The Colorful Voice

Give verbal life to your speeches.

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I love to listen to my club's long-time member, Don, when he speaks. The rich timbre of his voice feels like a warm blanket around me. I'd love to have such a deep, rich voice too.

Wait a minute. For me, a 5-foot tall, 110-pound woman, such a deep, rich voice would be bizarre. "Remember to be true to your essential uniqueness." Max Dixon. professional speaker and speaking coach, reminds me. To be unique, I only need to speak with an interesting voice. An interesting voice, intertwined with a dynamic message, leaves an audience enthralled.

What makes a voice interesting? Variety.

Adding the Right Touch

Acting teacher and speech coach Janice Dean says vocal variety doesn't start in the throat. "The voice is linked to the body. To activate the voice, use the body."

Steve Webb, AC, recently illustrated how the body activates the voice. In his talk on chocolate, he explained why people add chili peppers to a chocolate drink. At one point, he squinted his eyes, pulled his mouth into a smile, and raised the tone of his voice. As he bobbed his head forward, he threw out the words "CHEE-LEE peppers!" He electrified the room, stimulating their interest in this "hot" chocolate.

Now you try it: Say "no" without expression or movement. Now scrunch your eyes half closed, jerk your head, and with exasperation say "NO!" Did the sound of your No change? (It should!)

If you get the chance, sit at the feet of professional storytellers. Notice their voice inflections and how much the inflections affect the story. You might even eavesdrop on people whose voices attract your attention. Listen to learn what makes their voices so appealing.

A Variety of Techniques

"The human voice is the most amazing instrument ever created," says sound effects specialist Fred Newman. Once the sound designer for movies such as Gremlins I & II and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Newman is now heard weekly on the U.S. public radio program A Prairie Home Companion and daily on the PBS Television reading series Between the Lions. "No synthesizer, no computer can come close to the subtlety and range of the human voice. The expressiveness of anyone's voice is astounding."

Where do you start?

"Be loose and playful," suggests Newman.

Here is a partial list of techniques to play with when preparing your next speech:

"Take into consideration the subject matter," advises Morgan McArthur, Toastmasters' 1994 International Speech Contest winner, a self-described "hired tongue" and speech coach. "The pace of the piece should be congruent with the message - slow for cautious and considerate, fast for high energy or urgency, loud or soft to punctuate the points. And the most powerful technique of all can be ... a strategic ...and effective... pause."

Vocal Variety that Annoys

Too much vocal variety, like too much gesturing, gets in the way of the speech - yet just enough gives it life! Not all variations are appreciated, of course. McArthur says the unappreciated ones fall into two categories: intentional and unintentional. The intentional variety may be under-done or overdone.

"I used to be a shouter in my early days as a Toastmaster," says McArthur. "I had too much volume and energy coming at the audience. By the time I finished, we were both exhausted. And my voice was trashed.

"Quite frankly, I can't watch my winning Toastmasters [championship] speech today," he reflects. "My style has evolved into a natural 'enhanced conversation' rather than the oratory that won the contest for me in 1994."

Remember, variety is supposed to be only an enhancement. Unintentional variety has to do with distracting habits or speech patterns, such as:


Speech coach Janice Dean says the cure for numbers seven and eight above is to hydrate your body. This means drinking 6-8 glasses of plain water daily, two to three days before your speech. Also during this time, avoid foods that produce mucus. Dairy products do that for many people; citrus juice does it for others. Eating an apple in the morning before you speak will clear your throat for morning talks.

Cures for items number one through six? McArthur favors frank evaluation, backed by motivation to improve, as a valuable combination. Concerning his own loudness, he remembers no one was willing to tell him to tone down his voice and just vary his volume.

"Go one step beyond making the speaker aware of the vocal variety challenge by offering suggestions of how he/she might fix it," he suggests. "The speaker then has to be motivated to do some hard work on changing those habits and asking for feedback on their progress."

Dean also suggests using vocal variety while reading out loud, 10 minutes a day. Tape the reading so you can evaluate yourself.

Do I Have To?

...use vocal variety? Read the quotes below and then decide.

  • The way Max Dixon sees it, one of the most important techniques for establishing confidence is one of the most ignored - focus on improving the voice. "The majority of speakers are insufficiently aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their voices," he says. "Speak too slowly and you won't inspire confidence. Speak too fast and you are less likely to land the sub-stance of your message. Balance and variety are goals to work on with a good voice coach who is used to working with speakers or actors."
  • "While some cultures don't appreciate excessive body movements, vocal variety still makes the speech more appealing, even lyrical," says globe-trotting DTM Larry Welch, who has visited Toastmasters clubs in nine countries.
  • "For today's audience, attention spans are becoming shorter," says McArthur. "Unless our messages are stimulating, our audiences will go elsewhere in their mind and we won't reach them. Vocal variety is one element that makes a speech interesting."
  • "Your voice wrinkles like your face," says Newman. "Move your voice up and down in your range; sing with the radio. Anything that exercises your voice with high and low, soft and loud - all that is good and makes your voice younger."

    Newman says that singing is the single best exercise for the voice. "When you sing, you're constantly adjusting to the pitch - that's why it's such a good exercise. It's like yoga for the voice. "Never, ever scream," he adds. "It ages the voice."

    Just for Fun

    Try adding sound effects. "All the ridiculous sounds I do are to show the possibilities of your own voice," says Newman.

    Sounds amplify a story or a point. "When words give out, sounds describe things much better," insists Newman. "You get a better image. There are things you can describe with just little sounds, that helps the image." Such as saying "v-r-r-p" for "fast."

    "Just that little sound kicks up the energy and life in a simple sentence," he says.

    Yet before you get sound effects out, you have to take them in. "I keep waving this flag," says Newman. "Listen. I'm always listening for sound effects."

    Unscientifically, I've observed an innate ability toward vocalization in boys at young ages. The lads are more prone than girls to make noises (like a full-bodied belch) as a source of entertainment, self-expression and male-bonding.

    No innate ability? Or are you female? Try a simple GRRR, or ahhhh!, a whistle or woo woo! Clicking the tongue is a sound effect too.

    For those wanting to learn more sounds, secure a copy of Fred Newman's new book and CD, MouthSounds. In it, Newman explains how to do more than 200 vocal effects, from water drips to a New Years' champagne pop. Or explore Newman's website at Newman also values sounds from his listeners.

    "What people really love is to know that the speaker is linked to the audience," he says. "So anything that personalizes, like responding to a cough in the audience - they know you are there with them - you went through it together. Find the opportunity to be loose with the audience and relate to them directly."

    Never underestimate the value of the voice, yours or theirs. Neither you nor I have to sound like my club member Don to make our speeches more vocally pleasing.

    By Paula_Pace

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