It’s pretty obvious that what you say in a presentation matters more than the way you say it. Right?
If you believe that, try reading the following short passages aloud. Speak them first in a flat monotone, then with expression, as if this is the most important thing you’ll say all year:
- “You may have heard that this company is washed up . . . finished. But I’m here to tell you: Acme Industries is going to win back our share of the industry. And as our sales force, you’re the only people who can make that happen!”
- “The United States is absolutely committed to preventing genocide—in this region or anywhere in the world.”
- “I love you.”
Notice any differences in the meaning or strength of your message as you spoke neutrally or with emotion?
Now try reading aloud the short sentence below. Emphasize only the first word using punch and inflection. Now read the sentence aloud again, this time emphasizing the second word. Continue doing that until you’ve read the sentence aloud six times:
“I didn’t give them those documents.”
You conveyed six different messages by emphasizing just one word each time, didn't you?
Both of these exercises—using emotional coloration and emphasizing words within a sentence—demonstrate a critically important point in public speaking: Your voice is your most powerful tool for persuading and influencing listeners.
No other presentation tool is capable of such infinite variety, for instance. And hardly anything in the way of content can match your voice for achieving subtle shades of meaning and intention.
Finding Your Honest Voice
So how can you achieve vocal expressiveness that will make your presentations more interesting, engaging, and influential?
Believe it or not, attaining a dynamic vocal presence is all about not doing something: trying to sound professional or working on becoming “an excellent public speaker.”
You’re already an effective speaker! Just listen to yourself in everyday situations when you’re actively engaged with what you’re talking about: the exciting movie you just saw, or the fascinating new person in your life.
In other words, when you're not self-conscious about speaking, you look and sound completely like yourself. Your voices take on the coloration and natural qualities that reflect both who you are and your commitment to what you’re talking about. And then you're interesting to listen to! It’s only when you become self-conscious that you try to sound different: professional, expert, business-like, and so on.
And that strategy never works. Audience members aren’t interested in hearing a polished speaker so much as they want to listen to someone who’s genuinely interesting. And that means you: the person, in fact, who is ideally suited to give this presentation.
Have a Talk Instead of Giving a Speech
How do you combine that honest voice of yours with presentation effectiveness? It’s as simple as can be: you only need to remember to be conversational. Talk to your listeners instead of trying to give a speech, and you’ll come across as an honest and trustworthy presenter who’s worth hearing.
Spend some time, then, in learning how effectively you use your voice. Train your ear to listen to how you say things, not merely the information you’re imparting. Record yourself talking with friends (when you’re activated and not self-conscious, remember?), and listen to the results. Ask colleagues what they think of your vocal delivery. Once you have more knowledge from “outside your own head,” start working on improving your problem areas.
If you use evaluation instruments following your presentations, include questions dealing specifically with speech and voice issues. And if you really want to reach the next level, find yourself a first-class speech coach, preferably someone with a background in acting.