Since 1977, over 10,000 Spokespersons Trained.
Part 1 - Delivery

Chapter 3
Vocal Considerations

The most important vocal consideration is also the most obvious: that you speak loud enough to be heard by every member of your audience. They may let you know if you are not being heard. But people shouting, “Louder!” from the back of the room can be unnerving, especially as this usually happens at the beginning of your speech. This is one of the reasons why I suggest that you rehearse your speech with a video or audio tape recorder – with the microphone several feet away. This will help force you to project further. It stands to reasons that if the recording equipment fails to pick up your voice from across the room, an audience wouldn’t fare much better.

Keep in mind that acoustically a crowded room absorbs more sound than an empty one. You must compensate with extra vocal energy. An additional problem is that the more people gather in the room to hear your speech, the more noise they will make. Their background noise is a distraction that you will have to complete with. Clinking glasses, sneezing, coughing, side conversations, noisy air conditioning system, and clicking audio-visual equipment all work to drown out the sound of your voice. You can’t really simulate these conditions while you rehearse, so remember to fortify your vocal projection while you aim at the tape recorder across the room.

The best way to check to see if your audience can hear you is to study the people in the rear of the room at the beginning of your speech. You should detect non-verbal clues as to whether or not they’re receiving you loud and clear. If their faces are saying, “no,” then speak up. This method is less distracting than beginning your speech with the boring question, “Can everyone hear me alright?” although even this distracting question is better than delivering an inaudible speech. Make certain they can hear you.

Room Design

It’s senseless to set out 150 chairs if you expect an audience of 40 people. If you do, your audience will probably gather in little clusters near the back of the room – creating a chasm of empty seats between you and them. I recommend that you strongly suggest to the program coordinator that only 35 chairs be set up (for an audience of 40), but that ample extras be held ready in an adjacent room. This will make your job easier. If this can’t be done, ask the person in charge to request audience members to sit up front. This request should be made as they enter the room, before they select a cozy spot to settle in.

If you arrive too late to accomplish this planning maneuver, ask the program coordinator to move the audience forward, if possible. If that should fail as well, make the request yourself from the podium, and/or gather your notes up and go to them cheerfully. Do not get angry. Be calm and pleasant, but be assertive. Set up a new podium – even a makeshift one – right smack in the middle of the room if need be. Get close to your audience. Don’t speak across the vacant half of the room unless you’ve exhausted all your other options. Effective human communication is difficult enough without tolerating unnecessary obstacles.

Microphones and PA Systems

Microphones and PA (public address) systems are tools. They have made many a speech possible – and many others impossible. If you will be using such a system, get there early to try it out, and to make certain it functions properly. Don’t wait until your presentation begins to figure out how the system works, or doesn’t work.

I witnessed the sad but hilarious experience of a senior vice president of engineering for a major east-coast company stand fumbling before his audience trying to figure out how to attach a lavaliere microphone. He was finally rescued by an impatient subordinate. It’s far easier to master these chores before you speak.

Feel free to move standing microphones to a better location, but let someone know so they can adjust the volume accordingly. Do not place the microphone where it may block your face from full view of the audience. Likewise, don’t put mikes in areas where they will restrict your physical movement. But once the microphone is tested and in place, forget about it. Let the technicians do the adjusting; you concentrate on your speech.

When faced with the option of using a microphone or not, in the marginal situation, I usually elect to do without. This way I have one less worry and one less thing to go wrong. By speaking up a little, I usually come across as more energetic, confident, and convincing.

Senior Citizens

Senior citizens deserve special considerations. If you aren’t a senior now, you will be one day, and the probability is that somewhere along the way your hearing may begin to deteriorate. Take special care to insure that this audience is able to hear you. Design the seating arrangement, choose the PA system, and deliver your speech with this in mind. They will appreciate your extra effort and your caring.

The Other Extreme

Being heard is the primary consideration. Too much volume, however, can be equally devastating. Don’t overwhelm the audience with exuberant shouting. This can be very irritating (and very painful) to the listener. Again, look to the audience for clues, and use a little common sense. In a facility containing 300 people, a PA system is almost always necessary, to keep you from punishing the listeners nearest you as you try to reach those in the back. An audience of 25 can easily be reached without the aid of amplifiers.

Vocal Delivery

Dull, lifeless, monotonic vocal delivery can lull an audience to sleep as quickly as anything I know of. Don’t deliver your message as if you were giving the last rites to a friend … unless, of course, you are.

Project. Care. Feel. Spend some energy. Display vocal vitality. Let the audience know you believe in what you say and that it is of vital importance. If you are sincere, don’t retard the communication of that sincerity by droning your speech. If you’re not excited about what you have to say, your audience won’t be either. If you don’t seem really interested, they won’t see that the material is interesting.

YES, interesting vocal variations and colorful interpretation are far easier to accomplish when working from a soundly prepared speech (see Part V). But even mediocre material can be delivered with vigor and conviction.

