Imagine your favorite singer performing your favorite song. That singer has worked with world-famous vocal coaches singing nothing but musical scales for hours. What would happen if that singer made a rule that while singing your favorite song he or she had to include every note in the whole scale? Would it still be the same song?
Of course, that would be absurd. The musician should NOT sing every note in the scale unless it’s actually written into the song!
The Myth of Vocal Variety
Nevertheless, thousands of well meaning communication skills classes and public speaking coaches tell you to do exactly that. In nearly every presentation skills workshop or toastmasters club they will give you bad advice:
Add vocal variety
Just like most communication myths, the advice is not 100% wrong, it’s just misplaced. Bad advice usually comes from rigid adherence to a good idea while overlooking the more important underlying principle.
What’s more important? using every note in the scale, or the composition of the whole song? Obviously the effect of the final melody matters more.
What’s more important? vocal variety of the words you speak, or the sense of authenticity that the listener feels as a whole?
The speaker was insincere, but boy did he have great vocal skills
That’s not the feedback I want after my presentation!
When people give you the cliche advice, it’s almost always from misplaced priorities. When so-called experts tell you to “use more vocal variety,” more often than not, without realizing it, you actually sound less authentic–and you lose!
It’s true that entire coaching programs exists to teach you how to use your vocal variety to manipulate others. For example, Jordan Belfort, whose story was adapted into the move “The Wolf of Wall Street” claims he used such vocal manipulation techniques to defraud investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars. Belfort was then indicted for securities fraud and money laundering.
My goal is not to help you to secretly manipulate people. My goal is to help you show off your true self and allow others to see you as authentic and trustworthy. My goal is to help you earn what you REALLY deserve.
Bad Examples of Variety
Make sure you use high pitches and low pitches in your voice so that you don’t sound monotone.
High and low, loud and soft, fast and slow–that’s what they say–as if variety in and of itself is the goal. It makes me want to scream–off pitch.
The YouTube clip below from Scott Rickard’s TED talk, “The world’s ugliest music” demonstrates what music would sound like if we adhered strictly to a pitch rule rather than prioritizing the impression of the whole piece.
Now that’s tonal variety!
Usually, when you try to ADD vocal variety to your public speaking you sound like this (just 90 seconds):
And Clinton’s advisers don’t seem to understand why almost two thirds of voters doubt her honesty and authenticity. If you are a Clinton supporter, it may be easier to see the forced vocal variety in a Republican. Here’s Ted Cruz (just 90 seconds is cued):
Even if you are a Republican, does that sound like authentic emotion, or does that sound like bad acting?
Even if you don’t see it in the candidate on your side, I bet you see it in the other.
When you force it without feeling it, the vocal inflections don’t match your true feelings and it sounds like an off-key singer.
Don’t most politicians sound phony? Regardless of your personal distaste for Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, they clearly sound more authentic. Even if you don’t like it, at least it sounds real. It’s no coincidence the both of them created political movements that surprised the “experts.”
The Rules of Good Vocal Variety
It’s not that vocal variety is bad, it’s that very few people can ADD it intentionally and still sound authentic.
If you are trying to be a SPEAKER, don’t follow advice that tells you to stand on stage and become an ACTOR.
The right kind of variety is the kind that comes naturally. If you’re really angry, you don’t have to intentionally make your voice sound angry. If you really feel depressed, you don’t have to try to add a depressing voice inflection. The conventional wisdom is right that vocal variety needs to be there when appropriate, but if it’s authentic, you don’t have to ADD it.
Of course I know that some people are naturally monotone and lots of people get anxiety related monotony when placed in front of a group. The solution is not to spend your energy trying to fake the voice inflections. The solution is learning to feel the real emotion on stage. When the emotion is authentic, your voice will sound authentic automatically–with zero additional effort.
The first rule of getting authentic vocal variety is enthusiasm. In the vast majority of presentations, we don’t share a lot of emotion. In those cases, the most important emotion you can convey is an enthusiastic “lack of indifference.”
So often we don’t actually care about the content of our own presentation. When it’s just an assignment, when it’s done grudgingly, or when you just go through the motions, it will always be lackluster.
Never speak on an assigned subject
When you have a choice, choose a subject you are passionate about.
When someone else assigns you a subject, change your perspective. In your mind, you can’t talk about what they assign you, you must talk about how what they assign you relates to something you are passionate about.
For example, if you are asked to introduce the company safety policies, don’t talk about the company safety policies. Talk about a safety experiences that caused you real emotion in your real life, and relate that to the company policy.
Don’t fake it.
If you don’t feel the emotion, the listener doesn’t either. Unless you are a gifted actor, that is. Even most actor’s learn to actually feel the emotion first, rather than to fake it.
If you tell an emotional story, and try to fake it, it’s like singing off-key. If you listen to the video keep listening the whole way 🙂
On the other hand, if you slow down and pause just long enough to bring the memories to mind and experience the emotions before you speak, the listener will feel every word.
Today’s message is a combination of 2 principles in the SpeechDeck Public Speaking System. For more related techniques, check the authenticity skill of the yellow “Reveal the Messenger” principle and the emotion skill of the violet “Engage the Subconscious” principle.
It’s not about vocal variety. It’s about authenticity.
When you have passion and enthusiasm, it’s contagious.
When you have real emotion rather than forced tonality, it’s powerful.
When your words match your voice naturally, you sound sincere.
Don’t chain your inflections to some arbitrary variety.
Speak an “unchained melody.”