“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.
Thank you for inviting me to share my topic with you.
I look forward to our time together.”
If you read this sentence aloud, you can hear that it sounds like it is spoken in monotone. In fact, the words tend to flow into one another without particular meaning. But with a few tweaks, any speaker can offer a thoughtful, attention-grabbing presentation that the audience will remember long afterward.
Verbal nuances, pauses and accented syllables can make your utterances more sonorous and meaningful. Like an actor rehearsing lines, a speaker should rehearse words before speaking to a group. With practice, everyday language can be enhanced to invigorate listeners and ease their grasp and appreciation of the message you want to share.
The way we say it is as important, or more so, as what we say.
The most inspiring words in a message can lose their effect if the speaker fails to ignite the audience’s passion. A speaker should handle words with the same care that a carpenter handles tools. Both professions construct meaning through capable application of tools to relevant material. Speakers should consider adding to their presenter’s “tool kit” a variety of strategies for making the most of the words they will use to share a meaningful message.
Although many verbal tools can be employed in the public speaking profession, those outlined below show you how to vocalize a presentation to optimum advantage.
Here is another way to recite the opening statement in the beginning of this article. Consider the words in all bold letters to be stated more emphatically:
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for inviting me to share my topic with you. I look forward to our time together.”
Obviously, the emphasized words should not be yelled at the audience, but rather slightly accented to vary the monotone and offer interesting nuances that will catch your readers’ attention.
The next time you prepare a speech, look it over and highlight any special words that should be accented more strongly than the rest. Accents can focus the listeners’ attention on key ideas or elements of your presentation.
We often think of music when hearing the word “pitch,” but it actually has to do with the sound of a voice that conveys emotion, as indicated in this early 20th Century explanation from OldandSold.com: “Remember that voice control is dependent largely upon emotional control. When you are excited or frightened, unconsciously the muscles around your voice box or larynx are tightened.”
While it is unnecessary (and unwise) to make a speech at a consistently high pitch, it can be helpful to moderate vocal pitch by pronouncing some words or phrases within an emotional context. Consider the following examples:
- "Be silent!" the tribal chief grunted to the missionary, trying to interject logic to the ritual.
Given the context of this statement, it appears the word “silent” could be spoken angrily or as an exclamation of authority.
- The police officer’s expression showed that he believed me guilty of speeding.
In this example, the word “speeding” receives emphasis if that is what the speaker wants listeners to notice or question. Choosing to pronounce a strategic word in a clear, emphatic way will help the audience to grasp its intended meaning and the speaker’s associated emotional response.
Intonation is an extension of pitch. A person’s voice can change pitch and thereby reveal inflection through contrasts in vocal tone. A voice moves up and down the scale of sounds to express various thoughts and emotions. Upward movement tends to reflect a question or incomplete thought, while downward inflection represents a whole or complete idea.
Thus, intonation provides the opportunity for shifting voice pitch to contrast emotions or thought patterns. Here are a couple of examples:
“Should we then surrender our voting rights as a gesture of support for the minority? No, we should not.”
The first sentence can be read in rising intonation (a question), while the responsive statement can spiral downward to provide an answer and close the issue on that point.
Of course, words like surrender, voting rights, minority, no and not can be accented as focal ideas.
“She led me to believe I would be promoted within a week. But my expectation proved wrong.”
(Or: “She led me to believe I would be promoted within a week. But my expectation proved wrong.”)
Intonation would rise on the first sentence, and then fall with the second. If you practice this in front of a mirror or by recording it a few times, you will see how much more engaging your speech can be with emotional ups and downs as well as accented words.
Now that we have discussed what can be said loudly or differently, let’s look at what not to say and possible effects of keeping quiet at certain points of your speech.
Some speakers view silence as uncomfortable gaps in their presentations. But brief silences can help to drive home an issue, allow audiences to ponder a point, or prepare listeners for what’s coming. Professional speakers should add deliberate silence, or pauses, to their repertoire of speaking strategies to enhance a message.
A Web article titled “Body Language: The Language Everybody Speaks” at lichaamstaal.com suggests that silence plays a strategic role in interpersonal communication: “When we are silent we are also communicating! What we communicate depends on what kind of silence it is. …Again, the time in between words provide feeling and thinking space for people. Generally, the more emotionally loaded the subject is, the more silences we need.”
Let’s say that you are delivering three main points during your talk to a local civic group. In addition to numbering or sequencing the points, pause briefly as you conclude one before beginning the next. This demonstrates to your audience that you are about to transition to the next part of your speech.
In addition, when you make a suspenseful or important statement, pause a moment or two to let the audience grasp its full significance. Moving on too quickly can diminish the forceful effect of a strong statement.
Be sure to correctly pronounce the words you will be using in your speech. Mispronunciation can leave the audience with a negative impression of your professionalism and be confusing when audience members fail to grasp the actual word you are trying to say. Here are a few examples:
- Counselor (wrongly pronounced “consaler”)
- Misled (wrongly pronounced “mizled” with a long ‘i’)
- Wolves (wrongly pronounced “wolfs”)
Look up the correct pronunciation and enunciation of any words with which you are unfamiliar and note them in your speech so you will remember how to say the words correctly.
You probably learned in English class not to repeat the same word in a sentence or paragraph, but rather to try and find a fresh word or phrase so you don’t sound repetitive. That is a good principle – to a point. Sometimes repetition can help to underscore a point when used strategically and appropriately.
Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is a rousing example of the dynamic use of his key phrase, which is used nine times, as well as his repetitive use of “Let freedom ring,” also nine times, in the closing lines of his speech. Dr. King did not repeat these phrases because he could think of no others, but because they are important to the message and he wanted to give the audience a valuable concept, beautiful in simplicity, remarkable in meaning.
When repeating key words or phrases, do so with a plan in mind. Don’t let repetitions randomly occur.
Say It and Mean It
With these exciting verbal tools you can craft an even more impressive speech the next time you face an audience. While it is important to choose the best words for your topic and arrange them in a meaningful sequence, remember that how you say them can go a long way to underscore or derail their impact. If you feel awkward trying to incorporate all these changes at once in your presentation style, begin by changing just one thing. When you feel comfortable with that strategy and begin noticing positive results, add another one. Soon your speeches will be receiving enthusiastic responses as you engage your audience in a purposeful way.
Don’t let language do all the work of conveying a message to your listeners. Start practicing your new presentation skills to prepare your most dynamic speech yet!
Debra Johanyak is a professor of English at the University of Akron Wayne College in Orrville, Ohio.