Vocal Variety - Woman with a megaphone

What is Vocal Variety?

Vocal variety is just one of nine key components of effective speaking, but it is often ignored or misunderstood. In this series of posts, I’d like to look at this important topic in greater detail and show you how you can improve your impact and engagement by learning how to harness the full power of your voice.

While the words you choose to deliver are undoubtedly important, they way you say them plays a significant role in your ability to engage and influence your audience to influence your audience. A carefully crafted speech can be

“A carefully crafted speech can be ruined by a dull vocal delivery.”

As its name suggests, the term vocal variety relates to the way you speak  and can be broken down into several elements including:

  • Volume (Loudness)
  • Pitch (Rise and Fall)
  • Pace (Rate)
  • Pause (Silence)
  • Resonance (Timbre)
  • Intonation

Vary your volume

Common speaking volume errors

  • Speaking too quietly
    If your audience has to strain to hear you they will miss vital information if the problem continues, they will inevitably stop listening and do something less tiring – like thinking about lunch!
  • Speaking too loudly
    If the average speaking volume is too high, your audience will feel as though you are shouting at them and you will almost certainly put them off, no matter how compelling your messages.
  • Speaking at a constant volume
    Listen carefully to a natural conversation, and you will hear plenty of variation in volume as we emphasise certain points in our tale, yet put somebody on a platform in front of a group of colleagues and that natural variation in loudness will often disappear. The physical tension when we feel when under pressure restricts our vocal range.
  • Allowing your volume to drop off at the end of each sentence
    Some speakers develop the bad habit of letting their volume to drop off as they approach the end of each sentence. This practice means that their audience will miss critical information and will feel that the speaker lacks energy and conviction.

How to develop your vocal variety in this area

Having worked with thousands of clients like you, I have noticed that speech volume problems usually come down to two main causes.  The first is physical tension caused by fear. Thankfully there are lots of tools available to help you overcome your fear of public speaking. The second is something that I call a limited vocal comfort zone.  What this means is that people often develop the habit of using a fraction of their full vocal range but are not aware of it.  This, in turn, leads to limiting self-beliefs like “I am just a quiet speaker”  or “I don’t do loud.”

“The human voice is capable of producing a broad range of intensity from a faint whisper to an ear-splitting scream, but most people only use a small part of that range.”

Let’s say we measured this vocal range on a scale of 1-10 where 1 is a whisper, and 10 is the loudest roar you could produce. I find that most people tend to speak between level 1 and level 5, and some rarely get above a level 3.  When they do this, they are only using less than half of their capacity, and so their message is unlikely to be heard.  What stops them raising their voice any further is a feeling that speaking any louder would be unnatural. Break through this self-imposed barrier, and the world is your vocal oyster!

“Tip for reluctant presenters  – if you do not feel as if you are unnaturally loud, then you are almost certainly speaking too quietly.”

How to expand your  vocal comfort zone

Tips for softly spoken speakers:

  1. Give yourself permission to speak louder
    I know this may sound a bit “woo-woo” to some people, but before you dismiss it, think about it.  Many physical conditions are underpinned by a psychological component.  Our beliefs are immensely powerful and can the first step may be to challenge or question them.  Go “inside” and ask yourself “Am I OK with speaking louder when I want to?”  then pay attention to the feeling you get.   If you get a positive response that’s great.  If you don’t, then there is probably something deeper holding you back,  and you may benefit from visiting an NLP or CBT therapist to help you dissolve that blockage before proceeding.
  2. Learn to speak from your diaphragm
    vocal variety - diaphragm
    Having addressed possible psychological causes then the next step is to look at physical voice projection. Trying to force yourself to speak louder isn’t the answer.   Speech volume and the ability to project your voice is controlled, not by your vocal chords but by your diaphragm. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped sheet of muscle that sits below our lungs. When the diaphragm contracts it flattens, reducing the pressure in our chest cavity and sucking in air which expands our lungs. When the diaphragm relaxes it pushes up into our chest cavity, increasing the pressure and forcing air out over our vocal chords
  3. Consider engaging a voice coach or singing teacher
    If neither of the above solutions is helping, it may be worth investing in some professional voice work.

“You may find it helpful to remember that your voice is powered by a column of air and that the deeper you breathe, the longer that column of air and the better you will be able to project when you breathe out.”

Tips for overly loud speakers:

If you have a naturally loud voice, then you face a different challenge, and you still have work to do.  An overly loud voice, particularly if used continually, can have damaging effects on the way you are perceived.  Take a lesson from professional communicators and storytellers and learn to modulate your speech volume to give much-needed contrast.  Being able to tone down your volume can create a much more intimate atmosphere that draws in your audience, as well as giving their ears a much-needed respite.

“A good speech needs light and shade”

Look out for the next post in this series which will focus on how to vary your pitch.

P, S, Please help me to reach as many people as possible by sharing this post with your friends and colleagues 

7 Comments

  1. Yogeshwar Chavan on 04/08/2021 at 17:01

    It was interesting to read your article. Specially I like Tips for softly spoken speakers as I can apply myself. Thanks for useful information.

    • Gavin Meikle on 19/08/2021 at 09:53

      Thanks for your feedback. I am delighted that you found the tips in my article useful. If you have any other challenges relating to public speaking please feel free to post them here and I’ll do my best to answer them. Gavin Meikle

  2. Scott Blick on 04/01/2021 at 09:32

    Hello Gavin,
    It was interesting to read your article. While there is much that you mention that can be of help in some way, as with many members of ToastMasters you make the mistake of approaching the components of speaking, of which volume is one, as an ‘effect’ that needs and should be manipulated externally. Your comments about the diaphragm whilst being important and partially relevant exclude one important factor that is rarely if ever addressed in communication and presentation courses. If a person learns to place and land their information (terms that are quite often used in acting and singing classes) the issue of volume will often be addressed organically – ie from the inside out. It’s just not possible for a person to place or land their information without the body and voice doing what they do naturally. What a speaker actually needs to learn is to get out of the way and let the body and voice do their thing. When a person learns to place and land their information 5 of the 6 components of communication that you mention (Volume, Pitch, Tempo, Intonation and Silence) will take care of themselves.

    • Gavin Meikle on 12/01/2021 at 20:11

      Thanks for sharing your observations and experience Scott. I agree that there are other ways to help people develop their vocal flexibility, and your inside” out approach is definitely one that I am familiar with. I have found that many people want to come across and interesting and engaging, but they often struggle to understand the part played by vocal flexibility. How would you respond to someone who has a tendency to speak very quietly and timidly and finds it hard to increase their vocal flexibility?

  3. Marvin on 13/09/2020 at 18:56

    how can I as law enforcement assist a witness in their statement in describing a voice heard, pitch stutter etc.

  4. Mark Butterfield on 22/07/2017 at 09:25

    Great content Gavin – thanks for sharing these insights…

    • Gavin Meikle on 23/07/2017 at 14:50

      Thanks, Mark, Glad to hear that you found it useful. I’ll be posting the next article in the next few days. Please let me know if you have any particular topics you’d like me to blog about.

Leave a Comment