5 things great TED speakers secretly share about giving a top talk
Ever wondered why we find certain speakers so engaging? Want to better understand what they’re doing with their voice so you can do likewise? Then this article is for you.
Today is Professional Speakers Day, so I thought it the ideal time to examine five fantastic TED talks to pinpoint how each speaker uses a different vocal element to best effect.
There are five elements to your voice and what helps me remember them is this acronym SPILT: That's Speed, Pitch, Intonation, Loudness and Tone.
So when preparing to give a talk, and long before any words are ‘SPILT’ from your lips, it’s worth thinking about these five things and how they can be used to maximise your vocal and personal impact:
One of the best examples I’ve ever seen that demonstrates speed of speech is Tom Nash’s ‘The perks of being a pirate’.
This is a poignant talk from beginning to end. It’s hard not to fall in love with Tom as a speaker because his resilience is both extraordinary and inspiring. But it’s the way he enfolds his messages in humour and his brilliant use of comic timing that make him and what he says so compelling.
Now humour isn’t for everyone (indeed employing it can go horribly wrong), so I’m not suggesting you need use it. But, what you can do, and what Tom is secretly sharing in this talk, is how to vary pace and use pause to great effect. I’d invite you to listen between 05.42 and 06.19. In these 37 short seconds you’ll hear a beautiful illustration of varying pace and a brilliantly executed use of pause.
Notice how he speeds up when cracking jokes and slows down when delivering significant points? This helps him capture attention and powerfully connect with his audience.
Credible research suggests that lower pitched voices convey greater competence and leadership capability than higher ones. What’s interesting though is that pitch is entirely perceptual so what’s pleasing to your ear may be unpleasant to mine.
My perception of this next speaker’s average pitch is that it’s quite low for a woman, but I’ve selected Amanda Palmer and her talk ‘The art of asking’ not because her pitch is low but for the elegant way she uses pitch to convey emotion. I’d like to draw your attention to how she does that between 08:46 and 09.45.
Then listen to the way she says the word ‘economists’ at 02:35 – it’s an excellent example of using pitch to stress and draw attention to a word.
If you want to find your own natural, lower pitch then Amanda also shares a secret to help you do it before she utters a word. Watch how she prepares herself to speak. She takes her time, owns her space, then takes a deep breath.
As a singer, Amanda is trained in breath control, but anyone can learn techniques to replicate what she’s doing here – grounding herself and breathing deeply to release tension from her body. Tension is unwelcome as a singer or speaker because it causes your larynx (voice box) to rise and, with it, your pitch.
This vocal element is all about the melody of speech – how your voice rises and falls. A lovely illustration can be heard in Özlem Cekic’s ‘Why I have coffee with people who send me hate mail.
Just listen between 14.06 and 15:12 to hear Özlem’s falling intonation at the end of her sentences. Notice how that helps her convey certainty and authority?
And when sharing her stories, what Özlem is secretly showing here is how you can vary intonation to bring a story to life, like you might do to hold the attention of a child you are reading to.
Now Özlem is Turkish/Danish and presenting in English, so this musicality in her voice is particularly impressive. English intonation is one of the hardest things to master for many non-native speakers. If you’re struggling with that now, know that you are not alone and that there are ways to learn.
It can be hard to adjust the volume of your speech but if you want to know why it’s worth persevering, then look no further than the late Rita Pierson who in 2013 gave this amazing talk: ‘Every kid needs a champion’.
For me, her volume mirrors her conviction and confidence, which captivates her audience. She also brilliantly contrasts her volume, with loudness juxtaposed with poignant moments of quietness.
What Rita also shows us is fabulous vocal energy – meaning she puts effort into every word she utters. This energetic commitment throughout conveys how much she cares about her words and her message and it’s what makes her and her call to action so utterly compelling.
My favourite sentence comes in at 04:16, but pick it up at 3:57 and listen until 4:21 to really get the full impact of how she uses volume to its fullest effect.
Like pitch, tone conveys our attitude to our words and to others. For example, our tone might be warm, abrupt, sarcastic or angry. One of the most beautiful illustrations of tone (as well as many other things) is George Monbiot’s: ‘For more wonder rewild the world’.
George is a journalist so his fantastic word choices paint vivid pictures in the minds of his audience. Within a single sentence he has an ability to transport you into his world. ‘I found myself scratching at the walls of life, as if trying to find a way out into a wider space beyond,’ is just one example. But it’s the way he marries his word choices with his tone choices that is so impressive. This powerful alignment between what he says and how he says it leaves no room for doubt about his passion and commitment.
Indeed, he does it so well that in his book The official TED guide to public speaking, Chris Anderson, Head of TED, gives George’s talk special mention. Anderson says: ‘Almost every word he [George] utters is crafted with a different layer of tone and meaning behind it’.
So there you have it, the five elements of voice and what you can learn from other great speakers to maximise your vocal and personal impact.
I hope you’re taking away something to put into practice and the reminder that, as these speakers secretly demonstrate, presenting is never only about what you say it’s also hugely about how you say it.
Susan Room is a former corporate leader, turned coach. She was writing in support of #ProfessionalSpeakersDay on 7th August 2020. One of the rare few qualified to provide voice and executive coaching, her unique approach now sees her help others feel, look and sound confident – improving performance and happiness at work. www.susanroom.com