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, together with the help of some of my amazing Make Your Mark Ambassadors, we’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, we thought this the ideal time to examine five top TED talks from women.
We 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.
This interview from tennis icon, Billie Jean King, is the choice of Make Your Mark Ambassador, Ally Hogg. He’s selected this talk to illustrate how King harnesses speed to give her 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 her seat and adjusts her posture as she enters 0:20-0:23. It isn’t until 1:12-1:18 that we see what her readjustment does for her. She’s planted her feet firmly, which is grounding her. That means she’s not going to topple when she leans into the conversation. The position King has adopted here is what’s known as ‘BBC’ - Bum, Back of Chair. This position allows King’s spine to lengthen, enabling her lungs and diaphragm to expand, which gives her fuller control of her breath.
The speed of her speech is generally slow enough throughout that we can catch all her words, yet it’s peppered with strong use of pause, which further slows her pace and punctuates her words – for example at 1:26-1:46.
She also varies her pace to create a shift in emotion. Pick it up at between 3:22-3:47 to hear this pace change. Notice too how she combines this with a softening of her 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 master.
King uses short, sharp, sentences in different places to make what she says vocally interesting. At 14:22-14:29 she does 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…”
"For so many reasons Billie Jean King is a standout and influential woman. What I love about this talk is the connection she makes with the audience, she’s so conversational, you genuinely believe she’d be having this very same conversation with you if you met her in the street."
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 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.
A great example of a speaker with strong intonation is the choice of my Make Your Mark Ambassador, Emily Mason, who selects Ruth Chang’s talk ‘How to make hard choices’.
Chang opens her talk 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.
"Chang skilfully mixes a strong use of intonation, volume, pace and pause to captivate and hold attention. Her body language and hand gestures also bring and mirror the energy of her words. There’s a great example of that at 3:09. Chang doesn’t leave us in any doubt that she’s passionate about her life’s work and what I love is her commitment, confidence and credibility."
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”.
This talk is the pick of space and science loving Make Your Mark Ambassador, Kirsty Mitchell. Kirsty says:
“Even when speaking softly Cady’s audible throughout. And there’s something special about her energy. It’s visual as well as audible, but how she finishes every word and sentence just makes you want to listen. I don’t hear her ‘telling’ me anything, I hear her ‘talking’ to me, in an interesting way, like she would a friend.”
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.
With special thanks to contributing Make Your Mark Ambassadors, Ally Hogg, Emily Mason and Kirsty Mitchell for making this piece possible. They are still so young, yet already have the insights to appreciate the voices of others and the knowledge to maximise their own as an instrument to create lasting impact.
Susan Room is a former corporate leader, turned voice and executive coach. She was writing in support of International Women’s Day in March 2022. #IWD2022 One of the rare few qualified to provide voice and executive coaching, her unique approach and her Make Your Mark programme now sees her help others feel, look and sound confident – improving performance and happiness at work.