Your voice is your greatest ally. We can focus a lot on the PowerPoint slides, or the hand gestures, or size of the audience … but a good voice can trump all these factors and make you the master of the room. There are a hundred different voice techniques out there, and just as many different schools of thought. That’s why I like to keep things simple and practical. So here are my five top tips for making the most of your voice.
- Be natural. Whatever else I say below – and certainly there are special techniques you can deploy to improve your voice for public speaking – the most important thing is not to throw the baby out with the bath water. If you think too much about what you want your voice to sound like, it will just sound artificial. Elocution lessons are for another day – keep it natural.
- Speak slowly and clearly. I often discuss the rate of “word delivery” with speakers. It’s important to maintain a steady flow of words, rather than speak in machine-gun bursts. But speakers should also pause regularly so the audience can catch up and understand them. You don’t have to speak slowly all the time – it’s fine to use speed of delivery for emphasis. Really, it’s as simple – and as difficult! – as aiming to speak clearly.
- Breathe. This might sound obvious, but breathing can be anything but second nature when we’re speaking in public. For example, I often tell clients to breathe out for twice as long as they breathe in: this helps calm you down as you speak, and gives you plenty of time to think. It is a complex area with plenty to think about – but, basically, thinking about how we breathe is really important to good speaking.
- Vary your pitch. When we speak in day-to-day conversation, our voice goes up and down all the time – upwards at the ends of sentences which are questions, or downwards when we’re saying something serious. Including pitch changes in your speaking voice will help make it more engaging. Think about what you’re saying, and where you want to place emphasis. Vary your pitch accordingly – although try not to overdo it!
- Smile! Not only will smiling help your audience feel relaxed and comfortable as you speak; smiling actually affects the sound of your voice, making it sound more open and encouraging. The way we shape our mouths as we speak has a huge impact on how our voice will sound: barely opening our mouth will make you sound quiet and give a staccato quality to your delivery, so keep smiling and don’t be afraid of opening up!
It goes without saying that the specific techniques you adopt will often rest very much on who you are, what your voice is like, and what you’re trying to communicate. That’s why I work in detail with speakers to arrive at a toolkit that’s perfect for them. But these rules of thumb are great places to start – and will have an almost instant impact on your voice, as well your audience’s reaction to it!