Monday, August 31, 2020

Speaking in voices: pitch, volume, and speed

How you say it is important

As a speaker, you have two instruments to influence an audience: your voice and your body. In this blog post, I'm going to talk about how you can use your voice to become a more engaging and compelling speaker. 

To be successful on stage, you need to be more you, which means exaggerating who you are through your voice. It doesn't mean being manic, but it does mean being more expressive than you usually are. 

Everyone knows that speaking in a monotone can put audiences to sleep, which means it's important to have meaningful variation in your voice. You can use the need for variation to your advantage: you can use your voice to grab attention (in at least two different ways), to soothe an audience, or to rile them up.  

Let's look at three techniques you have at your disposal: volume, pitch, and speed.

(Margaret Thatcher was an expert in her use of voice pitch. Image source: Wikimedia Commons, Photographer: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo, License: Public domain)


This is the most obvious method; you can vary how loudly you speak. You should do it mindfully and be aware that you can use softness and loudness for the same goal.

Obviously, speaking loudly, or very loudly, grabs an audience's attention, but it quickly becomes tiring for both the audience and the speaker and the effect rapidly wears off. You should use louder speech as you might use bold text in a document - to draw attention to a point. For example, a CEO might say something like:

"...our results for 2020 were at the lower end of expectations, in 2021, we changed our approach and saw a 10% improvement, in 2022, we must continue to focus on our core business."

The CEO would say the words in bold louder than the other words, and the underlined word louder still.

I was at a comedy club when the compere had to revive an audience after the previous comic had died on stage. He used various techniques to do it, but the most obvious one was loudness; he spoke closer to the microphone which had the effect of amplifying his voice. At times, it was so loud it was almost painful. However, it worked, he got the audience's attention and he continued with his set at a more reasonable volume. If you're the first speaker on stage after lunch, you can do the same to get your audience's attention, but don't do it for too long.

You can also use a softer voice to get attention. One power move I've seen is for executives to speak softly to force people to listen more closely. Of course, this only works if the room is right and there are no background noises, but when it works, it works really well.

The ultimate in speaking softly is silence. I've used silence in my talks to powerful effect and I've seen others use it too. Mostly, it takes the form of a longer-than-usual pause in the lead-up to some crucial part of the talk. The silence works to build audience tension to a reveal and it serves to amplify the message. I've seen comedians use it to add power to a punchline - some comedians can get a huge laugh from weak material by the effective use of silences to build anticipation. Of course, you have to use silences judiciously and not drag them out too long; extended silences can become excruciating for audiences. My suggestion is to use silences that last no longer than a count of 3 or 4.

Let's imagine you're VP of Engineering and you wanted to grab your audiences' attention during a talk on 2021 objectives. Here's how you might emphasize a point using silence:

"In 2020, we had a problem that plagued several teams. It caused us to miss deadlines. It caused us additional expenses. It caused us all greater personal time and effort. The problem was..." <SILENCE FOR A COUPLE OF BEATS>"... staff retention."

Silence draws attention to your point.

Volume control is also partly dependent on your microphone technique. Very, very few speakers practice using a microphone and working with the sound team, and that's a shame. Although lapel mics are easy and very popular, a handheld mic enables you to play sound games, for example, to increase volume by moving the microphone closer to your mouth. This has the advantage of increasing volume and not distorting your voice in the way that shouting does. If you intend to use the microphone like this, for heaven's sake, practice and speak to the sound person if there is one. A sound person will immediately drop your volume if you use the microphone like this - you have to tell them what you're going to do so they don't work against you.

Pitch (frequency)

In normal speech, you vary the pitch of your speech for different reasons:

  • high pitch represents energy and excitement and high emotion
  • low pitch represents calm seriousness

You also vary pitch within sentences; you use increasing pitch to indicate a question at the end of sentences.

Even business speeches have emotional content if you play them right. One company I worked for had a meaningful commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility and people spoke about their experiences in disadvantaged communities around the world. The best speakers used high pitch to give a forceful power when talking about their experiences and coupled it with lower pitch to talk about the effect it had on them. More generally, executives can use a higher pitch for energetic parts of a speech, for example, talking about beating the competition or exceeding quota, and then use a lower pitch for serious parts, like discussing training and staff development.

Like all abilities, your vocal range is limited, which is why certain types of speech may suit your voice better than others, but there are things you can do to extend or even change your vocal range.

There's a famous story about Margaret Thatcher and her voice training. Before she became Prime Minister, one of the criticisms she faced was that she sounded like a shrill housewife. Obviously, this was a long time ago and it's a deeply sexist comment, but even today, it's a criticism of female politicians. Margaret Thatcher dealt with it by lowering the pitch of her voice. She had voice training and performed voice exercises to speak more deeply. It worked for her; if you get time, listen to some of her speeches, they're masterclasses in the use of voice for oratory. 

If you do have a higher-pitched voice, you need to be careful about your vocal range in speeches. Yes, it is deeply unfair that women are labeled shrill, but the labeling occurs. At the very least, you should be aware it will happen.


Speed is similar to pitch:

  • High speed represents energy, excitement, high emotion
  • Low speed represents seriousness

in fact, speed and pitch often work together to emphasize a point. 

If you need to represent urgency or energy, speak more quickly. The risk is that some of your audience might not catch every word, especially non-native speakers, but there is a way around this that can work to your advantage. Many rhetorical devices use repetition in some form or other (e.g. anaphora, epimone, epistrophe etc.) - using one of these devices plus speed means some members of your audience can miss words but still take away the meaning. Very few audiences and speakers can maintain a high level of energy for extended periods, as a consequence, you need to use higher speed with consideration.

If you need to convey seriousness, speak more slowly. The classic case is a national leader speaking during a time of crisis; they all tend to speak more slowly and deliberately to convey gravity.

Of course, you can overdo speaking slowly. The risk is, you put your audience to sleep, so use it sparingly.

Putting it all together

You should use these techniques like spices in cooking; use them to bring out the features of your talk but not as the main element. You want people to remember your message, not your technique. Some techniques, like silence, are very powerful and should only be used sparingly. Others, like speed, you can use to add variety and interest and to emphasize your point. To keep your audience engaged, you need variety.

To see masters of voice control at work, I suggest you listen to the speeches of Martin Luther King or Margaret Thatcher, two people with very different styles and very different politics, but both very, very effective.

There are other voice techniques that I haven't gone into here. I haven't talked about communicating emotion or using rhythm in speeches. These are more advanced topics I might write about in the future. 

Like any physical skill, you need to practice to get good at using these techniques. The next time you're giving a talk, try to add volume, pitch, and speed to add variety and emphasize the important points.

Other blog posts in the series

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