A communications analytics company studied 120 executives’ speeches. Researchers then collected feedback from over 1,00 listeners and found that the speaker’s voice mattered more to the audience than the content of the speeches. And by nearly twice as much. I don’t know about you, but I find that statistic startling. It reminds me that speakers should be paying just as much, if not more, attention to developing their vocal qualities as they do to developing their content.
One of the important elements of vocal quality that doesn’t get much attention is volume—how loud or soft a speaker’s voice is. In most cases, speakers struggle with speaking loud enough. Sometimes the reason for this is that they lack confidence in their abilities or ideas. If you think that’s the case for your quiet voice, you might want to read more about presentation anxiety. You can find helpful information for building your confidence in some of our other blog posts.
Other times, speakers don’t use volume correctly because they just don’t think about it or haven’t been taught to how to use it. If that’s the case for you, the following three tips will help you find the right volume when you speak.
Strengthen Your Lungs
The first thing we need to understand is that a speaker’s volume is tied directly to his or her lung capacity. If you don’t have proper breath support, you can’t speak loudly. Dr. Christopher Chang says, “The lungs are what gives power to a voice. Weak lungs = weak voice.” In order to illustrate the connection between volume and lung strength, Dr. Chang uses the following exercise.
- Inhale deeply.
- Now try to yell loudly without taking a breath in.
It’s nearly impossible. So how can you strengthen your lungs? You can start by getting regular aerobic exercise. The American Heart Association recommends between 75-150 minutes per week. You can also try breathing exercises which increase your lung capacity. The “rib stretch” is an easy one to start with.
“Standing upright, expel all the air from your lungs. Slowly breathe in, expanding your lungs to maximum capacity. Hold the air for as long as 20 seconds. While counting, rest both hands on your hips, thumbs facing front with pinkies touching in the small of your back. Release the air slowly and relax. Repeat three more times.”
Match Volume to Setting & Content
Another way you can improve vocal quality is to adjust your volume depending on both the setting you are in and the tone of the content you are speaking about. Setting involves things like the size of the room and the size of the audience. For rooms that are smaller, your volume won’t need to be as loud. But in large rooms you’ll need to project your voice by filling your lungs with air as discussed above and pushing out lots of sound. Also, make sure you are speaking at a volume that is appropriate given the number of people in the audience. In a more intimate setting of just a few people, a loud volume would probably seem out of place.
You’ll also want to match the volume of your voice to the tone of your content. A quieter voice might communicate something very tender or serious. A louder voice might express urgency or strong emotion. This might also involve lowering or raising your pitch because pitch affects volume. According to the National Center for Voice and Speech, “perceived ‘loudness’ varies according to pitch, because the human ear is not uniformly sensitive to all frequencies. For instance, the ear is most sensitive to pitches in the 1000-3000Hz range. Lower or higher pitches, even if sung/produced at the same volume, will sound softer by comparison.” As you practice your presentation, try varying your volume as your content tone changes.
Watch for Audience Feedback
The audience will normally give very clear signals if your volume is not appropriate, so watch for feedback. If you are too loud, you might see people in the first few rows lean back, cover their ears, or make wincing facial expressions. More commonly, speakers aren’t loud enough. In this case, you might see people in the back rows leaning forward to hear better. Or you might catch that someone has a hand cupped over her ear to give you a clear signal that you aren’t loud enough. And if you are getting unclear feedback from the back rows, it’s okay to ask the audience if they can hear you. It’s better to correct it early on than to give a presentation in which you can’t be heard clearly.
As you work to improve your presentation skills, don’t forget that your vocal volume is a tool that you can use to be a more effective speaker. Think about strengthening your lungs, fitting your volume to your room size and content type, and using audience feedback to make adjustments the next time you speak.
Want to learn how to get results every time you speak? Check out our online presentation skills course. We’d love to share with you the proven formulas used by some of the best in the world.