I recently had a phone conversation with a new client who had signed up for our Executive Immersion program. While our discussion was informative, it was also a little challenging. He spoke with a thick accent, had poor enunciation, rambled on and on, and spoke in monotone. I had to work hard to listen intently, process what he was saying, and then think of my own response. And this was on the phone! I could only imagine what it was like to listen to him present in front of a group. When we ended the call, he gave me a link to a video clip of him presenting. I immediately went to the site. Based on our phone conversation, my expectations were low. Imagine my surprise to see him presenting in front of a group and doing much better than he had on the phone. Not only were his voice and speaking pattern were much better, but he also smiled, carried himself well, came across as genuine and sincere, and projected energy. While he didn’t “combust” in front of the group, he wasn’t asleep at the wheel either.
When it comes to first impressions, we often think it’s only about your physical presence—how you look. But I’ve found that for presenters your voice and speaking pattern carry just as much weight. Your voice is your primary instrument when delivering information, so your enthusiasm, passion, and commitment to your topic must come across to the audience through your voice.
To develop your vocal potential and make the best use of your natural speaking abilities, I suggest you focus on three categories: vocal clarity, vocal variety, and vocal emphasis.
- Vocal clarity is the ease with which a listener can understand what you are saying. Nothing is more frustrating than listening to a speaker and barely understanding every third or fourth word because of mumbling, poor pronunciation, or a foreign accent. That means you not only need to speak loudly enough for people to hear you, but you also need to form your words with precision (ex: “going” rather than “goin”) and then say them according to rules of acceptable pronunciation (ex: not pronouncing the “t” in “often”).
- Vocal variety is the interest you generate in your listeners when you produce changes in your rate of speech and pitch. Therefore, speak quickly enough to keep the presentation moving along but slowly enough so everyone can easily grasp your message. Slow down at major points, especially when delivering more complex information, and allow your audience time to absorb the material. Additionally, adjust your pitch to match the emotional content of your message. If something is critically important, change your pitch to reflect that. Generally, a low pitch indicates seriousness and a sense of authority, while a high pitch shows enthusiasm and excitement. You will let the audience know your attitude toward your topic when you use variety to express the range and depth of your feelings.
- Vocal emphasis is the way in which you accent syllables, words, and silence to stress importance and to give meaning to our sentences. Varying your inflection is one of the most important tools you have to project enthusiasm and conviction in your presentation. Without accenting particular words and syllables, speakers sound monotone and come across disinterested, bored, or lacking authority or expertise. Along with inflection, silence (or pausing) is a powerful tool for emphasizing a key point or creating a bit of drama. And remember, what may seem like a long moment of silence to you is actually a much needed information break to your listeners.
Obviously, your physical first impression still counts. But no matter how professional you look, if your voice and words don’t match your physical image, you’ll lose your audience. So be sure to work on all areas of your first impression—including your voice. When you look the part and sound the part, you’ll make a positive first impression that leads to greater credibility and higher esteem.