Want people to be interested and to pay close attention to what you say? Here's the one powerful habit that will make you a better speaker.
A few years ago, at a presentation skills workshop I was conducting at a healthcare conference, an audience member asked an amazing question:
"How do we know that people hear what we're saying?"
This person's question had nothing to do with audibility, of course. And it had everything to do with receptivity and understanding.
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Delve a little deeper into the question and you realize it contains an important pre-condition: Are people even paying attention to what you're saying? For that to happen, you need to focus on another basic question too many speakers ignore: "Is my voice interesting enough to keep listeners tuned in?"
Variety Is the Spice of Your Speaking Life, Too
The reason we speak in public is so obvious that often we don't acknowledge it: our voices contribute something that mere information can't. The difference between written communication and speech isn't only an artifact of the form employed—it is as fundamental as possible. The meaning itself can be changed, and often is, by how we vocally express what we've written out beforehand.
Shouldn't we pay attention then to what our voices are doing when we speak? We get no help in this from our schools, organizations we join, and our places of work, even though we speak to influence people day in and day out. The habit I'm talking about here which will make you a better speaker, is simply developing your voice. You need it to be fully expressive so you can convey not just information, but meaning, intention, and commitment (among other things).
Vocal variety not only helps listeners pay attention to what you're saying. It allows you to express the subtleties and emotions that are among the most important elements of your speech. Whatever natural talents you possess as a communicator, your voice is ready to respond! It offers you a range of vocal coloration as varied as a painter's palette. Why (as many speakers do) would you want to keep speaking in black and white?
Know Where Your Ideas and Intentions Change
When I work with clients in executive speech training, one of the first things I teach them is to recognize the places where their ideas and intentions change as they speak. In the theater, these places are called "beats" or the moment when the intention of the character changes. The stronger the intention of a character in a scene, the more the actor has to work with. It's vital that the actor understands when a character's motivation changes—which is part of what results in an interesting drama for the audience.
As a speaker, it isn't your character's intentions you're concerned with of course—it's whatever idea you are talking about at the moment. And those ideas are always in flux as you make your argument. Think about a topic you'd talk about for even a few minutes, and you'll realize that the thoughts and emotions that inform your speech are changing all the time. Your job is to reflect this dynamic, evolving "speech environment" so listeners grasp both what you're saying and what you mean by it.
For that to happen, you need to sound different in the moment when you switch from one idea to the next—it's as simple as that. When that takes place, people automatically pay attention, because something has changed in terms of what they are hearing.
How do you accomplish this as a speaker? It's easy, really: simply pause, and do something different with your voice. You can raise or lower your pitch, or change your vocal quality, say from emphatic to softly persuasive. You can vary your pace, or change the volume. It doesn't matter what you do specifically. The pause tells people something new and interesting is coming; and any way you sound after that falls on newly attentive ears. The whole point is not to let your voice become monotonous, because then your information truly falls on deaf ears.
Learn How to Hear Yourself (Develop Your Ear)
Enlarging your vocal palette will help you not only professionally, but personally. Who doesn't want to be in a conversation with an expressive speaker rather than a monotonous one? So, how do you go from where you may be now on the vocal expressiveness scale, to where you'd like to be?
If you have the resources and you're so inclined, work with a speech coach. (I recommend a coach who's also an actor.) But it isn't necessary. All you really need to do is develop your ear. You need to hear the change from a staid delivery to a voice that's alive—as the difference will be strongest and most noticeable when you hear yourself accomplishing it.
You can do this in two ways: (1) Record yourself, on audio only, and objectively judge what you hear. Avoid reading along with any notes or manuscript you may have used when practicing—let your vocal persona live on its own. And (2) start to listen to yourself when you're not in a formal speaking situation. I'm talking about the 'you' (usually around friends or colleagues), when you're excited or trying to persuade for all you're worth. That's the speaker who's revealing the fully expressive voice you're capable of. Then simply invite him or her to your next presentation.
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