Similar to taking acting lessons, training to improve your voice and body language can take months, if not years. But for those training to give a good business presentation, time is usually short. What follows is a core set of vocal aspects in speaking, plus eye contact and facial expressions, that can be learned easily and quickly. It is a bit like the Pareto Principle, or 80/20 rule, where a large outcome is derived from a few inputs. Likewise, of the many areas in which you can train your voice and body language to be a better speaker, these few aspects when practiced solidly only 5-7 times, can produce a noticeable improvement in your delivery skills. They include:
Flow + Tempo + Intonation2 +
Pauses + Eye Contact + Facial Expressions
Flow means getting your words out clearly enunciated and, very importantly, cleanly – without all the ehhs, uhhs, ums and stuttering in between. This kind of nervous delivery is known in voice-training workshops as sweating out loud. The audience can quite literally hear your anxiety, and it makes it difficult for them to listen to you. Of all the speaking flaws that can ruin a talk, this ranks near the top.
What to do?
Practice speaking at a slower tempo to begin with, being conscious of every word (including the ehhs and uhhs) that comes out of your mouth. Tell a short story aloud, recording it if you can, and repeat it as often as necessary until your flow improves. If need be, keep slowing down in each practice round until your words flow better. Don’t try to get it perfect in your first few attempts. If, for example, you record 20 uhhs in a 60-second story, then in the next round, try to reduce it to 15 – and then 10, and so on. Just keep practicing until your words, like a professional surfer, can ride the wave of your breath skillfully to the end of your idea. This is a type of muscle-memory activity, so you’ll need to practice until the new habit starts to take hold in your body. Once the flow starts to improve, you can gradually increase your tempo, in stages, until you can speak cleanly at a normal speed.
When I ask my participants, what makes a speaker boring, most say the problem is “no intonation”. There is some truth in this. A lack of intonation can indeed make a presentation sound flat, but not necessarily boring. Rather, if you listen closely to a so-called boring speaker, the real culprit is often slower than average tempo. Indeed, in over 90% of cases where a speaker is perceived as “boring”, the presenter is speaking at a rate of less than 115 words per minute (wpm).
The average person speaks at about 145 wpm in English in normal conversation mode. Of course, there are variations in each language group, and the complexity of what is being communicated will also affect tempo. But the standard deviation (about +/- 10%) hugs the average rather closely. Too fast, and the brain gets easily overloaded. Too slow and the mind gets impatient, irritated, and bored.
What to do?
For those who speak too quickly, the problem is rarely excessive speed. Rather, those perceived as fast talkers, rarely pause. So it helps to use 1 – 1.5 sec. pauses – or breaks – at natural intervals, such as at the end of an idea. It also helps the listener if you bring your tone down slightly at the end of a sentence. Dropping your tone is a cue to the listener that the sentence has ended, and it obliges the speaker to slow down. If you’re still too fast, practice 1-minute storytelling (like we did with flow), but this time reduce your speed in steps with every new round of stories. Here again, you will need to practice until it sinks in to muscle memory.
For those who speak too slowly, learning to accelerate your tempo is not easy. In most cases, it is much harder to speed up than to slow down. Still, there are a few things you can do. Like with the previous two qualities, record yourself telling a 1-minute story and listen to it. Then go back, one sentence at a time, and repeat it at a faster pace. Even if it is just a little faster, that improvement is already your first success. Do this with each sentence. Then start from the beginning and repeat – a bit faster than before. Like everything, it will take enough practice for the body to encode this into muscle memory. But it will happen. When giving a talk, in addition to concentrating on your content give a little attention to scanning your tempo. You should be able to do both. In a short time, it will become part of your natural speaking repertoire.
Intonation (2 methods)
Type 1 – Contrary to popular belief, intonation is less about making your voice sound interesting, and more about directing your audience to pay attention to something. It is, in effect, a kind of tonal punctuation.
Take a rather drab sentence like the following: the glass on the table is half empty. Depending on where you put the stress will determine what your listeners pay attention to as well as how they will understand the sentence.
- The glass on the table is half empty. (not the breakfast bowl, coffee cup, or jam jar)
- The glass on the table is half empty. (not the one in the sink, on the countertop, or in Susan’s hand)
- The glass on the table is half empty. (not the full or completely empty one).
What to do – and not to do
A common mistake in attempting to add stress to a word or phrase is to say it louder. Please never do this. It sounds terrible and will most likely irritate your audience as well. Rather, bring your normal volume down very slightly on the word or phrase you want to accentuate, but punctuate the word(s) by putting stress on it. This contrast will sound more agreeable to the ear while at the same time making it clear to your listeners that the word or phrase has special importance.
Type 2 – Another form of word stress that has been around for thousands of years is a rhetorical device known as epizeuxis. It is the repetition of a word or phrase in immediate succession and is used for emphasis. Example: “My God, my God, why hath Thou abandoned me”.
Today, however, it is common to add a qualifier and a slight pause before repeating the word a second time. Examples:
“He was late, (pause) very late.”
“He walked through the garden, (pause) an enchanted garden.”
What not to do
Perhaps the most famous epizeuxis in the world today is, “My name is Bond, James Bond.” But just as in the 007 films, you do not want to use this form of repetitive stress too often. It will sound forced if you do that. Used sparingly, however, and it will provide a nice change from the punctuated stress form of intonation.
The humble pause has many functions. When we pause at the right moments, we give our listeners the time to process what we say. We allow our listeners to stay engaged, and this helps you to make them excited about what is to come. It is also an effective way to grab attention. And best of all, it also keeps the speaker from rambling on…often incoherently.
What to do and not do
Good, usually experienced, speakers know how to use the pause. You need to be careful, however, not to fall into a rhythmic cycle of pausing – inserting a break, for example, after every 10-12 words. It becomes a predictable pattern that then undermines the very effect pausing brings to your talk. You want to sound authentic with your pauses – which rhythmic pausing would impair. Rather, when you listen to a genuinely good speaker, you will notice pauses at the end of what seems to be a random number of words (i.e. 10, 20, 4, 25, 2, 15, 7, 1, 32, etc.).
Eye contact and facial expressions.
Recommending that we “make eye contact” with members of the audience has become so common in presentation seminars, that we have forgotten the original purpose of what eye contact really means.
It was originally implied to mean making full-face contact with individuals when talking to them. Full-face contact helps the listener understand the meaning. That’s because observing facial expressions, that myriad of nuanced changes in expression using 42 finely arranged muscles, along with the tone and the actual words being communicated, create meaning. Speaking on the telephone, or with a person who hardly communicates with facial expressions, on the other hand, makes it harder to understand the intended message. Indeed, it can often lead to misunderstanding.
What to do
So it’s important to incorporate face contact with facial expressions in your talk. You not only risk looking detached without them but there is also a good chance of being misunderstood.
Before any presentation, practice giving it in front of a video camera. Do not just talk to the camera, but imagine an audience sitting in a semi-circle in front of you. The camera is just one audience member. Also, see if you are facial expressions look natural, and consistent with what you are saying. If not, you’ll need to work on it. Start with just a few expressions to begin with, and then just practice. You might also consider watching Ted Talk speakers to see how they look.