Public Speaking Tips for Intonation
Intonation for a speaker is what keeps the voice interesting and makes the audience want to listen to you. Content comes first, as does structure, but it is the colour and variety in the voice that will hold attention.
Do you have a point worth listening to and has it been organised in a way that makes it easy to digest?
Nevertheless, even if your message is relevant and compelling, it can still be a struggle for the audience to stay with it if your voice drones them to sleep or the soothing lack of contrast allows them to drift off into some dream world.
If the content is like a nutritious meal, the structure will be how it is presented on the plate and the intonation will be how easy it is to digest.
Too many speakers, knowing that they need to keep their voices engaging, will try artificially to inject variety into their delivery, which means that the delivery can sound forced or robotic.
Think of an announcement at a train station where a series of pre-recorded sections are joined up to make the message. Typically the recorded voice is lively and positive, but because the sense of the sentence has been artificially assembled, the inflections are all wrong.
So we need to make sure that to vary our intonation we are not doing something similar.
I will list several ways we can work against a flat or robotic voice, but I will start with a suggestion for checking after you have applied some of these ideas.
Once upon a time, we had to rely on a trusted companion to listen to us and offer feedback on our presentation and we had to take their word that the way we spoke was or was not sounding the way we might wish. These days it is so easy to place a phone next to you, press record, and to deliver a few words and then play them back. This should be done sparingly as a way of making sure the words are sounding as well as you imagine. Too much reliance on a recorder might cause you to overuse it, lose the freshness of perspective and once again start to sound like a recorded train message. Mostly we will discover that our voice is not as interesting or as varied as we thought!
Meaning is master
Always drill down to the exact message of your words.
If a candidate is ‘the first woman to be elected president’, the impact of those words will be heightened by your ability to place the best emphasis on the right words, which is only possible once you are clear what the exact significance is.
Are we stressing that she is the ‘first’; that she is a woman; that she has been elected or that she is president? Once we are conscious of where the significance lies, we will automatically stress the relevant words. Unclear messages and vague meanings will lead to vague delivery and a colourless intonation.
If your key messages have a clear emphasis and structure, they will have an implied intonation already built into them.
Benjamin Frankin’s observation at the signing of the American Declaration of Independence seems to call out for a particular intonation:
‘We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.’
The play on the meaning of the words ‘all hang’ allows us to hear the repetition of the same word while understanding different meanings. This catches our attention and sets us up for the contrasting words, ‘together’ and ‘separately’.
And for those of you who do like the reading of the BBC football results, the delivery of these lines will be very similar to the announcement of a ‘home win’, because Benjamin Franklin’s words make our intonation want to rise on the word ‘together’ and fall on ‘separately’
Rhythm and Repetition
Ed Milliband, campaigning for the leadership of the Labour Party announced:
‘I am standing for a moral economy, which means responsibility;
I am standing for the redistribution of power in Britain,
I am standing for an attack on the inequality of opportunities in Britain
and I am standing for a different kind of Labour Party.’
The rhythm and repetition in these lines give Ed Milliband a moment at the start of each line to gather his thoughts, allowing him to emphasise the fact that he is ‘standing’ and the use of the rhetorical ‘Three’ in ‘I am standing’ allows us to think ‘OK – reasonable’ at the end of each of the first three lines. When he introduces the fourth ‘I am standing’, by using the same format, we are already prepared to say ‘OK – reasonable’ again, but then we realise ‘Aha! – that is where this is leading!’
Rhythm and Repetition are popular formats for politicians and comedians, as they both benefit from setting up a rhythm of response, followed by an ‘Aha’.
The old comedian Jimmy Durante liked to say:
They said Beethoven was mad
They said Einstein was mad
They said Van Gogh was mad
They said Louis was mad.
(Voice from the audience – ‘Who’s Louis?’
He’s my uncle – he was mad.
The Power of the Pause
If ‘intonation’ is a musical term, then so is ‘pause’.
It is the contrast between sound and silence.
Typically we would recommend longer pauses between ideas or in response to questions so that the audience has time to digest what has just been said
The pause has many uses and benefits for a speaker, but from the point of view of vocal intonation, any word just before or just after a pause is going to attract attention, even more so if it is dramatically stressed.
We hear this technique possibly overused in virtually every TV competition or elimination show.
‘And the contestant going through to the next round is…….(painfully long pause)….. - and the tension is stretched to breaking point, so that when the name is finally announced it……explodes from the compere’s mouth.
Emphatic breaks mid-sentence
This is a continuation of the power of the pause, but whereas pausing is usually recommended between ideas or to give space for the audience to answer a rhetorical question, either out loud or in their heads, the emphatic break is a pause mid-sentence, where the audience is left in suspense by some conjunction or joining word, awaiting the message to follow.
So for instance we could put a point of view and then with great emphasis say…’however!...and then change the tone and colour of our voice after a long pause as we continue:
‘This is the common belief, HOWEVER!....it…is….NOT……always true’
No one is going to break in or think you have finished your point if you leave them hanging on ‘however’.
A good quote from Shakespeare or a significant political leader almost urges you to deliver the words with a special emphasis, partly because a memorable quote is probably already worded in some rhetorical form and partly because it was originally delivered in a grander setting and so the very repetition of the words calls to mind the original context.
An old trick of the storyteller: introduce characters into your presentation, repeat the significant word-for-word conversations and you have brought automatic contrast and immediacy to your words, as you move from I said back to he said. And if the significant conversation has an element of passion contained in the exchange, you can bring that into your voice as well.
Sign-posting is a valuable technique in any presentation. It allows you to sum up what you have already said and allows you to indicate what is about to come. Therefore it is another opportunity to step back and change the colour and tone of your voice – and if you combine it with #6 ‘Emphatic breaks mid-sentence’, you could heighten the change in tone:
‘So far we have looked at A and B. NEXT…..I want to spend a few moments on C.’
A passionate speaker will always hold attention better than a purely rational one.
We need to judge how much passion is suitable for the context of our speech. Sometimes too much emotion can cloud the meaning and a consistent high level of emotion can also become repetitive. Conviction is therefore probably the better word, as it might reveal a level of belief and passion in the speaker, without tending towards the hysterical.
And if you have conviction on a subject the contrast between your argument and their argument and the contrast between current fact and future belief will allow you to express your conviction through contrasting intonation.