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Bringing Characters to Life

Liven up your speeches with expressive dialogue.

By Bill Brown, DTM


Illustration of orange toolbox with Toastmasters logo

Click the play button to hear examples from the author on how to use character voices in your speech.

Would you rather listen to two people having a conversation or would you prefer hearing a summary of what was said? Listening to the actual dialogue is more interesting, isn’t it? And that is true in our speeches as well.

If you relate a conversation between two people, doing it with dialogue adds a vivid, engaging quality to your speech. It’s a valuable tool for a variety of presentations: By adding characters, real or imagined, you give your speech a real-life dimension and draw in your audience.

Yet presenting dialogue has its challenges. The audience needs to know there are two distinct characters and be able to recognize who is talking at any given time. All too often, our characters sound so much alike that it is hard for listeners to tell them apart. In addition, our characters need to sound realistic in the minds of our listeners.

I look at character development as a three-step process. The first step is mindset. To be a character, we must be willing to step outside our normal personality. We typically limit our expressiveness because we are concerned what our listeners will think. Instead, we need to be willing to be far more expressive than we think prudent. Don’t worry, you may think you are over the top, but your audience won’t. Give yourself permission to have some fun, and go for it.

The second step is portrait, our mental picture of each character. Start with one character. What does he or she look like? What do they sound like? How do they stand? Do they have an accent? How are they dressed? And what is their attitude? These are some questions to ask yourself.

Let’s say my character is a butler. I picture him as standing rigidly tall. He is wearing formal clothing and talking in an equally formal, reserved manner. And, of course, he has an English accent. A couple of years ago I performed one of my tall tales at a local community theater. The show had a Western theme and I was “Cactus Bob,” a cowboy. I pictured Bob as bow-legged, wearing jeans, boots and a cowboy hat. And speaking in a down-home drawl.

“By adding characters, real or imagined, you give your speech a real-life dimension and draw your audience in.”

For both a butler and a cowboy, the voice I used was critical. This vocalization brings the differentiation between characters to life. The key to remember, though, is that precision isn’t necessary here. A caricature—an exaggerated imitation—is fine.

Now that we have a clear portrait of our characters, let’s move to step three: mechanics—how to make those characters happen. Mimic the voice you envision for your character. Next, assume the physical characteristics you imagine. In addition to giving your audience a picture of the character, it actually makes your character’s voice more realistic. Why? Because you become that character in your mind.

If you speak for some time as one particular character, you can make this portrayal pronounced. If, however, you have a quick back-and-forth dialogue between two people, you have to make the physical and vocal changes less pronounced. If you make radical changes every 15 seconds, you create more of a distraction than a distinction.

One difficult aspect of character differentiation is varying the pitch of your voice between characters, especially if they are the same gender. By learning a simple technique, speakers can use a larger vocal range and better distinguish between characters. We can actually position where in the mouth and throat we speak from. It can be from the lips all the way to deep in the throat. And this positioning easily changes our pitch.

I give some instructions about this technique in the audio recording at the top of this page. In the recording, you will also hear some of the character voices I have created.

Using dialogue in your speeches is a valuable tool for engaging your audience, and bringing your characters to life multiplies its effectiveness. I encourage you to explore the outer reaches of your voice. And to have fun in the process.

 

Want to know how you can prepare your voice to bring characters to life? Watch the video below for tips from Toastmaster and professional voice-over actress Lili Wexu as she discusses warm up methods and how to loosen up your voice.



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