3 Ways to Use Your Voice Effectively
When you speak, others may hear and notice what you say, but not nearly as much as how you say it.
The way you use your voice can and does convey an astounding array of emotions and traits. It holds the key to getting and keeping attention, demonstrating confidence and credibility, and communicating the three ingredients of charisma: presence, power, and warmth. Your voice is more than one of many physiological functions your human body can perform. It is a simple yet mighty tool—a tool it pays to learn how to use.
Really, what it comes down to, is knowing when and how to vary your voice tone in order to get your intended message across. You have three dials to play with and you can turn them up or down at will: Pace, Pitch, and Power. Here are tips on how to adjust those dials for maximum impact.
I love the K.I.S.S. principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) and there’s nothing more simple than pace. You can talk fast, you can talk slow, or you can talk somewhere in the middle. The goal is not to keep a steady pace. You’re not a tortoise—and especially if you’re trying to keep attention, slow and steady does not win. It puts your listener to sleep!
The middle range—a conversational talking speed—is easiest to listen to. Let that be the baseline, even when you’re in front of a group. From your mid-range baseline, however, be sure to sometimes slow down or speed up.
Speaking slowly adds weight to your message. If you also include some well-timed pauses, you nonverbally mark your words: “This is important!” Your audience will remember more if you let them hang on your words and give them space to sink in. Obviously (I hope), you don’t want to speak w i t h m e a s u r e d d e l i b e r a t i o n all the time. Overusing a slow talking speed degrades its power; it gets boring! Save slow words peppered with pauses for the big stuff.
Speaking quickly, on the other hand, conveys excitement, enthusiasm, or passion. You need to still be understandable, of course. But you can add energy to your conversation or presentation by allowing yourself to pick up the pace when it makes sense.
Speaking quickly can also signal nervousness, however. And while there’s nothing wrong with feeling a bit nervous, you don’t want nerves to shift your baseline permanently up into the fast zone. Here are some tips for bringing that pace back down to a comfy middle ground when you’re nervous:
- Practice. Go through your content out loud. Conjure up all the emotion (aka nervousness) you expect to feel. Listen to the sound of your voice. Better yet, record yourself. Figure out what good pacing sounds and feels like beforehand.
- Breathe. Remember K.I.S.S.? A few deep breaths will work wonders for your voice speed (and pitch and power and a bunch of other nonverbals).
- Pause. When you’re doing your run-through, plan pauses. This gives you a chance to breathe. Plus, with pauses, even if your overall pace is a bit quick, having space gives the audience a chance to catch up so it doesn’t feel so rushed.
- Enunciate. It’s hard to speak superfast when you’re making sure to pronounce all your consonants. Clear enunciation is a good habit to get into anyway, especially when in front of a group, but it’s also a great hack for slowing yourself down.
- Reduce your content. It’s counterintuitive, but less is more. If you’re trying to cram more content in than you have time for, you are setting yourself up for failure—or at least you’re proactively reducing your effectiveness. Well-delivered content makes a greater impact than quantity of words any day of the week. By way of example, I received terrific positive feedback after a recent workshop, yet several people said, “I wish we’d had more time to process with our table groups.” Hmph! The participants thought I was an awesome presenter and yet they still wanted to hear less of me. Less is more.
In general, the lower that you speak within your personal range, the more credibility you express. Lower is typically better. However, if you speak continuously on the same tone you sound like a robot—monotonous! The word monotonous literally means single (mono) tone (tonous).
So, be sure to vary your pitch. A higher pitched voice communicates excitement or enthusiasm, just as a higher speed does. If the content of your conversations or presentations include both themes to take seriously and themes to get excited about (seems like a good idea anyway!), it will be a lot easier to vary your pitch naturally.
In addition to varying your pitch over the course of a conversation or presentation, be mindful of how you end specific sentences. I’ve written on this numerous times before (like here, here, and here), but this is the rule of thumb: To be authoritative, curl your voice down at the ends of statements; to be approachable, curl it up.
By power, I mean volume. (But volume starts with a V and let’s be real—3P’s are easier to remember than some 2P + V formula. This isn’t math class.) As with pace, find a comfortable, conversational middle ground as a baseline, yet remember that variety is the spice of life.
When I say find a comfortable volume, I mean comfortable for others to listen to. If your voice is louder than necessary, people will notice the sound and not the message. Not helpful. Do not broadcast when speaking will do. It just turns people off. That said, there is a time and a place to be loud: when you need to get attention. In that case, speak one word loudly, pause, then drop your voice.
On the other hand, maybe you speak too quietly. Also not useful for communication. The key is to be loud enough for others to actually hear. This requires confidence. Are you worth listening to? (Yes!) Is your message worth listening to? (Yes!) Do you deserve as much airtime and attention as anyone else? (Yes!) Happily, you can speak with confidence (and volume) even if you don’t feel confident. Feeling often follows action.
If you want to add more power to your voice, here are some tips:
- Breathe deeply. The more air that gets pushed through your vocal chords, the louder you are able to be.
- Reduce tension. Specifically, tension in your throat and hips (yes, hips) can restrict your volume.
- Throw your voice. Hold your hand out as far as you can in front of you and practice “throwing” your voice to the end of your arm.
- Watch your posture. Keep your torso upright and open. This makes it easier to breathe deeply and provides more space for your voice to resonate.
Of course, there is also a time to speak quietly. Even in a presentation, people perk up when you drop your voice volume. It’s almost like listening to a secret. Your audience will quiet down when you do, if you’ve demonstrated that you can also speak loudly enough to make yourself heard.
Perhaps until now you took your voice for granted. Now you know what an amazing resource you already have! Housed within your own body, you have access to a versatile, compelling, and valuable communication tool. Start noticing it. Get to know it. Play around with it. Develop it. Learn to manage it.
Put your voice to good use.