Speak Up! Or Maybe Down…

This morning I had the pleasure of delivering yet another speech to our local Toastmasters club, and while the topic related to public speaking, it also fits the world of writing. Characters, stories, and scenes take on identities of their own and need to contain certain elements to move the reader along. In speech-making, it’s called inflection and vocal variety. In writing, it’s called scene structure, voice, and pace. Here is the speech. See where you can adapt these public speaking tips into your writing. They translate almost verbatim.

The assignment for this speech was to demonstrate vocal variety within the delivery of a speech on a topic of my choosing. Well, rather than trying to find a topic and then demonstrate vocal variety, I chose to deliver a speech on vocal variety itself.


In my younger days, I spent a great deal of time in the theater, as an actor and director and still today as an audience member, so I’ve always been interested in this topic and have learned a few things along the way that I would like to share with you today.

How many of you have ever attended an amateur theater production, perhaps a high school play or community theater, and cringed at how bad the acting was? Perhaps you’ve seen a TV show or movie that “needed a little work” to really get it up to professional standards.

If you analyze it and break down to the bare bones, whether or not we consciously realize it, the main criteria we use to judge the quality of a performance really comes down to how well – or poorly – the actors deliver their lines.

Acting is the art of making contrived characters and prepackaged dialogue sound natural. In other words, making the carefully rehearsed sound impromptu.

Public speaking is much the same. We use inflections and pacing to create emphasis and drama, to accentuate points and emphasize important words and phrases. What we say is one thing. How we say it is another.

Much has been said about how big a part body language plays in communication. How we stand, how we gesture, how we present ourselves – all communicates messages, intended and otherwise, to our listeners. In fact, some studies have shown that up to 97% of how we communicate is through our body language, while only 3% comes from the actual words we use. However, that 3% can be powerful, if we know how to effectively use our words and voice inflections to communicate our thoughts and ideas.

So how do you harness the power of the 3%? Students of language will tell you the biggest influencer of behavior and reaction is INFLECTION.

What’s inflection? And what does it do?

Where you put the emphasis can completely transform the meaning of a sentence and what you are trying to communicate. It can also stir up emotion and illicit certain reactions, depending on how well you do it.

Here’s an example of a sentence that can be interpreted several different ways: “What are you doing?”

  • What are you doing?
  • What are you doing?
  • What are you doing?
  • What are you doing?

While the words are identical in all four sentences, the meanings are completely different – all because of INFLECTION.

Vocal variation is also important in the art of joke telling. Not only is timing important in comedy, so is the manner in which the joke is delivered. The funniest joke in the world will fall flat if the punch line is delivered in the wrong tone.

But inflection or vocal variation is more than just emphasizing certain words. It’s also voice level, pitch, and delivery rate.

How powerful is vocal variety?

Well, let’s look at the question I just asked in two ways. The way I asked it just now caused you to anticipate that I’m going to give you an immediate answer, almost as if the question was the first half of a two-part sentence. But what if I said it another way:

  • How powerful is vocal variety?

Now I’ve opened it up to a lengthier, more drawn out response, simply by not raising my pitch at the end of the question. You might expect my answer to take a little longer. The instant response you expected the first time has been softened or taken away.

Vocal variety can create a whole different impression of what’s being said.

For example, if I’m VERY… DELIBERATE… IN… HOW… I… SAY… THIS… SENTENCE… you get a whole different impression than if I were to say it at normal conversational speed. This technique can be very effective if you are trying to hammer home a point.

Also, if I – whisper – it adds drama and anticipation to what I’m about to say next.

Pauses……………can also be very effective.

And saying things very rapidly and with a lot of excitement can really stir up your audience – maybe even startle them!

However…a word of warning: Don’t use any of these techniques too often or the point will be lost. The drama comes in their occasional and appropriate use at the right time.

While the words we choose are very important in how well we communicate the point of what we are trying to say, how we say those words matters at least as much. Nobody wants to sit through a dull, boring, dry speech delivered by a monotone speaker. We like to be told stories, to be entertained, to be gripped. We want to be held captive by the speech, not held hostage.

Think about your natural speech pattern. We all use a wide variety of voice inflections every day without even thinking about it. We’re comfortable, we’re relaxed, and we speak naturally.

To add that same effect to your speeches, relax, rehearse, and remember to add vocal variety to keep your audience wanting more.


One thought on “Speak Up! Or Maybe Down…

  1. I enjoyed your “speech.” Speaking to the point about not using dramatic style too often in your speech, I see that occasionally in books I read. One particular author has her main character “wailing” a lot. Apparently the author does this on purpose to be funny, but that joke is over now.


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