When you address an audience, there are four ways to make your voice expressive: volume, pitch, rate, and timbre.
- Volume is probably the most difficult quality for business professionals to increase. We work in offices or from home all day, and most of us instinctively use our “indoor voices” in conversation. We hunch over at our desks, and we probably speak softly into the telephone to preserve our privacy. Habits like these make us soft-spoken, which is the last thing you want when you’re in front of an audience.
When you deliver a presentation, you will probably attempt to set your volume, on a scale of 1 to 10, at about 5. But 5 is unlikely to make you heard in the last row. Furthermore, in order to make the voice most expressive, you need to put your volume at seven or eight, and keep it there. Stand up straight and allow your chest to expand. That way, your whole body increases your resonance. Speak not from the throat but from the face. And try this. Take a slightly deeper breath at the beginning of a sentence and take short replenishing breaths throughout the sentence. This will slow your speech somewhat (see “rate” below), and it will also let you increase the range of your pitch and your timbre.
- Pitch describes the high and low notes in your speech. Scientific research has shown that infants, who are extremely attuned to the sound of the human voice, show a preference for high-pitched, tuneful speech. This preference obviously predates our understanding of language and, although we eventually learn to attribute most meaning to words, we retain some ability to extract meaning from variations in pitch. Ending a sentence on a high note, for example, turns it into a question. Ending it with a level or slightly lower pitch makes it an affirmation. If you end a sentence on a high note when it is not clearly a question, the audience at some level will perceive you as expressing doubt about what you’re saying. Learn the meaning of pitch and use it to your advantage.
- Rate can signal intent to the audience. As you slow your rate of speech, you increase the emphasis. As you speed up your speech, you signal excitement or humor. But be aware of something I call “presentation relativity.” You have more information than the audience and you know what’s coming, so you can experience a sort of time contraction. A pause that seems very long to you likely seems much briefer to your audience. And when you think you are speaking at a normal rate, you’re probably speaking faster than normal. Factor presentation relativity into your efforts to vary your talking speed.
- Timbre (pronounced TAM-ber) is defined by the American National Standards Institute, in so many words, as all the difference between two sounds that is not volume, pitch, or rate. It is, in other words, a highly subjective quality. In a presentation, the timbre of a sound is its emotionality or attitude. Imagine being asked by a tough-looking stranger, “Are you going somewhere, friend?” Much of the hostility is conveyed through timbre. Because it is so subjective and largely automatic, you have to control timbre by controlling your attitude.
No audience can be won over without passion, and passion cannot be expressed in monotone. Control and vary your volume, pitch, rate, and timbre to bring out the passion in your speech.