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Want to deliver a stand out speech? The secret isn't what you say but how you say it.

Updated: Mar 10, 2023

Speeches have altered the course of history. The words themselves are important, of course, but to capture the imagination a great speech must go beyond ‘what you say’ to embrace ‘how you say it’.

While very few speeches are momentous enough to alter the course of history, what you say and how you say it can determine the course of your life.

So, as today is World Speech Day - designed to celebrate speeches, speechmaking and unexpected voices – I’m sharing some insights into what makes speeches stand out and why ‘how you say something’ is as important as

what you say ’.

World Speech Day is celebrated in the UK on 16th March 2020


How you say something greatly determines whether others buy into your words.

Research by respected social psychologist, Amy Cuddy, in her Harvard Business Review article ‘Connect, then lead’ shows we are quick to judge people, and that the decisions we make about them are based on two main characteristics. The first is how 'lovable' they are (their warmth and trustworthiness). The second is how 'fearsome' they are (their strength and competence). We make those judgments in a matter of moments when someone speaks.

Your voice is unique to you. It’s as different to the next person’s as your fingerprints. But unlike your prints, which don’t alter, there are techniques you can use to change how you sound - and subsequently how others perceive you.

How we perceive voice is determined by a blend of different elements. So, before you’ve ‘spilt’ any words from your lips, think about these five things and how you can use them to be more impactful.


The rate of your speech is important. Too fast and people may not understand you or miss key points. Too slow and they might switch off. It’s a delicate balance but varying your pace is a great way to keep people engaged because you will be more interesting to listen to. Pace can be used to great rhetorical effect. Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech began at 92 words per minute and ended at 145. And look what happened.


Pitch conveys emotion. Too high and you may be considered less competent, trustworthy and capable. There’s credible research from Duke University that shows CEOs with deeper voices earn more money, manage bigger firms and enjoy longer tenures, and from Leiden University that lowering pitch may make you feel more powerful and think more abstractly. But beware: while lowering their voice pitch can make women sound authoritative, it can also result in their crossing the ‘aggression line’. There are two simple ways to find your natural, lower pitch. The first is humming and the second is to release tension in the body because tension causes the larynx (voice box) to rise, and, with it, pitch.


Intonation is the musicality of the voice: the way it rises and falls (patterns of pitch). How you use intonation determines enormously how much others listen. Too monotone and they might switch off (because they're bored). Too much singsong and they might get irritated and tune out (unless, of course, you’re reading to a child). And at all costs avoid 'uptalking' – that’s when someone ends nearly every sentence with a question. 'Uptalking' suggests you are unsure of yourself and why would anyone believe what you say if you don’t? To convey confidence and certainty use falling intonation when finishing your sentences.


If your voice is as quiet as a mouse you’ll be seen as one: under-confident and ready to scarper at the slightest noise. Speak too loudly though and you may be seen as aggressive. Neither works to your advantage. Yet, having coached quietly spoken and overly loud individuals, I know how hard it is to adjust speech volume. The key is to learn from others' reactions. And to ensure you're audible. Audibility is as much about vocal energy as it is about volume. By vocal energy I mean committing to your words and speaking them as if your voice were an arrow flying towards a bull’s eye. Whatever your volume, start and finish your utterances with equal commitment and energy.


As Anne Karpf tells us in her wonderful book ‘The Human Voice: the story of a remarkable talent’, ‘…the ear has a repertoire of between 300,000 and 400,000 distinguishable tones of voice.’ Tone of voice indicates your attitude to your words (as does pitch). Research suggests that “speakers can produce attitude changes in their listeners that outlast the moment and allow their message to have a long-term influence on listener behaviour.” Try it. Say the word ‘really’ in five different tones: sad, happy, surprised, disgusted, angry. Same word but, depending on the tone you pick, it will be received very differently. The takeaway? Use tone of voice wisely and creatively.


Everybody’s voice is unique but not everybody’s voice gets heard. By finessing how you blend these five vocal elements, you’ll increase your ability to give a standout speech. That’s what results in more ‘unexpected voices’ being heard. And, if you want to see how some of the best standout speakers beautifully combine these five elements of voice, there’s no better place to look than at ‘The most popular 25 TED talks of all time’.

Susan Room is a former corporate leader, turned coach. She was writing in support of #WorldSpeechDay and the call for more #UnexpectedVoices on 16th March 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.

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