Engage, persuade, inspire – how to use your voice

“It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it.’ Cases in court, business pitches and political speeches can be won and lost according to how you speak. Professional public speaker and presentation coach Luan de Burgh of the de Burgh Group offers some advice on using your voice to engage, persuade and inspire.

There are very few professions in which a person does not have to use their voice at some stage and the higher up the ladder you ascend, the more you are expected to inspire, captivate and generally impress. Yes, there are those to whom this appears to come very easily, but the techniques are not exclusive and with practice can transform even the most challenging vocal delivery. All great speakers know the value of the following:

1. Breathing – we are born with an extremely effective breathing function but all too often we forget to fill our lungs to capacity and therefore reduce our natural ability to control nerves, create presence and support the voice. It’s a bit like setting out on a long car journey and only filling the tank a quarter full. Ask any (decent) singer or stage actor how they achieve their vocal dexterity and they will tell you it starts with the breath. Exploring how to re-engage with natural breathing – as opposed to simply breathing to sustain life – will greatly reduce anxiety, enhance personal impact and allow you to use your voice to its capacity.

2. Pace – if you speak too slowly, you will either send your audience off into a trance or into deep frustration where they simply want you to ‘get on with it’. Equally if you speak too fast, your audience will not be able to take in everything you are saying and, chances are, will miss your key message.Most people speak too fast, mainly due to anxiety and a desire to finish as quickly as possible. Start off too fast and you will most likely continue like a runaway train and here is where controlled breathing helps you slow down.

So, what is too fast? In everyday conversation, we can hear and take in around seven words per second quite easily, but if you were to sustain that pace of delivery in a presentation which, and it is important to distinguish the difference here, is not every day conversation but rather a one way delivery, that would work out at over 8,000 words in a 20 minute presentation. Firstly, imagine creating that presentation and then imagine trying to listen to it!

As a rule, you should aim for somewhere between 130 – 160 words per minute which will give you the ability to speed up and slow down at relevant points. Varying your pace will keep engagement and help you to add colour to what your are saying, but don’t think that you have to maintain this 2 ½ or so words per second throughout, that would be like driving on a motorway in the middle lane at 60 mph for an entire journey – tedious.

3. Pitch – think of your voice as a musical instrument. You would be unlikely to use the same note and volume all the time when playing it, so why do some speakers see this as acceptable in presentations? It isn’t. The human voice is an extraordinarily versatile instrument which, when used effectively, can have a lasting effect on an audience. It has a tonal range that few put to good use, relying instead on one or two optimum notes. Listen to those who speak well and you will soon hear the way in which they use their pitch range to add weight to their arguments and deliver key messages successfully. You do not have to suddenly become Barack Obama, but by using more of the natural musicality in your voice you will be able to grab your audience’s attention and keep them engaged.

4. Pause – ‘the right word may be effective but nothing was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.’ Mark Twain knew a thing or two and he is spot on here. Many people are afraid of pausing when speaking in public as they misguidedly feel that it makes them look unsure of what they are talking about. Pausing, however, is used to great effect by effective speakers as a means to highlight an important point, focus attention on a key point and prepare the audience for a change in thought or direction. Pausing also allows your audience to take in and fully digest what you have said.

5. Clarity – Hamlet’s advice to the players includes the instruction that they should speak their words ‘trippingly on the tongue,’ something that is especially relevant to us on a multi cultural stage with many speakers and audiences using English as an additional language. This is simply about ensuring that misunderstanding or confusion is avoided; it is not about becoming a 1950’s BBC newsreader. Particular attention should be paid to the ends of words, especially those where consonants are involved.

6. Emphasis – any thought or phrase can have its meaning changed by different words being emphasised. Putting in a brief pause and emphasising the following word or phrase can add weight to its importance and help to deliver it with passion, clearly indicating that the point is significant and central to your key theme.

7. Variety – think of your speech or presentation as a journey (even if it is the company’s quarterly accounts) and remember that the best way of keeping engagement in any journey is variety. Varied volume, pitch and pace will retain attention, colour what you are saying and single you out as a gifted speaker. This also applies to your gesture and facial expression. Few people, other than the occasional psychopath, speak at the same level and motionlessly for long periods of time. You should also note that if you are speaking directly after lunch you will need to work even harder at variety to keep people awake!

8. Grabbing attention – start as you mean to continue and start well as this is the time when the audience will decide whether to listen to you or not. Cut to the chase; avoid fluffy pleasantries which will most likely already have been taken care of and steer clear of long agendas. Dare to be different (within reason – breaking into song might grab attention and would certainly be memorable, but may not convince the client that you are exactly what they are looking for).

9. Gesture – once again we revert to Mr Shakespeare to deliver the perfect advice succinctly, unequivocally and with rhetorical flourish: ‘suit the action to the word, the word to the action.’

10. Vocal health – if you were a dancer you’d look after your feet, if you were a pianist you’d look after your hands, so as a speaker why wouldn’t you look after your voice? Speaking for long periods of time is tiring on your vocal folds (or chords), which do all the main work in the creation of sound, and you need to ensure that you keep them irrigated before, during and after a presentation with room temperature water. Be aware, too, of the effect that certain irritants can have on those folds in some people (e.g. caffeine is considered to be drying to the voice – this doesn’t mean you have to abstain from your daily fix, just ensure that you are Italian about your habit and have water with your double espresso).

We speak every day and take everything that goes into that process for granted. This is perfectly normal. If you give a speech of any kind (whether on a platform at a major public gathering or to a few colleagues in a small office) you could use your normal mode of speaking. But why would you want to be normal or average?

Granted, if you are in that small windowless room and your topic is corporate waste management for the year ahead and your audience is Barry, Dave and Sue from the Norwich office, declaiming your text like Kenneth Brannagh giving his Henry V eve of battle speech will mark you down as a touch odd, but you can still enliven it with some of the above techniques at the very least to make it more fun for you. Whenever you are presenting, pitching or public speaking you are being a heightened version of yourself and by using your voice effectively and creatively you will stand out from the crowd.

Luan de Burgh is the founder and head of the de Burgh Group, an organisation specialising in providing high end corporate training and bespoke conferences and seminars for leading professionals. A professional public speaker and presentation coach, Luan specialises in training politicians, lawyers and businesspeople in presentation, public speaking and projection.