VOCAL VARIETY: Sound Suggestions To Make Your Message Count


Want some spice in your speech?  Try vocal variety.  Vocal variety brings breadth and depth to your presentation.  A primary project in the basic text of Toastmasters International is “Vocal Variety.” 


Remember when we were kids, in order to fly, all we had to do was spread our arms and sound off: PHHHHHHHHHTTTT?  That was the opening of the 2010 world champion speech by David Henderson. With arms spread wide David demonstrated how he and his girlfriend, when they were children, pretended to be World War I flying aces.   Along with this childlike gesture, he made a kind of farting sound like the backfiring of a plane engine. The hilarious opening had us instantly engaged. 


In his final speech, David used vocal variety to play the heart monitor of his grandmother in the hospital.  “Beep!  Beep!  Beep!” he sounded. Right away, you realized David was visiting his grandmother in the hospital.  When she died, he did not need to say, “She died.”  All he had to do was one continuous BEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!  Instantly the audience knew - the grandmother was dead. Through well-crafted vocal variety, this man won the 2010 World Championship of Public Speaking.


That is the POWER of vocal variety.


Your aim is to become a master speaker, not a master talker. Speak! Don’t talk! Loft your voice! Like a softball, practice pitching your speech to the back of the room. The push comes from the abdomen, specifically the diaphragm. Instead of shouting from the throat with effort, push from the tummy with ease. Feel free to project 20% louder and to over articulate when you speak.


Slow down for depth. Inhabit your voice. Not up-in-the-nose nasally, like the Wicked Witch of the West. Remember to breathe.


As often as possible, give all your characters a voice.

EXAMPLE: “My brother Sid called to ask me to come home for Thanksgiving.”

Now inject greater depth and animation into your speech by saying, “My brother Sid called to say, ‘Chris, I want you to come home for Thanksgiving.’”

Can you hear the difference? You have two voices going, whereas at first you only had one.

Give inanimate objects a voice.

          EXAMPLES: The floorboards complained bitterly under his weight. “Ouch,” snapped the door latch.

One of my award-winning speeches included a Scottish brogue. Vocal variety includes drawls and twangs.  You can even take a bold step and imitate your favorite Hollywood character. If you have a dialect you always wanted to try out—use it!


In the 2012 World Championships of Public Speaking, I knew I needed a big, fat infusion of humor to win.  Instead of a speech coach, I hired a comedienne. A local resident in Sausalito: Diane Conway.  

My World Champion Speech opened with, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken!”  For vocal variety, Diane requested I express this as: a 90-year-old woman; as a 4-year-old; as Mae West; as Rocky Balboa/Sylvester Stallone. “Yo! Adrienne!”


She asked me, “If you were a flower, what would you be?”  I said, “An IRIS.”  She responded, “Now go ahead and give the speech as an iris!”  Rigid, with hands at my sides and in a very stiff British accent, I became a talking iris. 


Diane’s vocal variety exercises on an impromptu basis provided the necessary flexibility and humor I needed to win that competition.


Employ as many of the senses as possible. Bring in our senses of taste, touch, sight, smell, and hearing. “Hoot! Hoot!” cried the train whistle. Not just “The train whistle blew.” “The savory sauce tantalized our taste buds” instead of “The sauce was tasty.”


If there is a word that conveys a sound you can use, use it. Audiences appreciate alliterations. Bring on the “gleeful giggles” or “the human, heartfelt hug.” Specific word choice to create an alliteration signifies that you crafted your speech, not just cobbled one together.

Compare the following:

I turned on the light.
I clicked on the light.

I drove over the railroad track.
I clattered over the railroad track.

I woke this morning to the sound of birds.
At dawn this morning I woke to the raucous chirping of birds.


Put on the seatbelt.
Snap on the seatbelt.


Another important tip is to speak in terms of similes instead of numbers. Numbers are numbing; similes are sexy. I can describe a barn as “15 by 30 by 60.” Or I can describe the house as “the size of Noah’s Ark!” The inner picture of the Ark does far more to evoke an image than trying to gauge the numbers.


A speech is like a stew – season yours with spicy vocal variety and word choice.  Brings your audience back to your table every time!



Stay tuned for more speaking tips in the next edition of “Speak Confidently!”