Anyone can read from PowerPoint slides or spreadsheets. Do you give listeners more? Here's how the vocal aspects of your presentations make you memorable.
How important is your voice in speeches and presentations? Isn't it pretty much a given, since the content of what you say is what matters?
What if the way you use your voice could change the meaning of the message you're conveying, and clue listeners in to what you're really trying to say? Would your vocal skills seem more important then?
The Most Powerful Presentation Tool You Have
In fact, your voice is the most powerful tool you possess when it comes to public speaking performance. When you strategize about what you're attempting to achieve in a speech (and you should do this!) your brain is supreme, aided and abetted by your knowledge, expertise, years of experience, and understanding of the needs of your audience.
But when you begin speaking, you're in the oral arena. Along with the different needs of written versus spoken communication, there's this all-important fact: your success now depends upon your ability to speak to a group in real time about your topic. Suddenly, it's your job to relate more to the people in the seats than the notes or manuscript you've been cozy with up to now.
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The Way You Say Something Changes Its Meaning
It's easy to get confused between the meaning of "verbal" vs. "vocal" in public speaking. After all, they both start with the letter "V" and they both come out of your mouth! The easiest way to remember the distinction is this: verbal is what you say, and vocal is how you say it.
And if you think about it, you'll start to realize many times in your own life where this difference was noticeable, even all-important. For instance, take two scenarios in which the words said remain the same, but the meaning changes radically.
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Scenario One: Two young mothers are sitting on the front porch while the child of one of them, five-year-old Melissa, is sitting on the curb. The house is located in a sleepy rural town and there's hardly every any traffic on this street. The toy Melissa is playing with suddenly rolls a couple of feet into the street, then stops. Melissa stands, and as she takes a first step into the street, her mother says, in a steady voice without emotion, "Melissa, no, don't go in the street."
Scenario Two: The situation is exactly the same, except this time, the house is on a busy urban street. Cars go by (usually too fast for a residential street) constantly. Now, as Melissa takes that first step, her mother stands and, in a nearly-panicked voice shouts: "Melissa, NO! DON'T GO IN THE STREET!"
Apart from the girl's mother standing in the second scenario, and shouting out her warning in a voice now filled with fear (both, incidentally, examples of nonverbal communication), the words are precisely the same. But does Melissa receive and comprehend a different message? You'd better believe it—and she would certainly get back to the sidewalk at a different speed.
What Are You Really Trying to Say to Your Audience?
Once you consider the difference between the sheer annotative meaning of words, i.e., their literal meaning, and their connotative meaning in terms of what the speaker is really trying to say, you will grasp the importance of full vocal expressiveness.
The truth is, your voice is almost infinitely capable of shades of meaning, implications, suggestive hints, levels of importance or immediacy, evidence of empathy versus coldness and distance, confusion, excitement, fear, awe . . . the list goes on and on. Is there another aspect of your speeches or presentations that comes anywhere close to this power? There is not.
How to Improve Your Voice: To tap into the true power of your voice, start recording yourself in your practice sessions. You can use a recording device such as your phone or digital recorder. Alternatively, you can screen record yourself and either turn off your video, or don't watch yourself in the playback. The idea is to eliminate any visual input, which in this case will just distract you.
Now, listen to yourself speaking. With no visuals to attend to, you'll suddenly be 100% focused on what you're hearing. Put yourself in your listeners' position, i.e., try to listen with "the ears of your audience" rather than with your usual subjective hearing. Pay close attention to whether what you're really trying to get across comes through.
If you were sitting listening to this person, would you understand the true import of what's being said? And don't shy away from another important question: How do you feel listening to this presentation in terms of the person rather than the content? That one is a not-so-subtle reminder that it's you your voice is revealing, much more than your content.
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Gary Genard is an actor, author, and expert in public speaking and overcoming speaking fear. His company, The Genard Method offers live 1:1 Zoom executive coaching and corporate group training worldwide. In 2022 for the ninth consecutive year, Gary has been ranked by Global Gurus as One of the World’s Top 30 Communication Professionals. He is the author of the Amazon Best-Seller How to Give a Speech. His second book, Fearless Speaking, was named in 2019 as "One of the 100 Best Confidence Books of All Time." His handbook for presenting in videoconferences, Speaking Virtually offers strategies and tools for developing virtual presence in online meetings. His latest book is Speak for Leadership: An Executive Speech Coach's Secrets for Developing Leadership Presence. Contact Gary here.
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