Episode 77: January 29, 2010
by Lisa B. Marshall
How to Sound Better
Today I was driving across the Walt Whitman bridge from Philadelphia to NJ and I saw three billboards in a row: The first was advertisement for WaWa, the second was for MattBlatt and the third was for Kid Rock. I smiled because all three had something in common that I was thinking about. Do you know what it is?
OK, so did you figure it out? Did you figure out what WaWa, MattBlatt, and Kid Rock have in common? Each of these names have musicality--or the quality of being musical. Specifically the names use rhythm, assonance, consonance and alliteration to make them SOUND more interesting and more memorable.
How is Public Speaking like Music?
I was thinking about this because a reader, Gabriele Boccone, used the feature on our Quick and Dirty Tips website which allows you to submit questions and ideas. Gabriele wrote and said that he had a "crazy idea”.
He said, "public speaking is an art, just like music." He continued, "I listen to your podcast with pleasure, and I believe many other people do, not only because of its content, but also because of the ‘musicality’ of your voice. It has to do with pitch, speed, but also with choice of words. As with music, it requires training and a lot of practice, but it really makes a difference."
Well, Gabriele, that's not a crazy idea. Pitch, speed, and word choice are all very important elements of strong delivery. The sounds of your words matter. So today I thought I'd talk about that in more detail--to help you understand how pitch, speed, and word choice are fundamental to effectively delivering speeches and presentations (and not crazy at all).
Use the Pitch of Your Voice to Be Persuasive & Confident
It turns out the pitch of voice matters. Yep, that's right. There's a reason why most movie trailers and TV commercials often use a voice-over artist (both men and woman) with deep voices. Remember Don LaFontaine? He’s the guy that made the phrase, "in a world," a movie trailer cliche. It turns out that, according to research, the deeper the pitch of the voice, the more persuasive, more confident, more capable, (and more attractive). That’s the reason that guy made millions with his voice!
Use Your Natural Pitch
Of course, you can't easily change the natural pitch of your voice. However it’s, still important to keep your voice as low as naturally possible by taking slow full deep breaths and by keeping your nerves under control. (I've talked about how to do both of those previously.) For a longer-term approach, proper nutrition, diet, and singing can all help to strengthen your vocal chords and deepen your pitch.
Finally when you’re delivering a talk, think about changing the pitch of your voice on certain words. When there is a change in pitch, people notice. So think about the important words, phrases, and sentences and modify your pitch to draw attention to them. You don’t need a big change, just something very slightly different or it’ll sound phony.
Change Your Speech Rate For Impact & Momentum
Next, the rate of your voice makes a difference too. It turns out we form impressions based on rate of speech. If you’re talking, really, really, fast--faster than 165 words per minute—you’ll be perceived to be really, really, nervous. So, you'll need to slow down. Slow down.
In general, both beginners and professionals can usually benefit from slowing down. Take time to take full breaths, take time to say your words fully and completely, and take time to let your words settle and digest with your listener.
It's an area I still struggle with. I think many of us just want to get through the information, so we rush. Or we’re slightly nervous, so we rush. Or we’ve delivered it so many times, we rush. The bottom line is slowing down will help significantly.
Talk slightly faster or slower when you are about to deliver important words.
How Fast Should You Speak?
Ideally you should be talking between 120-145 words per minute. And again, like the pitch, it is important to change your rate (that is, speed up or slow down) to draw attention to certain words or phrases. In Martin Luther King's famous “I Have a Dream” speech, his rate changes throughout the speech. He begins slower and as the speech builds so does his rate. The rate helps to build a perception of momentum and enthusiasm.
When you talk in the higher (and faster) end of this 140-150 words-per-minute range, people will be left with the impression you are motivated and excited, but … talking … slower than … 120 words per minute leads to the impression that you’re … dumb. Again, like pitch, when you make a change, people will notice. So talk slightly faster or slower when you are about to deliver important words.
Choose Your Words Carefully: Use Repetition, Assonance & Alliteration
And speaking of words, of course, the specific words you choose also impact the musicality. Good speakers use poetic devices. I personally am a fan of repetition, assonance, and alliteration.
Repetition is important. Repetition is important. Many people think, well why should I repeat something? I’ve already said it—they’ve already got it, right? But you have to remember you are intimately familiar with your work and your audience may be hearing this information for the very first time. Repeating important words and phrases make them more memorable, impactful, and more persuasive.
Again, think about Martin Luther King’s, “I Have a Dream” speech. It has rising momentum from the increasing rate, and the then the repeated refrains: I have a dream, I have a dream … punctuates his ideas. So don’t be afraid to repeat key words and powerful phrases. In fact, sometime it adds to the musicality by also using alliteration, assonance and consonance for the words that are repeated.
Alliteration and Assonance
Alliteration, as you likely learned in grammar school, is just a fancy word for when the first consonant sound is repeated –pitter, patter, Mickey Mouse, it takes two to tango, Beach Boys, King Kong, Woody Woodpecker, Coca-Cola and of course, the classic example, “She sells seashells by the seashore.”
Actually those last three also illustrate assonance. Assonance is just the repetition of the vowel sounds. Listen for the vowel sounds…“She sells seashells by the seashore,” Coca-Cola. When used in dialog sometimes assonance just sounds funny. I think that’s why so many people make fun of the convenience market named, “WaWa.” It just sounds funny. Of course, WaWa uses both alliteration and assonance.
Finally, there’s consonance—which is also a repetition. In this case, consonance is the repetition of the ending consonants. Matt Blatt, Kid Rock, he struck a streak of bad luck. In fact, Public Speaker is an example of consonance. Again, it’s like alliteration, except the repeated sound comes at the end.
So why use alliteration, assonance, and consonance? Because it makes the words more memorable, more interesting, and more musical. Use these poetic devices when you are coming up with a presentation title and when you want to emphasize a key motivational phrase. The musicality will draw appropriate attention to the words.
So there you have it, some quick and dirty tips to punch up your delivery--to make it more musical and sound better. Gabriele, you are absolutely correct, public speaking is like music. You need to carefully choose and vary your pitch, rate, and word choice to convey an appropriate mood and feeling. I hope I’ve given you the training to put your not so crazy idea into practice.
This is The Public Speaker, Lisa B. Marshall. Passionate about communication, your success is my business.
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If you have a question, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. For information about keynote speeches or workshops, visit lisabmarshall.com.
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