deliver bad news in a jocular tone I’ll think you don’t care; and if you sound hesitant when making a powerful declaration I will assume you are hiding something.

By matching your tone to your meaning, you give double impact to your utterances and leave your audience in no doubt about your credibility.

How Clearsay can help

Clearsay Communications works with professionals from all sectors to improve their spoken communication skills for use in presentations, media interviews and meetings of all kinds. To find out what we could do for you, go to the home page.