Do you remember the film Broadcast News? William Hurt’s character, an intellectual nobody but a brilliant reader from the teleprompter, rises to become the anchor of the network’s nightly news, with a salary in the millions. At the same time, Albert Brooks’ character, who has encyclopedic political knowledge and writes brilliantly, is a complete failure in his performance skills, and fades into obscurity. In this film, style trumps substance in the television news business.
So what does it take to be an authoritative, persuasive, and charismatic speaker? What makes a better preacher, politician, news reader, corporate CEO, salesperson, teacher, or actor when it comes to voice and speech?
In my book there are many secrets to a great speaking style, but I’m going to share just three of the most important with you.
The first is breath.
Breath is life. The act of breathing in is called “inspiration.” Isn’t that interesting? Is an “inspired” speaker one who simply remembers to breathe? As I tell the news anchors I sometime train, or the voice-over actors who come to me for help, “Take in and use a lot of air. Move the air!”
We hear a lot of people who are ungenerous with their air as I am now demonstrating. They seem to lack spirit; they’re selfish with their breath, and the resulting voice lacks resonance and musicality. What I’m demonstrating here is called “vocal fry” in which there is relatively little musical tone – just scratchiness. By contrast, as you hear me doing now, when I take in a lot of air, and use it generously, the resulting tone is more pleasant to listen to, and affects the listener much more persuasively.
My second secret is range of pitch.
Nothing loses an audience more quickly than a monotonous delivery. “Monotone” means a single tone, a single note. While nobody speaks on a single note except perhaps monks or priests chanting their words, we call someone monotonous who uses only a narrow range of notes as you hear me doing now. I’m deliberately keeping my voice from rising or falling very much. But when I speak as I really want to, you hear a much wider range of notes. This isn’t merely decoration; by picking out my key words on distinctly different pitches, you follow my argument more clearly too. The style enhances the substance. For persuasive speaking, a good range of pitch is essential.
My third secret is tempo.
Your basic rate of delivery is important, of course. Who wants to listen to someone who insults our intelligence by speaking too slowly, or who loses us with something too fast to follow? But more important than the basic rate of your delivery is bringing some variety to it. I’ve found that fluctuations of tempo are extremely important to making one’s argument clearly and keeping the audience interested. Let me read these same words again; listen to how I vary the tempo for emphasis and interest. “But more important than the basic rate of your delivery is bringing some variety to it. I’ve found that fluctuations of tempo are extremely important to making one’s argument clearly and keeping the audience interested.”
You heard me shift my tempo, vary my pitch, and simply “move a lot of air” in that short passage. As you can imagine, the longer the speech, the more important these features become.
Try out these ideas for yourself. Take any speech, or simply read aloud from the newspaper. Record yourself as you deliberately apply these three secrets and then judge the results when you listen to your work.
Good luck! Have fun!
For more information and coaching on this topic, see Paul’s Public Speaking page. You might also listen to Paul’s free In a Manner of Speaking podcast, which includes many episodes dealing with this topic.