Two men were stranded on a deserted island in the South Pacific. They had no means of communication and little hope for survival. So they resolved to put a message in a bottle and send it out to sea. First they found a small piece of paper with enough room for a single sentence. Then they found an old bottle that could carry their message. So they set about to write their message. The first man wanted to write, “Stranded, please help!” The second man wanted to write, “SOS South Pacific Is!” Each thought the other’s message was too ambiguous. So they argued back and forth about what they should write.
Finally they flipped a coin, chose the first man’s message and threw the bottle out into the ocean. But nothing happened. Weeks went by and there was no sign of rescue. So the second man grew bitter. If they had used his message, then help would have arrived already. Or so he thought. So the men began to quarrel, and their quarrel turned into violence. Standing at the edge of a small cliff, the second man pushed the first one off, and he tumbled down into the rocky bay. Immediately repentant, the second man scrambled down after him in order to help. And when he reached the first man he apologized profusely. But in response he said nothing, he simply pointed to a cluster of rocks. And there the second man saw, wedged between the rocks, the bottle that they had thrown to sea months earlier. And that’s when they both realized: It doesn’t matter what your message is unless your audience can receive it.
The same is true in speaking. Many speakers struggle back and forth about the content of their message, but then when they speak, they are too quiet, too soft or too mumbly. So the audience never receives their message. And even though they give a mighty effort, there comes a point when they see their bottle trapped between rocks, having never left the island. Don’t let this happen this to you.
The first unbreakable rule is to speak loud enough. Your audience expects to hear you. If you speak quietly, you put a tremendous strain on your audience. And if you speak too quietly, then they won’t be able to hear you at all. Then it doesn’t matter what you say — it doesn’t matter how brilliant your ideas or how beneficial your solutions — if they can’t hear you, then they can’t agree with you.
Speak loud enough to control the room. Don’t be bashful and don’t be hesitant. Be bold and assert yourself. Take control of the room. If you’ve giving a presentation, then you don’t need to get anybody’s permission. You already have their permission. The audience wants you to project your voice and take control. You only need to live up to their expectations.
What if you have a shy personality? That’s ok. Some people will try to tell you that your speaking efficacy is determined by your personality. We completely disagree. We’ve known many naturally shy individuals who nevertheless command the stage with their presence. I walked into a meeting once where I didn’t really know anybody. And I saw this meek old lady sitting in the corner. She was pleasant to those around her, but she quietly stayed to herself. Then, about halfway into the meeting, she stood up and gave a presentation. My jaw dropped to the floor. She was amazing! Everybody thought she was amazing! She absolutely controlled the room and projected her voice. But she did it without sacrificing her personality. In fact, she seemed more integrated with her personality than anyone else in the room. I spoke with her afterwards and she was indeed a shy person. But she knew that a presentation is a performance. And therefore she realized that her presentation was just something that she needed to practice. And your ability to practice is not constrained by your personality
What if you have a weak voice? Unfortunately this affects many people. This means they don’t have much practice projecting your voice. Maybe as a child, you were told to be quiet and use your inside voice. So you never really developed a strong resonant voice. That’s ok. It’s never too late to start improving. The good news is that your voice is controlled by your vocal muscles. Make these muscles stronger and you will be able to project a louder voice. It can be achieved.
Don’t feel alone if you have a weak voice. One of the greatest speakers in all of history, Demosthenes, had the same problem. He lived in ancient Athens and wanted to lead his city to freedom. But he couldn’t make speeches in the assembly because he couldn’t speak above the crowd. So he would go to the beach and practicing speaking over the crashing waves. And he would put rocks in his mouth and practicing speaking over this obstacle. He practiced and practiced until, one day, his voice was strong enough. Then he entered the assembly, gave his impassioned speeches and became one of the most famous speakers in history. You can do the same.
There are many ways to strengthen your voice. One of our favorite ways is singing. This is an enjoyable way to improve yourself, and it doesn’t really feel like practice. It feels like fun. But perhaps the best way is to practice speaking on stage. Stand on the stage of a large auditorium while a friend stands against the back wall. Then try to have a conversation. If your friend can’t hear you, then increase your volume. This will help you calibrate the volume you need for your presentations. Practice this over time and you will find that you comfortably grow into your powerful stage voice.
What if you already have a pretty strong voice? Practice anyway. You might have a strong enough voice for five minutes, but not for an hour long presentation. This won’t cut it. You need both sprinting volume and marathon volume. You might lose your audience if your voice falls apart at the end of your speech, right when you make your powerful call to action. A powerful call requires a powerful voice.
So what are the basic rules? You want a clear, resonant voice that fills the room you’re in. You should be clearly understood by the people in the back of the room. You shouldn’t shout or strain your voice except as a point of emphasis. You should pronounce all your words clearly and articulately. Your voice should maintain sufficient strength for the duration of the presentation. All things being equal, it’s better to be too loud then too soft. And its better to have a pitch that’s too low versus one that’s too high.
We have several more speaking tips that I plan to post. We call them “unbreakable rules of speaking”. Let us know what you think of them. Thanks! Bob R