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5 vocal techniques to learn from some of TED's top female speakers

Updated: Feb 27

Aren’t TED talks amazing? It’s not just the content that captivates us, it’s how speakers share it; their storytelling, their body language and, critically, the way they use their voice.

While we can’t replicate exactly how someone sounds (our voices are as individual as our fingerprints), we can replicate the vocal techniques they use to maximise our own impact.

These techniques can be hard to spot when we’re absorbed in a great talk. That’s why I've selected five fantastic TED talks to pinpoint how each speaker uses one of five different elements of voice to best effect.

This acronym is helpful for remembering each of the five vocal elements: SPILT. So, before any words are SPILT from your lips think:

Speed, Pitch, Intonation, Loudness and Tone.

As March marks International Women’s Day, I thought this the ideal time to examine five top TED talks from women.


I use each speaker to highlight how they incorporate a different vocal technique. These speakers are women, but you don’t need to be a woman to replicate the techniques they employ - anyone who wants to enhance their vocal impact can benefit.


Speed


This interview from tennis icon, Billie Jean King illustrates how they harness speed to convey excitement and vocal variety.



What’s great about this talk is that King is giving an interview. That’s a whole different dynamic to the classic TED style talk - as anyone who has ever been a conference panellist will know.

Just look at how King takes their seat and adjusts their posture as they enter 0:20-0:23. It isn’t until 1:12-1:18 that we see what the readjustment does for them. They've planted their feet firmly to ground themself. That means they're not going to topple when leaning into the conversation. The position King has adopted here is what’s known as ‘BBC’ - Bum, Back of Chair. This position allows their spine to lengthen, and their lungs and diaphragm to expand, giving them fuller control of their breath.

The speed of King's speech is generally slow enough throughout that we can catch all their words, yet it’s peppered with strong use of pause, further slowing the pace and punctuating the words – for example at 1:26-1:46.

They also vary their pace to create a shift in emotion. Pick it up at between 3:22-3:47 to hear this pace change. Notice too how King combines this with a softening of volume when speaking the words “and now I have a daughter”. Combining different vocal elements can be hugely powerful and is something many strong speakers do skilfully.


King uses short, sharp, sentences in different places to make what they say vocally interesting. At 14:22-14:29 they do this well by also employing the rule of three – a powerful rhetorical device commonly used by great speakers: “…To listen to these different woman, to listen to different people, to listen to President Carter…


Pitch


My perception of Joan Rosenberg’s average pitch in her TEDx talk 'The Gifted Wisdom of Unpleasant Feelings' is that it’s quite low for a woman.



There’s credible research to suggest that lower pitched voices convey greater competence and leadership capability than higher ones. But what’s interesting about those findings is that pitch is entirely perceptual so what’s pleasing to your ear may be unpleasant to mine.

With that in mind I’ve not selected this TEDx talk because Rosenberg’s pitch sounds low to me, but because she offers a lovely example of how you can effectively use pitch to create vocal interest.

Listen in at 0:52, then notice how she adjusts her pitch at 0:57 - as she impersonates her colleague. Keep watching and notice what she does between 1:01-1:04. She’s using her body language to draw you into her story but she’s also sharing a speaking secret, pausing her speech and visibly taking a deep breath. Just notice how much control that gives her over that next word at 1:05 ‘wow’.

Rosenberg also uses pitch to convey her emotion. Hear how she elevates it between 2:22-2:35 when she shares her excitement about unpleasant feelings.

In addition to illustrating pitch, Rosenburg employs numerous other vocal and body language tactics to great impact between 5:17-5:31. At 5:19 for example, notice how her body language mirrors her words? She’s leaning right in when she talks about staying fully present. And she says ‘present’ with wonderful vocal energy. At 5:26 she drops her volume to almost a whisper, before raising it again, together with her intonation between 5:28-5:31.


Rosenburg’s talk is such a masterclass on how to give a great talk. It’s because she gets that right, that we hear her content – and who doesn’t want to learn how to deal with unpleasant feelings, so they no longer hold us back?


