Using Your Voice In A Presentation
The voice is an extraordinary instrument, able to influence and inspire, empathise and emphasise, so it never ceases to surprise me how much the importance of using your voice in a presentation is underestimated – not least because very few of us are naturally clear, engaging or convincing presenters.
The late Steve Jobs, so the story goes, was an exception. This was a man so acclaimed for his presenting style that forests-worth of books and thousands of column inches have been written on the subject. Yet whenever I use Jobs as an example in my workshops on voice, clients always ask whether his delivery was ‘natural’ or something he learned to do. As if certain people were somehow born with great presentation skills.
In fact, Jobs had a huge amount of presentation coaching in order to sound that natural. He would practise for days before a big product launch, fine-tuning his delivery to just the right level of conversational while at the same time being sure to emphasise all the right words, pause in all the right places and – crucially – land all the important messages exactly as, when and how they were intended.
The point is, anyone can present well – as long as they put as much thought and care into delivering the message as the message itself. These tips will help get you on the right track.
Using Your Voice To Bring Presentations To Life
A presentation delivered too fast can get in the way of your audience understanding your message; too slow and you may well bore listeners into switching off so you want to find a ‘measured’ baseline pace that that allows your audience to easily take in what you’re saying without having to concentrate hard. But you don’t want to stay at that pace.
Start a little slower than you usually would – it not only gives people time to settle into a presentation and gets them ready to receive your content, it telegraphs confidence (we tend to rush when we’re nervous). Then consider which parts of the presentation need more energy and momentum, and which parts need more weight; speed up and slow down accordingly.
Signposting phrases, for example – where you move from one section to the next – are usually delivered quite quickly. Key messages need to be slower. Overall, it’s all about engaging and holding attention. Keeping to the same pace throughout won’t do that.
Nerves, the glare of the spotlight, a lack of interruption, a learned script: there are all sorts of reasons why people fail to pause when they’re presenting. In real life, however, we pause all the time when we’re speaking. But, again, not always in the same place or for the same length of time.
The average length of a ‘natural’ conversational pause is approximately one fifth of a second or the length of a finger click. Applying these micro-pauses at natural breaks between thoughts gives you a chance to take a breath and think about the next point you’re going to make. Try it – it won’t just help your delivery, it will help you control your pace, too.
Of course, not all pauses are created equally – something that you should use to your advantage. If a breath pause lasts about a finger click, try one that lasts two, or even three, clicks after a key point – it will ensure attention is directed to that message which will help it to stick in your audience’s mind. Make eye contact as you do so and you’ll double down on that point’s importance. Similarly, a pause before a key message will build drama and add emphasis.
There’s a school of thought that says that every word in a presentation needs to be enunciated clearly and precisely. I disagree. Articulating every ‘but’ ‘of’ ‘is’ and ‘it’ is a fast-track to sounding wooden and unnatural – we don’t do it in real speech, why do it when presenting?
Instead, think about giving the key words a bit more space and articulating these a little more precisely. This is something we would do quite naturally in conversational speech if we wanted to make sure what we were saying was clear (along with, perhaps, increased emphasis: see Tip 4).
Remember: punchy articulation isn’t just good for clarity – it adds dynamism to your speech and is a great way to drive home key points.
Emphasis is all about ‘sharing the sense’ with the audience. Pick out the words and numbers you want to stand out and use a lift in pitch or a slight increase in volume to place them in the audience’s ear. Again, this is something we do quite naturally in conversational speech, where the operational words in a sentence are slightly higher in pitch than the joining words.
When it comes to tips for using your voice in a presentation, emphasis of key words is one of the easiest to put into practice. Do it sparingly however and don’t exaggerate. It has to work with the sense of what you are saying.
Listen to this clip of Steve Jobs to see what this sounds like. Note that he sounds quite conversational when he does this, not at all stagey. And remember he had to practise – a lot – to achieve this. (I may have mentioned that already…)
Think of the dull and steady beat of a metronome, then mentally overlay it with a simple yet engaging melody – can you ‘hear’ the difference?
As that analogy illustrates, speech that is absolutely regular, without variation in rhythm or anything else, will bore an audience within minutes. Add in pause, pitch and emphasis, and it immediately becomes more dynamic and interesting.
The same is true for volume. Variation – sometimes louder, sometimes softer – will ensure select passages stand out from the rest.
And always apply the mantra: ‘new slide, new energy’. It will give you a lift in pitch and energy as you move through any visual presentation aids.
In my years of coaching it’s always struck me as odd that energy is one of the most overlooked areas in presentation style – to me, it’s always been one of the most important. Yet people tend to talk a lot more about volume.
Energy is very different to volume. Volume makes you loud, energy makes you compelling. Volume is external, energy is generated from within.
Energy doesn’t always mean ‘high and excitable’ as so many people seem associate with the word. It’s more about a strong sense of intention. Think about the energy you have when you are talking about something that’s really important to you, or you’re passionate about. It’s just a little bit ‘more’ than your usual conversational self – a little bit more energised, a little bit more focused. If you imagine a gas knob on a kitchen hob, think of what your baseline energy is, and then just dial it up a couple of notches for the duration of the presentation.
Get your energy and focus right and you’ll often find other elements of your presentation style – including volume and emphasis – fall quite naturally into line.
Varying your tone will add another layer of variety and interest to your delivery – but more than anything, your tone needs to reflect the ‘mood’ of your message. Consider the intention behind your words.
The expression ‘it’s not what you say, but how you say it’ might not hold true for every message but it’s astonishing how many presenters get the tone of the message wrong when it does matter. An audience will always pick up on the tone in which something is said. And if it’s in opposition to the content, they’ll often believe the tone rather than the words.
If a leader announces: ‘I’m sorry to have to make this announcement,’ but sounds anything but, the apology won’t resonate. If a presenter says: ‘We’re confident this is the best solution,’ but doesn’t sound it, listeners won’t be convinced. The golden rule, therefore, is that tone and content should always be aligned.
Think about what you are trying to DO to your audience at different stages of the presentation. It will help you set the right tone and, crucially, seem invested in the message you are delivering – which, when it comes down to it, is really what great presenting is about.
After all, if you don’t believe in what you’re saying, why would anyone else?
If you’re looking for more information on using your voice in a presentation, check out our Voice Coaching page. Or, if you want in-depth help from a qualified voice coach, contact email@example.com.