How much time do you spend thinking about your voice or how you come across as you speak? Unless you’re a professional speaker, your answer is probably zero. We think a lot about what we say and very little about how we say it.
Nevertheless, whether you’re a main stage speaker at an industry event, presenting a new idea at a quarterly board meeting or speaking at an all-hands meeting, vocal delivery is crucial for getting your message across.
In fact, I would venture to say vocal expression is as important as getting the content right. No matter how engaging your content, if you present it in a monotone -- like Charlie Brown’s teacher -- what you’re saying will be effectively gibberish.
While many ignore vocal delivery, the other extreme is to become hyperfocused on it, which can make you seem disingenuous or as if you’re overacting. What you want is to avoid both extremes and find that sweet spot.
3 tips for nailing vocal delivery
First, what makes vocal delivery effective? In general, vocal delivery is all about injecting variety into your speech, both to grab the attention of your audience and to convey meaning. The key is to add variety in a way that feels comfortable and naturally highlights your passion for the topic.
Here are three simple tips for nailing vocal delivery:
1. Speak conversationally
We all naturally vary the pace and animation of our speech when we’re having an ordinary, everyday conversation. Recall the last time you struck up a conversation with a friend. Perhaps you had good news to share. You expressed so much in your delivery that your friend was instantly aware of your excitement. If you can learn to look at every speaking opportunity as a conversation, strong vocal delivery will come more easily.
2. Think the thought
I like to call this the superpower that will allow you to be yourself whether you’re speaking in front of three, 300 or 3,000 people. Thinking the thought means staying in the moment. Instead of sounding like you’re rattling off some talking points or a script you’ve memorized, when you’re thinking the thought, you’re fully present with what you are saying.
To practice this, all you have to do is think about what you are saying as you say it. It’s that simple. If you stay present, in the moment, you will slow your pace and tune. Being in the moment also means you can adjust what you’re saying if you sense your audience drifting or feeling lost. Remember: When you stay connected to your content, your audience will stay connected as well.
3. Lean into your personality
This third tip is important to avoid the pitfalls of being hyperfocused on delivery. Often leaders feel they can’t be themselves when they’re speaking. But infusing your personality into the content of your speech or presentation will increase comprehension and add emotion.
When you allow the variety to come from your passion, your curiosity and your commitment to the topic, you will nail vocal delivery. Again, speak conversationally and a lot of what you need to be effective will fall into place with ease.
The 5 P’s of vocal delivery
To dig a bit deeper into what vocal expressiveness looks like, you can inject variety using four qualities in particular: power, pace, pitch and pause. I’ve previously discussed the 4 P’s but here’s a summary of the five qualities I now consider to be attention worthy.
The foundation of strong vocal delivery is the 5 P’s:
- Power: how loud or soft (including a whisper) you speak
- Pace: how fast or slowly you speak
- Pitch: how you use your voice to communicate emotion
- Pause: how you use a quiet moment either for emphasis or to allow listeners to absorb what you are saying
- Prosody: how you apply intonation, tone, stress and rhythm to your message (think vocal inflection)
As you prepare for your next speaking opportunity (which could even be the meeting you’re leading after lunch today), consider the 5 P’s. If you’re using a script, outline or any other type of written notes, feel free to mark it up. That’s right, you’re allowed to use a cheat sheet for this! Use colored markers, underline, write exclamation points, write “pause” or “SLOWDOWN” -- whatever markings make sense for you.
Additionally, for frequent speakers, here are some vocal exercises and other surprising tips to get your voice into shape for your next presentation.
Turning your natural delivery into an asset
I want to leave you with a story to illustrate the points above. I recently worked with a seasoned speaker, Susan, to prepare for a big event. Susan projects strength, confidence and poise. She is the kind of person you meet and immediately recognize as someone who really knows her stuff. She doesn’t have to prove it; you just know it.
As senior vice president and corporate general counsel, Susan was no stranger to speaking to an audience. But speaking in front of 3,000 stakeholders, on a stage the size you would see on Broadway, with three screens serving as teleprompters and images being projected on two screens the size of jumbotrons -- that was a whole new level for her. Yup, the stakes were high!
Several weeks prior to the event, we were rehearsing and realized one big thing was going to prevent her from connecting with the audience. You guessed it: vocal delivery. Susan was speaking at the speed cars race around the track during the Indy 500.
Naturally, we agreed she should slowdown. When she did, however, another aspect of her delivery changed, too. When her pace slowed, her volume also decreased. Who would have guessed these two things (pace and power) were connected? Well, Susan had a good sense of humor, and we both howled with laughter when we discovered this connection!
The takeaway here: As you work to lean into turning your natural delivery from a liability to an asset, be aware of the unintended consequences of the adjustments you make. If you’re like Susan and tend to speak fast, it will take concentration to slow down. Concentrating on your pace could then cause you to lose focus on another aspect of your delivery, power or pitch, for instance, unless you are watching out for it.
These tips and tricks should help you nail your vocal delivery the next time you give a high stakes presentation. But why not start practicing today?
Here’s my challenge to you: Consider the 5 P’s throughout your day whenever you have a conversation. Whether talking to your colleagues, customers, or the barista at your favorite coffee shop, be aware of your power, pace, pitch, pauses and prosody. Awareness is the first step to finding that sweet spot and nailing your vocal delivery.
Stephanie Scotti is a strategic communication advisor specializing in high-stake presentations. She has 25-plus years experience of coaching experience and eight years teaching presentation skills for Duke University. She has provided presentation coaching to over 3,000 individuals in professional practices, Fortune 500 companies, high-level government officials and international business executives. Learn more at ProfessionallySpeaking.net and ProfessionallySpeakingBlog.com.