Intonation


Intonation is about the musicality of voice. The way your voice rises and falls, known as patterns of pitch, determines enormously how much others listen. We tend to switch off when a voice is too monotone or sing song.

In her talk ‘How to make hard choices’, Ruth Chang uses varies her intonation to great effect.



She opens with a strong mix of rising and falling intonation. She’s doing so to emphasise the choices we make between two things: This or that (0:14-0:19). "Think of a hard choice you’ll face in the near future. It might be between two careers – artist and accountant". If you keep listening to 0:22, you can hear she’s repeating that similar pattern of intonation.

Then at 0:22-0:28 Chang breaks that pattern to position her next sentence as a question. Notice on screen how she even visually reinforces that with a question mark? Questions are the perfect place to hear rising intonation and her use of it here reflects the uncertainty we might face when asking ourselves questions to make hard choices.

Questions, as Chang demonstrates, can be a great rhetorical device and bring vocal variety. Rising intonation when posing a question is a natural speech pattern. What isn’t is excessive “uptalking”. That’s when your intonation frequently rises at the end of a sentence to make it sound as though you are asking a question – even when it’s not one. Uptalking can undermine how others perceive your confidence. Yet it’s the frequency rather than its use at all that becomes problematic. Uptalking when used thoughtfully does have useful applications.

Chang uses a lot of falling intonation in her talk especially at the end of her sentences. This technique helps her convey authority. You can hear an example of her voice falling and then remaining low towards the end of her sentence at 1:00-1:06.

Chang peppers her talk with light humour. We hear the audience laugh in multiple places but pick it up at 3:14-3:35. Her rising intonation makes her humour gently obvious and breathes life into her words. It’s her mix of rising and falling intonation that helps engage her audience and gives confidence to her words.

Loudness (volume)



Can’t you just tell how much this trip to the International Space Station meant to Cady Coleman? She’s drawing us into her story from the outset with her clever use of volume.

Volume doesn’t always need to increase to be powerful. Pick it up at 0:13-0:19 to listen to how she drops her volume to almost whisper the words ‘in space’.

As she helps us visualise what it was like to take off in the Soyuz capsule, listen not only to how her volume increases (3,2,1 lift off), but also to how her pace quickens (faster and faster and faster) between 0:47-1:01. She’s offering brilliant insight here into how powerful it is when what you say aligns with how you say it.

Coleman does this too frequently for it to be chance. If you keep listening from 1:01-1:09 you can hear how she employs the use of silence for dramatic effect, before the word “ka-bunk”.

Tone


Like pitch, tone conveys our attitude to our words and to others. For example, our tone might be warm, abrupt, sarcastic or angry.

I’ve selected this wonderful TEDx talk by Vanessa Van Edwards, not only because it offers some great examples of tone but also because of what she’s speaking about – what makes a great TED talk!



To get a sense of her good use of tone first though, start watching from 1:16. Are we left in any doubt when she says the word ‘shoes’ at 1:32 that her tone is anything other than warm? Isn’t it that tone and her body language that follows (until 1:39) that leaves us feeling she’s open, fun, and approachable?

Contrast this with her change in tone between 2:12-2:32. Listen to the way she says, ‘you get more and more distracted because you don’t see them’ (2:25) and ‘can’t she just bring her hands off from behind her back?’ (2:30). The frustration in her tone is palpable and mirrors the frustration of her words.

The research Edwards and her team carried out, which led to her giving this TED talk is fascinating. In this talk she shares their findings for why it is some TED talks go viral and others don’t. With her talk viewed 3.5 million times, it certainly seems she’s identified some secret worth us knowing – probably worth watching this one in full!

So, there you have it. Five elements of voice illustrated by five TED talks. What I notice all these super speakers have in common is that they each elegantly combine all five vocal elements to connect and create a conversational style. In doing so what they each secretly share is that giving a top talk isn’t about talking at someone, it’s about talking to them.


It means giving a great talk is never only about what you say, critically it’s also about how you say it.





If you're eager to help your team improve their spoken communication skills, why book me to run a Make Your Mark event or Business Voice Masterclass for them? 

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