Think for a moment about musical instruments. When one is played, be it a piano, a violin, or a
trumpet, the greater the variety in the notes being played, the more interesting the music is
to hear. Playing just one note, or a handful of notes is not only boring, it can be annoying. When
you are speaking in public your voice is your instrument. You want to make sure you are using
as many notes as possible.
Thus, when it comes to improving your vocal variety there are four properties you want to
consider: pace, tone, pitch, and volume. Each one is a tool that can make your voice richer and
more interesting. Proper use of them will have your audience listening to you speak like they
are listening to a symphony.
The majority of beginning public speakers speak far too fast. The consequence for speaking too
quickly is that the audience is unable to follow along because they can’t keep up, or even
understand what is being said. You need to speak more slowly than you normally do, even
slower than you think necessary. If it feels just a bit too slow you are probably at the proper
pace. When you want to drive a point home, slowing it down can give it even more gravitas.
Part of pacing is knowing when to pause. You can use pauses to emphasize points in a way that
nothing else does. They also give you a way to transition from one topic to another. Pauses also
are helpful when you want to possibly unsettle your audience – just a bit. When you are
rehearsing take some time to play around with pauses to see where they work best.
My mother always used to say “don’t take that tone with me, young lady.” Little did she know
that the tone I was using was hers. When you are speaking your tone reveals how you relate to
your audience. The wrong tone can seem condescending, or bored, or downright bitchy. You
want your tone to be friendly, excited, and accessible. If you don’t know how your tone is
coming off, record yourself speaking and play it back. Adjust accordingly.
Tone is also about putting the emphasis on the right word or syllable. There is a reason
Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentamer. It was so he could tell actors for hundreds of
years later what words to stress in order not to mess up his work. Of course, actors still mess up
his work (looking at you, Keanu) but it’s not Shakespeare’s fault.
When you are preparing your speech take a note from The Bard and make the time to decide
what words should be stressed and which should not.
Your pitch can say as much, if not more, as your tone. Higher pitches are associated with
excitement or panic while lower pitches can be heard as more serious, sad, or angry. Pitch is
quite honestly the hardest aspect of vocal variety to control, especially when speaking
passionately about a subject. When you are rehearsing watch your pitch so that you know the
moments when you may be losing control and need to go either higher or lower.
When someone whispers you lean in to hear what is being said. When someone yells you know
that there is big emotion behind their words. Volume can speak volumes when you are
speaking. It can wake up a crowd or make them believe they are the only ones in the world in
on a secret. Use it carefully though, or else you may come across as a discount appliance
retailer or an ASMR YouTube artist.
The adage “It’s not what you say, but how you say it” is well known because it’s true. Your
words can be wonderful, but if your voice doesn’t draw an audience in then you may as well say
nothing at all. Create a symphony with your voice and people will listen.