Record and play back your speech; listen for inflection, emphasis, and modulation. During the playback, your voice may sound a little strange to you. This results from the sound of your voice entering through the ear and not vibrating through your body as it does when you speak. Listen carefully to the vocal quality; this is the voice the audience hears. Listen to the delivery rate, which should average somewhere between 130-160 words per minute. I do not recommend that your speech be delivered at any specific rate; it should consist of an interesting mixture of brisk and somewhat labored paces. Variety will keep the audience interested. However, since a listener can process about four time more words per minute than the average speaker can deliver, it makes sense to lean toward a more energetic and rapid delivery rate. Swift (but not hurried) delivery will help insure that your listeners are less apt to drift to other thoughts.

Do not feel compelled to fill the air constantly with sound while you are before your listeners. Carefully placed pauses for emphasis, dramatic effect, timing, etc. are marvelous tools. Pauses should feel natural between units of thought.

Non-fluencies (interruptions in normal speech, such as “er,” “ah,” “um,” and “you know”) are not effective pauses. Instead, when used extensively, they become an annoyance, and consequently distract attention from your message.

Listen for non-fluencies during your practice playbacks; try to eliminate them. Speaking from a manuscript is one way to help cut down non-fluencies, but there are negative trade-offs with manuscript reading, as you’ll see in Chapter 7. One method of dealing with non-fluencies is rehearsing materials with “ah,” “er,” “um,” etc., purposefully designed into the speech every few words. This may help you sensitize yourself, and to cultivate an appreciation for this disturbing habit. Your aim should be: non-fluencies are out; pauses are in.

Another technique to sensitize your ears to the excessive use of non-fluencies requires the aid of a friend. Have a friend sit in on your rehearsals and ask him or her to concentrate exclusively on the non-fluency. Every time you use the “ah,” “er,” “um,” etc. have your friend snap their fingers loud enough for you to hear. Although distracting, it serves the purpose of reminding you that you’re using non-fluencies. Soon, you will be back to smooth, flowing, and coherent delivery.

Manuscript Marking

If you’ll be speaking from a manuscript, work with a pencil; mark your copy for emphasis and phrasing. You might underline action words and place slash marks for pauses. You might underline action words and place slash marks for pauses. The specific symbols and markings you use are not important as long as they’re meaningful to you. After you’ve marked your speech for better interpretation, record it yet again – and listen for the improvements you aimed for during the playback. Leave your marks on the final copy; the copy you intend to use during your presentation. Varying your presentation methods, such as notes, manuscript, impromptu, etc., may help you achieve more effective vocal delivery (see Chapter 7).

“Cotton Mouth”

Many speakers complain that their mouths are dry. This occurs as a direct result of nervousness, the physical process of speaking (air flowing through your open mouth), and the effects of what you may have eaten – especially if you have just had a sugary liquid such as a soft drink.

This problem can be partially remedied by:

  1. Diaphragmatic abdominal breathing to relax.
  2. Venting your nervous energy by productive physical movement (see Chapter 5).
  3. Avoiding sugar and sweets such as coffee loaded with sugar and cream before speaking.
  4. Having a glass of water poured and ready on the podium. Don’t wait until you need a drink to attempt to pour it with a shaky hand.

Vocal Endurance

Vocal cords are tiny muscles and, like all muscles, can be overworked and will strain. Practicing breathing exercises and rehearsing adequately will help tone up and strengthen your speaking apparatus, and enable you to project for longer periods without becoming hoarse.

Many speakers report that drinking a warm, sugarless beverage before speaking (many drink tea) helps lubricate and limber the vocal cords. I follow this prescription. Ice-cold beverages have the same effect on my speaking muscles as cold air has on running muscles before jogging. I limber up by warming up, not by cooling off.

Resonance, Tonal Quality, and Special Cases

Another benefit of the diaphragmatic breathing exercises is a fuller, richer, more resonant tone. The contraction of the diaphragm enlarges the chest cavity. The large chamber enables you to product a fuller, rounder speaking voice that carries and projects better.

As a non-professional speaker, you will probably capitalize on the basic vocal qualities you currently possess. In most cases, these are more than adequate to make you an effective spokesperson. If, however, you are concerned about a specific quality you consider undesirable, such as nasality, raspiness, or stuttering, seek the aid of a professional who can diagnose your specific problem. Working together then, you can develop a program to overcome the problem. Not all speech impediments or unwanted qualities are correctable, but a great many are. A speech pathologist or speech therapist is well worth a reasonable consultation fee.

Delivery Rate

Contrary to popular belief, the rate at which you speak should not be slow and methodical. Indeed, a fairly swift and energetic pace is usually more effective.

The average person speaks at a rate of 130-160 words per minute. The average listener can absorb over four times that amount; it is no wonder that the mind wanders when you listen to boring material.

In a series of experiments1 it was determined that a rapid delivery rate enhances the speaker’s persuasiveness, and his/her ratings on trust and knowledge. The experiment also found that information recall among listeners is better with a more rapid rate. Overall, a 25% increase in the speaker’s delivery rate was preferred by a substantial majority of those tested.

I suggest that you strive for a lively and energetic delivery rate. Avoid a slow, tedious rate that lulls the audience into seeking more interesting thoughts.

A good mix combines swift delivery laced with changes of pace. Rhetorical questions and pauses for effect are good tools to slow the pace momentarily. The key is to keep the listeners’ ears interested.

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