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It’s not the voice, it’s the message!

Posted on: July 29th, 2012

Presentations: It’s not the voice, it’s the message!Speaking

A real estate agent taking courses on public speaking wrote me for advice saying, “…I need help with my speech (voice) both with tone and volume.”

I told him, “When it comes to powerful communicating, it’s not the voice, it’s the message!” 

I will stipulate immediately that voice lessons can correct serious deficiencies. They helped me reduce lazy speech habits, and were useful. Having said that, I believe misplaced concerns about voice often send speakers, presenters, and even broadcasters on a wild goose chase. I know. It happened to me. Perhaps I can help you avoid the trap.

I spent most of my career in broadcasting pre-occupied with the sound of my own voice. I did not like it. Although people often complimented me on it, I was defensive for not having the deep “pipes” of a Cronkite or Brokaw. Hardly a day passed without my thinking about it. In retrospect that worry was one part lack of voice training, one part insecurity, and five parts a complete misunderstanding of what my mission really was. Not until late in my television career did I realize that when I did what I was supposed to – anchor and report television news with genuine intellectual and emotional understanding – my voice was quite fine. It ran on automatic and took care of itself.

I am getting ahead of myself. First, some personal history, and as you read the anecdotes, ask yourself if you too are missing the real point of your speeches and presentations.

The May 5th Storm

After this vicious 1989 windstorm leveled thousands of trees in our area, destroyed property, and knocked out electrical service, I anchored hours of nonstop news coverage on television the following morning. Later while watching tapes of the broadcasts, I was fascinated to see that my delivery was much more effective than my usual evening newscasts. My typical newscasts sometimes contained self-conscious gesturing, overly loud speaking, and a certain stiff reserve. Conversely, the storm anchoring was relaxed, natural, low-key, and authentic. “Why the difference?” I asked myself. On reflection the answer was clear.

The lesson: My absorption in the storm coverage and what needed to be done superceded all thoughts of how to perform. Any pretense of what good anchoring ought to be fell away as reality took over. Genuine conversation replaced mannered announcing. The lesson for all of us is that when we concentrate on what truly matters – the message – then the delivery of it is usually automatic and takes care of itself.

Another revelation came not from television, but from one of my occasional speeches.

“My voice is shot, my speech is doomed!”

During those days of voice preoccupation, my obsession once threatened an approaching Rotary Club speech. Already tense, my throat was unusually tight. It felt as though someone had his hands around my neck. Casual conversations were a strain. I worried whether I would be able to speak at all. As my introducer read his comments and I stood to approach the podium, I was panicky. “Would I overcome this seemingly paralyzed throat?”

Imagine my astonishment about ten minutes later in the midst of delivering my well-rehearsed presentation. My voice was functioning beautifully. No longer constricted, it was resonant, enthusiastic, varying in volume, and completely relaxed. The speech was zinging. The throat trouble had vanished. As with the May 5th Storm, again the message was self-evident.

The lesson: Once I immersed myself in the speech, the voice took care of itself. When my concentration shifted from my vocal chords to the stories and messages I wanted passionately to convey, my body ran on automatic. The lesson for all of us, once more, is that when we focus on what matters – the important information we want to deliver – then our technical skills tend to fall into line.

Now an exercise that should help you see once and for all what your chief concern should be in delivering persuasive speeches and presentations.

Finding the natural speaker inside of you

I coach executives on giving reassuring media interviews, not delivering speeches. Nevertheless, when clients insist that I help them with speeches, I have used this simple yet revealing exercise.

This is usually best done with a small group. Each person must think about an emotional event in his or her life. Whether positive or negative, it must be an episode so compelling that they could easily describe it to anyone without notes or rehearsal.

Then each member of the group takes five to ten minutes to tell the rest about this singular experience. Sometimes sad, usually joyful, these tales are always passionate. The impromptu presentations are a wonder. The speakers often begin standing stiffly, perhaps holding the back of a chair. After a minute or so, they are transformed. Their most personal message envelopes them, enthusiasm wells up, hands fly descriptively in the air without calculation, bodies sway, faces animate, voices soar and whisper. Significantly, the listeners are transfixed.

Afterward, we examine why each anecdote worked and how each speaker told the tale. Typically, the speakers cannot recall what they did. Their messages transported them beyond concern for technique. Each person – extroverted or introverted – was a compelling speaker. Persuasive speech techniques were effortless and inherent without forethought and instruction. The gift was already there.

The lesson: When you know what you want to say so well that it is second nature, and if you connect with your message with passion, then the techniques tend to take care of themselves. It’s not the voice, it’s the message.

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