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Presentation Training: Do You Hear What I Hear?

We’ve called upon our resident body language expert, Sharon Merrill EVP and Partner David Calusdian, to teach us to become better speakers – whether at meetings, investor conferences or in more personal settings. This four-part conversation provides a taste of the good, and bad, habits of executive presenters, with a few tips for improvement along the way. Today’s post is Part III in the series.

The Podium: As always, thanks again for joining us, David. We’ve had a highly informative series thus far. Today, we’d like to talk about voice. Let’s start from the beginning.

DC: First, I always tell people to speak loudly, clearly and use vocal variety. That may sound obvious, but most speakers aren’t aware that they are being monotone or are not annunciating until they see and hear themselves on video. On a related note, a common voice problem people have is that they drop off their voices at the ends of sentences. They speak loudly for a period, and then suddenly fall off.

The extreme version of the trailing voice is “vocal fry” – a raspy sound you make when you run out of breath, as if you were fighting to get the air to finish each sentence. Either way, your message loses its impact. And without that, there’s really no point.

The Podium: It seems counterintuitive that a speaker would not want to be heard. Why does this happen?

DC: Usually, a speaker’s voice trails off because he or she is uncomfortable or lacks the confidence necessary to be forceful with every sentence. To come across very confidently, you want to end every sentence declaratively. Everything you say should be important.

The Podium: That makes sense.

DC: It’s critical. In addition, many people trail their voices off at the end of a paragraph or at the end of a particular PowerPoint slide they are talking to. Compounding the problem is that the last thing you say on a slide should be the most important statement on the topic – and it often just gets lost.

The Podium: So how do we use our voices to make the message more effective?

DC: One thing you can do is to keep a dynamic voice pattern. You don’t want to sound monotone, because that is boring to listen to. You do want to vary your inflection and your volume. For example, if you are saying the sentence, “I’m really excited about the prospects for our company,” you had better sound excited. Take the opportunity to really punch home such declarative statements.

Let me give you an example. One of the first television political ads was for Adlai Stevenson, when he ran for president in 1952. A woman in the ad was explaining her excitement about voting for Stevenson – although she did so in a completely deadpan tone. It was a classic example. She was clearly reading from a cue card, and she did not look excited at all about Adlai Stevenson – and the ad didn’t help his cause.

The Podium: What are other common vocal miscues?

DC: Many people make their voices go up in pitch at the end of most of their sentences, as if each is a question.

The Podium: Like a Valley Girl?

DC: Yes. And it does not make you sound very confident. Try this: “We reported great results in Q4? And we also reported an in increase in net income?” Those are positive messages, and they should be made confidently. And yet, I hear this frequently from speakers. It’s usually because they are leading into the next sentence, but it comes across as if they are unsure about what they are saying.

The Podium: What is the remedy for that?

DC: You should end most of your sentences declaratively. Now, if you are at the end of a sentence that is clearly a lead into the next sentence, that’s fine to let your voice go up.

The Podium: Could you do it in a series? For instance, if there are four bullets, and you’re continuing onto the next bullet?

DC: It’s possible, but usually, every bullet should stand on its own, too. The key here is that if a point is worth making, you should sound confident and authoritative when making it.

The Podium: Let’s go back to monotone a moment. Monotone is boring, so you’re going to lose your audience. Does this send a signal about what the speaker is thinking? Are they bored, too?

DC: I don’t think so. Sometimes, having a monotone pattern is simply comfortable for the speaker. It may be how they speak naturally, and they may not be aware of how they are being perceived. It’s important to employ variation in your speech pattern. Use your voice to emphasize key points.

The Podium: Thanks for being with us today, David. Next week will be our final conversation on presentation training, and we’re looking forward to it.

David Calusdian, an executive vice president and partner at Sharon Merrill, oversees the implementation of investor relations programs, coaches senior executives in presentation skills and provides strategic counsel to clients on numerous communications issues.

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