You can tell a lot about a speaker by how she sounds. Is her voice wobbly? Confident? Is she speaking too quickly? Is it one monotone delivery?
This actually matters quite a bit. It’s also one of the hardest things to change, but improving how you talk is going to be one of the best things you can do to improve your overall public speaking.
One of the things the best speakers can do well is variance of voice. This encompasses a slew of different aspects:
- Pace. How fast are you speaking? By speeding up, you capture audience attention by creating an air of excitement, of buildup. Alternatively, by slowing down, you can assign more weight to each individual word. That’s helpful when you’re making big, important points in your argument.
- Pitch. Is your voice low or high? Variation is helpful here, particularly in order to get an exaggerated effect (think of how you’d say I paid FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS for that dinner?, for example).
- Volume. Be loud, gain their attention. Be more quiet… and you can still gain their attention.
The point is to vary your voice when you can. You get people much more interested in what you have to say. There’s nothing worse than having a Ben Stein voice up on stage really early in the morning, lecturing you to sleep.
When asked a question, Steve Jobs would frequently pause to consider the question before answering it. As a speaker, this is one of the most frightening things you can do: by not talking, you’re immediately conscious of the fact that no one else is talking and everyone is waiting for what you have to say.
It’s completely petrifying, but it’s also incredibly effective. It makes the audience feel like you’re really thinking something through. It’s a sign of respect.
This works outside of the Q&A session, too: your presentation will benefit from pauses and breaks. Nothing makes me look up from my laptop screen more than the absense of the speaker talking. I think it’s the anticipation that does humans in, actually: with nothing happening, humans just can’t wait until something does happen.
Before moving onto your next big section of your talk, take a three or five second break. If this is uncomfortable for you — and trust me, that’s a totally normal feeling — cheat. You can cheat by taking a sip of water. It’s the best break in the world, and you still gain all of the benefits of taking a break without all of the awkwardness on your end.