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 his TED talk on the vocal toolbox.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This exercise releases lip tension and connects your breathing with your vocal range. Place your lips loosely together and breathe out air in a steady stream to create a trill or raspberry sound. Try to hit an “h” sound, followed by a “b” sound. Hold the sound for a few seconds by continually blowing out air through your lips. Repeat this exercise and try to glide up and down a musical scale with the sound from your lips.
This exercise relaxes your tongue while engaging your breathing and voice. Place your tongue behind your upper teeth. Exhale and trill your tongue with an “r” sound. Hold this sound steady in between deep breaths. Now try to vary the pitch up and down while trilling.
This exercise stretches your 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.
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.
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.