Want to develop a dynamic voice—the kind that will make you a more powerful public speaker? Discover how to delight rather than horrify audiences using the lessons in this famous novel.
Can someone who's undead help enliven your voice? Absolutely—if his name is Dracula.
Actually, it's a specific passage in the book with that title that will help with your vocal dynamics.
Look at it this way: When it comes to improving your voice for public speaking, it pays to work with material you can really sink your teeth into. So what better source than Bram Stoker's thrilling 1897 horror novel Dracula?
And I'm not talking only about sound bites. From interpersonal speech to conference keynotes, acquiring a fully expressive voice is the basis for all exciting public speaking.
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So let's time-travel to Transylvania in the late 19th-century—to a peaceful night that gradually awakens our strongest emotions, then shows us how to share them with an audience. Let's allow Dracula to teach us how to use our voice to fully express what we see, think, and feel.
How Literature and Poetry Helps Awaken Your Voice
To improve your vocal expressiveness, start by listening to others. You can't always get an accurate read on your own voice, because you hear it as it's conducted through the bones in your head and your skull. (We hear others' voices as sound waves traveling through air.) But you certainly can pick up on the do's and don'ts of others' vocal qualities, as you respond to pleasantness or harshness, vigor or languor, passion or indifference, etc. And for the highest examples of skill, audiobooks read by voice actors is your treasure trove.
When you're ready to practice exercises that will help improve your voice, your best sources are novels and poetry. Better still is working with a speech coach, of course. But really good writing gives you the best raw material whether you're working with an expert or alone. That's because fiction and poetry are rich in vocal possibilities. It's more than that, really: they are filled with vocal demands, i.e., the need to absolutely bring passages to life (if you're speaking them) through the skills of oral expression.
These sources combine compression of language with vivid imagery, giving you the chance to paint word pictures when you read them aloud. That of course is exactly what you need to do when speaking to an audience.
'Dracula': A Short Climb on a Vast Vocal Range
The passage from Dracula below that I want to introduce you to has another advantage: the first-person narrator (you) experiences a dramatic emotional range in just three paragraphs. He travels all the way from calm contemplation of a moonlit night, to bewilderment and confusion, to awe, to sheer terror, and finally ultimate despair. It's a golden opportunity to make a character's interior experience come to life through your spoken expression. Though you won't be acting out roles in your presentations, the ability to tap into your emotional response—and elicit like responses from your audience—is a key skill of all effective public speaking.
First, some background: the narrator Jonathan Harker is a lawyer who has been sent to Transylvania to show a mysterious nobleman, Count Dracula, some London properties that the Count is considering buying. Very soon, however, Harker finds himself a prisoner in the Count's ancient castle. In this diary entry, he describes an unforgettable sight that freezes his soul.
You'll be reading the diary entry aloud, and you should record yourself. First, read the piece given here silently so you can understand what the passage is all about. It is evening, and Harker is standing at a window in his locked bedroom looking out at the landscape:
I looked out over the beautiful expanse, bathed in soft yellow moonlight till it was almost as light as day. in the soft light the distant hills became melted, and the shadows in the valleys and gorges [were] of velvety blackness. The mere beauty seemed to cheer me; there was peace and comfort in every breath I drew. ⁄ As I leaned from the window my eye was caught by something moving a story below me, and somewhat to my left, where I imagined, from the order of the rooms that the windows of the Count's own room would look out. The window at which I stood was tall and deep, stone-mullioned [pronounced "MULL-yunned"], and though weather worn, was still complete; but it was evidently many a day since the case had been there. I drew back behind the stonework, and looked carefully out.
⁄ What I saw was the Count's head coming out from the window. I did not see the face, but I knew the man by the neck and the movement of his back and arms. In any case I could not mistake the hands, which I had had so many opportunities of studying. I was at first interested and somewhat amused, for it is wonderful how small a matter will interest and amuse a man when he is a prisoner. ⁄ But my very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down, with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings. At first I could not believe my eyes. I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow; but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion. I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall.
⁄ What manner of man is this, or what manner of creature is it in the semblance of man? I feel the dread of this horrible place overpowering me; I am in fear—in awful fear—and there is no escape for me.
Transitioning to Vocal Expressiveness
Did you notice the transitions in this passage—the places where the mood, idea, or images change? Transitions point to segments of your talk where your vocal "flavor" needs to be different. The ability of your voice to reflect changing ideas and emotions is as basic to business and professional communication as it is to novels and dramatic literature. There are four major transitions in the above selection from Dracula—I've marked them with forward slash lines—resulting in five distinct segments of what you are saying.
Speak the passage aloud, using ONE of the vocal tools. Now that you've made sense of this selection from Dracula, and you're aware of the transitions, go ahead and speak the piece out loud. As you do so, consciously use only one of the 5 essential tools of vocal expressiveness: energy, pitch inflection, rhythm/pace, pauses/silence, or vocal quality at appropriate places. On a second try, employ another of the tools, and so on.
Now use ALL of the vocal tools. Speak the selection one more time, this time allowing your voice to fully reflect what you are thinking and feeling at each stage. In this exercise and your actual public speaking, PAY PARTICULAR ATTENTION TO THE TRANSITIONS, WHERE THE IDEAS CHANGE. This is not acting since you're not trying to become Harker in a stage performance; you're merely using the actor's toolbox of a fully expressive and active voice.
Passages like this one, that are written well enough to portray strong human thoughts and emotions, can help bring more liveliness and energy to your speech. The freedom of expression you gain will give you confidence that you are, indeed, an interesting and powerful speaker.
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