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  • Bruce Rule

Voice is a Powerful Tool in Public Speaking (Part 5)

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Make Sure You Choose the Right Words

In previous posts we discussed how you can master your pitch, volume and pace to improve your public speaking and become a more effective communicator. Before we move on to discussing how best to implement in a speech, let’s address some miscellaneous points about voice that you should understand.


1) Upspeak: This is the tendency to end declarative sentences with a rising pitch, so they sound like questions. Also, known as uptalk, high-rising intonation, high-rising terminal and rising inflection, this tendency can make the speaker appear to be lacking in confidence because it sounds like a question. A person who uses upspeak will make the sentence “I am the doctor” sound like the question “I am the doctor?” by using a higher pitch near the end of the statement, usually starting with the final accented syllable.


Because upspeak makes speakers sound uncertain, as if they aren’t sure about what they are saying, it can undercut their authority. To put it simply, listeners may doubt you if you sound like you doubt your own statements.


While upspeak is mostly associated with younger speakers and women, the simple fact is that research has shown that anyone can suffer from its overuse.


To be clear, it is perfectly acceptable to end a question with a higher pitch. There are also times when upspeak is an effective tool. For instance, when trying to build consensus: “It looks like everyone is OK with choice No. 2” will sound like “It looks like everyone is OK with choice No. 2?” That isn’t an actual question, but the speaker is using the higher tone to suggest that anyone disagreeing can and should speak up.


Listen to yourself speak to see if you are in the habit of using upspeak. If you are, consider trimming it back as much as possible and using it only at appropriate times.


How do you cut back on upspeak if you have a tendency to use it? Generally, just staying aware of your habit will enable you to reduce your upspeak. One exercise you can do is to enlist a friend to note some sentences where your voice rises inappropriately. Write those sentences down, and practice saying them in an even pitch. If you have to, use a lower pitch than normal on the syllable where your voice usually rises to break the habit.


If you can control your upspeak you will sound more confident, and as we have discussed before on this blog, a confident speaker is a more effective one.


Say it Correctly


2) Pronunciation and Grammar: Verbal slips when speaking, especially off the cuff, are pretty much unavoidable for most people and for the most part listeners are very forgiving. But with prepared speeches, mispronouncing words and making grammatical errors may distract the audience and undermine their confidence in what you are saying.


One time I was watching a business webinar when the moderator called upon her male counterpart to make part of the presentation. The man kept saying he “wroted” this, and he “wroted” that. Every time he said “wroted” I could see the other listeners wince and frown. It was painful. Obviously, he was not winning their confidence. Finally, after one too many wroteds, the moderator cut in to suggest that he meant to say “had written.” He corrected himself, much to everyone’s relief, but by that point I am pretty sure that his audience was so distracted by his mistake that they missed the point of his presentation.


Make sure you know how to correctly say each word in your prepared presentations by rehearsing out loud. You can check the proper pronunciation of just about any word by going to a search engine and typing in “How to pronounce X in (whatever language you are using)” or “How to say X in (whatever language you are using).” For technical words at work, ask colleagues.


Names can be trickier. If it is someone that you can check with before the presentation, please do so. Trust me, very few people get offended if you tell them that you will be mentioning them in the presentation and would like the proper pronunciation of their name. I used to do it all the time when I recorded radio spots for the Associated Press. If the name is difficult, write it down phonetically to make sure you get it right.


There are also grammar programs online where you can look up proper grammar. Some will even check sentences you enter for grammatical mistakes. Use them if you are uncertain of your grammar skills.


Global Audience


3) Accents: Everyone has an accent, so you would think that it is no big deal when someone speaks with a heavy accent that is different from what the audience is used to hearing. And for the most part I think that is true, especially in a business world that is becoming more global every day.


Even so, if you have a strong accent you should still aim to speak as clearly as possible because you don’t want your accent to be a distraction. Check pronunciations using online searches, as mentioned above, and if there are words that you find particularly difficult to say or that you stumble over look for substitutes that you can master.


Also, if your accent is strong or unfamiliar, you should try is to speak more slowly, especially at the opening of your presentation. This is especially true if you are speaking in front of strangers. Speaking slowly will enable their ears to adjust to your accent quicker. It may feel a bit awkward for you, but remember you are making it easier for the audience to understand and accept your message.


Which should be the goal of your presentation, right?


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