How valuable are vocal skills in business? The answer is that nothing is more perfectly attuned to allow you to persuade, sell, inform, inspire, reassure, or build awareness or credibility. As the speechwriter Richard Dowis said, "Words convey information; nonverbal communication adds meaning to the information."
That means using the color and emotion added to what you say by your voice, as well as body language and all the other physical aspects of your performance. Expertise may get you in the door, but to truly move your listeners, you require a voice that's responsive to those listeners' needs. (To use your voice more skillfully and speak with greater influence, download my free cheat sheet, "5 Key Tools of Vocal Dynamics.")
Here are five vocal skills that are essential to your ability to engage, entertain, and enlighten audiences. You must accomplish each of those results to get prospects and customers to pay close attention, come down on your side of the argument, and keep listening as you move them to the action step that will make your speaking successful.
1. Full Breathing and Projection. To paraphrase a famous epigram attributed to the great English tragic actor Edmund Kean, "Breathing for life is easy. Breathing for speech is hard."* This isn't really true—breathing properly to support speaking isn't difficult, only unfamiliar to people not trained to do so.
The reality is that most people breathe shallowly, while speech requires sustained sound that must be controlled. Speech itself is simply controlled exhalation, since it's air passing through the vocal cords that creates the vibrations necessary for vocal sound. Having control over your breathing means you'll be able to create whatever effects you want to through your speech: from whispered intimacy to vocal power. That, of course, is where projection comes in. To speak powerfully, you must have enough air for your voice to fill a room and reach your entire audience. Here's how breathing properly can actually "inspire" you!
2. Pitch inflection. Remember that college professor who delivered every lecture in a monotone? (If he or she read from note cards while doing so, you get extra points in heaven!) Having endured a semester or two of an unvarying vocal plateau, or being subjected to it now in the business world, you understand that nothing undermines an audience's interest so much as a voice that goes nowhere in terms of inflection.
Inflection or intonation refers to the highness or lowness of a speaker's voice on the musical scale. For a skilled speaker's voice is musical; and someone who speaks with no range whatsoever is monotonous (from monotone or "one tone"). To speak successfully in business, you or the members of your team must vary your pitch, for two important reasons. First, your listeners require changes in pitch to continue to pay attention, since the ear, like the eye, responds to change not sameness. And second, you naturally tend to raise your pitch when you want to emphasize something. That means audiences will miss out on important points if they sound like everything else you're saying.
3. Vocal quality. In addition to projection and pitch, your voice must be expressive in terms of its quality. The points you make to persuade your listeners are not blunt instruments—they are often subtle, and sometimes complex, with nuances and variations of meaning. You need a fully expressive voice to make such arguments come alive.
The ways we describe a speaker's voice make up a catalog of what we mean by vocal "quality": harsh vs. pleasant, soft vs. loud, reasonable vs. demanding, assertive vs. passive, nasal vs. mellow, young vs. mature, brash vs. mild, the list can go on and on. People will strongly and immediately get a sense of who you are and what you represent from your voice, among other factors. If you want to influence, you need this subtle instrument working toward, not against your goals.
4. Stories and Questions. To be a successful speaker in business, you must tell stories and ask as well as answer questions. In either case, your vocal skill must set these two important speaking tools of business apart. Each must be a "peak" that rises above the sameness of the vocal landscape that surrounds them. Here's how to add drama to your presentations so you stand out from your competitors.
That is, when you tell a story or ask a question, it must sound different from what you say before and after. Usually this is done by raising your pitch (though you can and should change your vocal quality as well). If you do this, your audience will instantly hear the difference, and will pay closer attention. And that's exactly the reason you're telling the story or asking the question! When your story, or the question you ask, sounds like everything else you're saying, your talk or presentation will lack dynamics and be far less interesting for your listeners. Try it right now: Speak a few sentences from your last presentation, then tell a story or ask a question of your imagined listeners. Can you hear how this will help you capture their attention?
5. Perform! Have you heard the expression, "A rising tide lifts all boats?" (If I were saying this now to an audience, I'd make that genuinely sound like a question through a higher pitch, just as I suggested in the previous paragraph.) That's exactly what your business speech or presentation needs to accomplish: your performance must be at a level apart—a "higher tide"—from a mundane discussion. When you achieve this effect, all of your audience members will perk up, and listen more closely. Here are 3 additional ways to achieve powerful presentation skills.
It is energy that supplies this special something that you need. Good speakers are conversational; but great speakers are electric in the dynamism they achieve. They are excited, passionate about what they're saying, and totally committed to get it across to their audience. In a word, they know how to perform—and great performers know how to influence others like nobody's business.
* The actual quote is "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."
And here are 4 (other) easy ways to become a more charismatic speaker!
Key takeaways from this blog:
- Your voice is the perfect instrument to sway business audiences.
- Proper breathing will allow you to project a powerful voice.
- You need pitch inflection to help your listeners engage and pay attention.
- Vary your vocal quality to allow your arguments to come alive.
- To give a great presentation, "rise to the occasion" with your performance.