In a perfect world, each of us would have been born with an innate set of TED-worthy communication skills that could help us magically transform any audience into a group of attentive, interested and engaged listeners. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and unfortunately, too many audience members choose to flip the proverbial ignore switch.
Whether you’re a natural in front of an audience, or a work-in-progress, each of us has one critical communication skill already available in our toolbox: our voice. And the bonus? It’s free. Available 24/7. And it never requires WiFi.
Our voice isn’t simply a method for conveying words to a potentially unmotivated audience. When used effectively, our voice has the capacity to maintain our listeners’ attention, persuade, and even evoke emotion. Which, when you think about it, is what we want to accomplish every time we put on our advocacy hat.
But, variety is key. Acting coaches and communications experts teach a number of strategies for integrating vocal variety into communications. Here are a few suggestions:
There’s a delicate balance between speaking at a rate that is too slow or too fast. When we are nervous, the rate at which we speak frequently increases – often without conscious awareness. If words fly out at warp speed, we hurt our ability to persuade because listeners are robbed of the opportunity to absorb the message. While a gross exaggeration, the fast-talking-FedEx guy is a perfect example. It’s entertaining, but indigestible. Listeners need time to process what we are telling them, especially when the content is new, complex or technical (which, in the case of jurors, is about 99.9% of the time). Be aware of your speed. If the court reporter asks you to slow down, that’s a red flag. Take a deep breath and shift to a slower gear.
One of the best (and funniest) examples of an inflection-less speaker is Ferris Bueller’s teacher. Remember the famous “anyone” scene? Vocal monotony in a movie can be comical (and a real career boost for Ben Stein), but vocal monotony in a courtroom, meeting, or CLE presentation can be sleep-inducing and irritating. We’ve all been in the audience of one of those situations, and if we’re honest with ourselves, most likely we shut down our active listening and began to play on our phones.
When we listen to music, the notes we hear vary throughout the song. It makes the song interesting and melodic. The same thing holds true when we speak. By varying the power or strength we place on different words, we add persuasion and interest to the message. We can also infer different meanings. For example, think about the phrase: “I never said that.” Play around with emphasizing each one of the four words at a different time and you can appreciate the full effect of inflection. (I never said that. I never said that. I never said that. I never said that.) When speaking, make a concerted effort to move around the whole scale, and add some punch to phrases or words that demand a bit more attention.
Pitch is related to inflection, but oh-so-slightly different. It’s is essentially the frequency level at which you normally speak. Think James Earl Jones and Judi Dench (low pitch voices) or Mike Tyson and Fran Drescher (high pitch voices). Research shows that higher-pitched speech conveys a sense of excitement, fear, or even nervousness. A lower-pitched voice typically communicates confidence, certainty, and a sense of calm. We obviously can’t change the natural pitch of our voice, but we can intentionally shift it upwards or downwards when we want to influence. Consider using a slightly different frequency of your voice when introducing a new issue, a new character in your story, or even a new emotion. It’ll help add a bit of verve to your delivery.
There are countless ways to use volume to add energy, emphasis, and emotion to the message we want to convey. The trick is knowing when to turn the dial up or down. Often, people only think of increasing volume. But don’t forget the power of a whisper. If you want your audience to take notice, lean in, and really listen, try a whisper. Modifying volume can help punctuate the importance of a point, or even the underlying emotion of the message (surprise, frustration, fear, anger, etc.). Change the volume of your delivery with purpose: think about the emotion you want to elicit from your listeners and adjust your volume accordingly.
And finally, the power of a pause. Many speakers fear silence, but it can be a fabulous tool for persuasion. By integrating carefully orchestrated pauses and/or silence into your speaking, you are essentially speaking in all caps, bold with a large font. It’s an easy, effective way to let listeners know that what you just said (or are about to say) is important.
McConaughey Brings it All Together
One of my all-time favorite books is A Time to Kill by John Grisham, and the movie has become one of my go-to sources for teaching storytelling. In the closing argument scene, Matthew McConaughey expertly uses his voice to persuade, integrating each of the elements we’ve discussed. If you want to see the ending first (spoiler alert) or listen to an amazing closing argument, check out the video below. Or, you could just gaze at a young Matthew McConaughey for a few minutes (you’re welcome).
We spend hours preparing content for a speech, Opening Statement, oral argument, or even a client pitch. Make the most of your delivery by adding a healthy dose of vocal variety to your presentation. Your listeners will appreciate it.