Vocal Quality

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In a speech, obviously, the human voice delivers the majority of the message. While other nonverbal qualities may complement or supplement that message, the vast majority of the literal message gets delivered via the voice, and as such, the speaker must consider all of the qualities of the voice to ensure the most effective and memorable delivery possible.

Volume vs. Projection

Ever gone to a concert one night and noticed a difference in vocal quality the following day? The hoarse voice that resulted is most likely due to the strain placed on the vocal cords due to an increase in volume, which can be avoided by using the art of projection. Actors refer to projection as having a “stage voice,” which they employ by filling the diaphragm with air while breathing. This shifts that strain away from the vocal cords. Most people when they want to be heard loudly, simply increase the volume of their voice. Do this often and sustain it long enough and the throat will suffer. Learning to project the voice, however, involves using the diaphragm, the muscle below the lungs that fills and contracts the lungs during breathing, to expel more air through the vocal cords as they work. This effectively projects the voice throughout the room. Projection removes strain from the vocal cords and prevents the feeling associated with having a tired, hoarse voice the next day.

To develop projection, practice the presentation with a partner who slowly increases the volume of background music during the speech’s delivery. As the volume of the music increases, try projecting the message over the music, concentrating on expelling more air while speaking.


During conversations, most people are relaxed enough not to have to think about the clarity of their enunciation, and as a result, they tend to slur their words, drop syllables off the ends of words, and mumble. During practice session, slow down and pronounce consonant sounds sharply and crisply. Speakers that exaggerate effectively train their voice to articulate the sounds more clearly when it comes time to deliver the speech.

Additionally, certain words may present problems with pronunciation, such as the word phenomenological (go ahead, try to say it five times fast). Devote extra time to practicing these words to ensure proper pronunciation of them effortlessly and correctly. Look up the words using a tool such as YouTube to hear others use the words organically. Don’t settle for one source. Look up several in this manner to ensure the correct pronunciation, especially when using foreign language-based words or medical/science-based terminology. Saying words correctly improves the credibility of a speaker.

Pitch and Intonation

Pitch refers to the highs and lows of a vocal tone, while intonation indicates variations of pitch. When a speaker reads an entire speech off of a prewritten manuscript, things like pitch and intonation often get sacrificed, while in everyday conversation, pitch and intonation vary widely, leading to often engaging conversations that draw people in and keep them hooked. Even a staggering statistical fact could end up lost on the audience if the speaker used a monotonic voice while presenting it. However, adding enthusiasm and the right amount of emphasis will help the audience recognize the sheer importance of the fact.


Speakers demonstrate intensity by varying the loudness and softness of their voice.

Note to Self

To experience this, try saying the following aloud, as directed:

(Softly) “Are we going to put up with this?”

(Switch to loudly) “No! Today, we fight!”

As you tried this exercise, did you notice the meaning change as you altered the intensity?

Playing with intensity can drastically alter the mood or feel of the message. Try to vary the intensity throughout a speech. Start soft at first, but then build toward a climax near the end of the speech. This technique works especially well when utilizing narratives (stories) to convey important points.


Most people speak at a conversational rate of around 150 words per minute (roughly two words for every heartbeat), and as the heart rate increases, so will the rate of speaking. Auctioneers have the capability to say up to 300 words per minute, but in doing so, they sacrifice clarity and complexity in order to deliver their messages rapidly. Public speakers should want to keep their rates down to around the 150-word range. Keeping the rate of speech conversational helps demonstrate confidence and control to the audience. Breathing offers an effective solution to combat anxiety and regulate the heart rate. Novice speakers often forget to breathe, and instead, take short, choppy breaths that often lead to an oxygen deficiency that quickens the heart rate, leading to an increased rate of speaking. By using controlled breathing and pauses in between sentences to take deeper and purposeful breaths, the speaking rate should sound comfortable and relaxed.

Pauses and Fillers

During regular conversations, people often insert filler words, such as “um,” “uh,” “you know,” and others while talking. Filler words serve as a sort of placeholder for the conversation, used when someone needs to retreat into her or his mind to think of a word or what to say next. People insert those filler words or paralanguage, which represent the sounds people make that are not necessarily language, to let the other person know they have not finished their thoughts yet. In a speech, however, such words provide no function since the audience will not interrupt the delivery of the speech (unless dealing with a hostile audience). The audience will likely forgive the usage of some filler words. They may make the speaker come across as more natural and conversational, but at some point, too many of them becomes a distraction from the message. Instead of filler words, allow silence to fill the void between thoughts and sentences. Silence sounds much more eloquent and provides the audience with the impression that the speaker remains in control of the speech’s delivery, helping them to exude confidence.

Note to Self

To reduce your use of filler words, first become aware of what fillers you use and at what points in your speech you use them. Invite a friend to one of your practices and have them bang on something or make a loud noise whenever you use a filler word. This kind of feedback, though somewhat jarring at first, provides invaluable data because, as you become more aware of the fillers, you quickly become more able to control them and use pauses instead.

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Using pauses regularly augments the message’s impact. Short pauses (two seconds or less) add emphasis by using the silence to draw brief attention to the previous point. They can also separate ideas, serving almost as a nonverbal transition. Speakers should employ long pauses (3–4 seconds) more sparingly, such as following a rhetorical question or after making a powerful or provocative point. Long pauses command audience attention in dramatic fashion, but used too frequently, can give the audience the impression that the speaker’s unprepared or overly nervous. Save long pauses only for the most powerful moments within the message. Speakers may also try to use the “spontaneity pause,” a planned pause that appears unplanned from the perspective of the audience. When using such a pause, stop for a moment to consider the right word or way to phrase a point, only to miraculously come up with the perfect word at the last moment.


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Messages that Matter: Public Speaking in the Information Age - Third Edition Copyright © 2023 by North Idaho College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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