Despite the twenty hours Luanne spent preparing for each lecture to her nursing class, her students consistently rated her as dull. Jacob, a mechanical engineer with innovative ideas and brilliant designs, could not keep any audience interested in his presentations. Luanne and Jacob suffered from the bane of being boring, perhaps the worst curse that can afflict a speaker.
Though you might think people like Luanne and Jacob were born boring, the truth is they just never learned certain speech habits that most of us pick up naturally. In working with hundreds of tiresome talkers, I have found that training in simple techniques of vocal variety usually does the trick.
Speaking clearly with vocal variety is the skill of emphasizing certain words to convey meaning and emotions so that those words “jump out” at the listener. In the mechanics of speech, it is the vocal equivalent of a colorful gesture. The following tips will pull you – and the audience – out of the dull-drums.
Pitch change. Change your pitch (usually upward) on an important word or syllable. Practice these sentences with a higher pitch on the word indicated, noticing that you have the power to change the meaning as you change the pitch.
1. “She’s wearing a RED dress.” (Not green)
2. “SHE’S wearing a red dress.” (That woman is)
3. “She’s WEARING a red dress.” (As opposed to carrying or eating it)
Grab your phone or tablet and record yourself. Listen to make sure that the meaning really does stand out.
Volume Change. Go louder on your most important words. You may feel as if you’re shouting but trust me, it’s just that you’re not used to adding that extra oomph. Or, for the late Mr. Rogers’ approach, go softer. Try this:
“A LONG journey begins with a single step.”
Length Change. Admittedly a hammy technique. TV announcers often introduce someone with an extra long “ Heeeers’s…” Lengthen the vowel of a word to signal great interest or drama. For example:
1. “I dooon’t see the point.”
2. “He’s aaabsolutely out of his mind.”
3. “Brides don’t neeeed to wear long dresses.”
To practice vocal variety, pick a paragraph each day from the newspaper or a magazine. Underline the important words in every sentence. Be generous with yourself – don’t try to become overly exciting suddenly. Record yourself as you read the paragraph aloud and play it back to see if you actually “hit” the words you target.
Phil, an international marketing director who knew that he usually put his audience to sleep, contacted me before an important presentation. In our brief emergency coaching session we had time to work on only one skill, so we concentrated on vocal variety. He came into the session sounding nearly comatose and left sounding half alive. His boss must have agreed. He called me after Phil’s presentation talk to thank me, adding, and I quote “Phil was 50 percent less boring than the year before!”