Use your Vocal Toolbox to Deliver an Impactful Speech

November 23, 2017 - Sophie Thompson

How you speak and sound makes a dramatic impact on your speech. It’s not all about the content of what you say, your presentation slides, or your appearance - how you use your voice is equally important. For many people, if they focus on a few elements of the vocal toolbox, they can dramatically enhance their presentation and make it more engaging for the audience.

The vocal toolbox is a concept made popular by Julian Treasure in his TED talk – ‘How to speak so that people want to listen’, now watched by millions of people. He asks the audience - ‘Have you ever felt like you’re talking, but nobody is listening?’ and then goes on to explain how people can engage better with others by using the 5 elements of the vocal toolbox.

These techniques can be used in all types of speeches, from conference presentations to team meetings to best man speeches. Let’s review the different elements of the vocal toolbox.

Julian Treasure giving a TED talk on the vocal toolbox

Julian Treasure giving his TED talk on the vocal toolbox.


Vocal toolbox elements

1. Register

A person with a lower register who speaks from their chest is seen as more authoritative than someone who speaks from their nose. Politicians with deeper voices are more likely to get elected than politicians with higher voices – they command more respect. When practicing for your next speech, focus on lowering your register slightly and record your voice to analyse how it sounds.

2. Timbre

Timbre determines how warm, smooth and rich your voice sounds. A voice with good timbre is thought to be more attractive and produce better listeners. Focus on speaking slowly, with regular pauses and deep breaths to achieve this.

3. Prosody

This is the rhythm and sound variation which makes up the notes we speak. This is particularly noticeable with people who speak in a monotone manner, where the variation in sound changes very little. This can make it difficult to listen to and focus on for long periods of time. On the opposite end of the spectrum, when we talk to babies or even pets, we exhibit huge variations in sound and rhythm.

4. Pace

An authoritative speaker usually has a slow, deliberate method of delivery. They believe what they say is important and so don’t feel rushed by the audience. They use tactical pauses to emphasise important points (without using filler words such as ‘umm’ and ‘ah’), and speed up certain sentences to create excitement. When we’re nervous, we tend to speed up what we say and take short, shallow breaths, which impact the other vocal toolbox elements. However, in everyday conversation, a faster pace is acceptable and often encouraged in a workplace setting where time in meetings is limited.

5. Volume

Talking too loudly, particularly in small group settings, can be annoying, rude and come across as trying to control the conversation. There are many CEO’s, directors and other leaders who surprisingly, speak very quietly – it’s the content of what they say and the use of the other vocal toolbox techniques that ensure people listen to what they are saying. Making important parts of your presentation or key messages louder than the rest of your presentation can add real impact. Try and mix louder parts with quieter sections for maximum impact.


How to warm up your voice

Here are 3 simple warm up exercises to do before a speech or presentation. These were taken from a wider range of vocal exercises found at Vocal Warmup: Put Your Best Voice Forward.

Warm Up #1 - Lips

Release lip tension and connects breathing and speaking. Releases tension in the vocal folds. Place your lips loosely together release the air in a steady stream to create a trill or raspberry sound. First try it on an “h” sounds. Then repeat on a “b” sound. Hold the sound steady and keep the air moving past the lips. Next try to repeat the b-trill gliding gently up and down the scales. Don’t push beyond what it comfortable at the top or bottom of the scale.

Warm Up #2 - Tongue

Relaxes the tongue and engages breathing and voice. Place your tongue behind your upper teeth. Exhale and trill your tongue with a “r” sound. Hold the sound steady and keep the breath connected. Now try to vary the pitch up and down the scale while trilling. Again, don’t push beyond what is comfortable at the top or bottom of your scale.

Warm Up #3 - Pitch

Provides maximum stretch on the vocal folds. Start in a low pitch and gently glide up the scale on a “me” sound. Don’t push the top or bottom of your range but do try to increase the range gently each time you do the scales. Now reverse and glide down the scale from the top to the bottom on an “e” sound. You can try this on the “oo” sound also.


Exercise - Vocal ‘drills’

These vocal drills will warm up your vocal cords, great to do 5-10 minutes before a presentation. Exercise taken from the RADA Effective Communication guidebook.

  1. Ptkt – ktpt – repeat ten times
  2. Tdr – rdt – repeat
  3. Th-s-sh-sh-s-th (‘th’ as in ‘thin’)
  4. Th-z-j – j-z-th (‘th’ as in ‘this’) (‘j’ as in ‘measure’)
  5. t-tt-ttt – repeat six times
  6. d-dd-ddd – repeat six times
  7. Tdt – tdt – repeat six times
  8. Dtd – dtd – repeat six times
  9. Rittity – tittity – repeat four times
  10. Thittity – tittity
  11. Rittity – thittity – tittity
  12. Jittity – thittity – rittity – tittity
  13. Tippity – toppity – repeat four times
  14. Dippity – doppity – repeat four times
  15. Wippity – woppity – repeat four times
  16. Kippity – koppity – repeat four times
  17. Tippity-toppity-dippity-doppity-wippity-woppity kip pity- koppity – repeat ten times

Using these vocal toolbox techniques will help the audience listen to and understand your message. You’ll be perceived as authoritative and knowledgeable, giving people a reason to listen to you.

Use a voice recorder or even virtual reality to practice and critique your use of these vocal techniques. After doing this over a few weeks, you’ll notice a much improved vocal toolbox.