Many aspects of leadership have to do with performance—and high on the list is the need to speak powerfully. That may involve aspects of a leader’s “voice” in the sense of communicating a vision and concern for one’s followers. But it’s also literal, in terms of vocal power, subtlety, and variety of expression.
We all know this about leaders. We thrill to the powerful voice of a Martin Luther King, Jr., listen with delight to the eloquence of a Winston Churchill, or cringe at the speeches and remarks of a Joe Biden.
Among the tools leaders need to develop “the sound of leadership” are the three below. They can and should be used with the content of any speech or presentation to help boost the influence, charisma, and executive presence every leader needs.
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Diaphragmatic Breathing for a Powerful Voice
The words we say can never live on their own in terms of a speech performance, however insightful they may be. In fact, the whole idea of a speech or presentation is that a speaker should move his or her audience, in person and in real time. The way we express our words conveys a world of dynamism regarding how listeners receive and respond to our message.
“This is an idea whose time has come.” . . . Say those eight words out loud in a calm voice. Now repeat the sentence aloud, investing the last four words with power through greater volume. Imagine the effect on your audience of Version A versus Version B!
Leaders can speak effectively without drawing upon vocal power at will, though it’s a much chancier thing. So if you want to speak for leadership, learn how to breathe for vocal power using your diaphragm. This dome-shaped sheath of muscle between your lungs and your abdomen is meant to flatten as you inhale, creating room for the lungs to expand. The result is a voice powered by a full reservoir of air resulting in greater volume, depth, and projection.
Watch this brief video, which explains and demonstrates diaphragmatic breathing:
Vocal Dynamics: The Key to Speech Improvement
Once your voice is sufficiently powerful, learn how to use your full vocal palette to engage, inform, and inspire audiences. You need a varied voice for two reasons: 1) you mustn’t speak in a monotone that disengages listeners, and 2) you need a full range of vocal skills to convey to audiences what’s valuable and even essential for them to know.
In my coaching and training programs, I teach what I call the Key Tools of Vocal Dynamics. Here are four of those tools, with the benefit of each explained in terms of speaking for leadership:
1. Energy and Emphasis
A speech or presentation is a performance, so it needs a higher level of energy than everyday conversation. Audiences will respond favorably when you’re “up” for the performance. They're also depending upon you to give appropriate emphasis to the elements of your message that should stand out from the rest.
2. Pitch Inflection
This is the bête noir of too many business speakers because of its absence. Adequate inflection—or variance in the highs and lows of your pitch on the musical scale—ensures a level of attentiveness in listeners. But it’s also important to making your essential points stand out as “peaks” in the landscape of your talk. Vary your pitch adequately and you'll come across as lively, engaging, and interesting to listen to.
3. Pace and Tempo
Your speaking rhythm should change according to the different ideas and emotions you’re discussing. The good news is, you shouldn’t have to do anything to make this happen. If you’re fully invested in what you’re saying, the pace of your speech should change naturally. If it doesn’t, chances are you’re relying too much on your content to achieve the influence you’re aiming for, rather than making the effort to allow your ideas to come alive through your voice.
4. Pauses and Silence
One of the most powerful speaking tools you should employ as a leader is silence. Speech that relentlessly “assaults” the ear without pausing exhausts listeners. Every time you deliver important content, your audience needs a brief moment to absorb and digest what you’ve said (the eating metaphor works well here). Equally important, to appear to be a confident leader you must give your speech at the pace you want to deliver it, conveying a sure sense of control.
(For the 7 attributes you can't be without when you speak as a leader that go beyond voice, see my blog "The 7 Leadership Qualities of Great Speakers.")
Vocal Quality: A Powerful Tool for Leadership
As my last point, if you want to speak as a leader, learn this general truth about using your voice effectively: The idea behind vocal skills used in a speech is to recreate in the listener what you are feeling as the speaker. When this occurs, audiences can fully understand your message, share your feelings, and act upon what you’re trying to get across to them. Nothing accomplishes all of those goals in a speaking situation like your vocal quality.
Want to get employees as excited as you are about the company’s new product? — You need to sound that way! Need to express your empathy for those you’re speaking to? — How will you convey that if your voice doesn’t do so? Outraged at something you want to let the audience know about because you know they’ll share your desire for action? — What could accomplish that more successfully than the passion that's evident in your voice?
Speakers in general too often make the mistake of focusing on their content rather than their performance. Leaders can’t afford to commit such an unforced error. The skills I discuss here—belly breathing, vocal dynamics, and voice quality—are essential occupants of the leader’s toolbox. The more your metaphorical toolbox has a battered, kicked around look from frequent travels to your presentations, the more memorable and moving a speaker you’ll be.
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