Criteria for Success

  1. The words you say are clear and can be understood.
  2. Your vocal elements, such as tone, inflections, pace, and pauses, keep your audience engaged.

Identify your purpose

Verbal communication is used to share information. Speech can supplement a presentation (see Slideshows and Posters) or may be the entire talk (see Elevator Pitch). Independent of content, how you speak influences how your message is received.

Poorly delivered speech is a barrier to information transfer. Working on the verbal aspects of your public speaking will help you lower that barrier and more effectively communicate with your audience.

Analyze your audience

Your audience is hearing and processing what you say at the same time. Sometimes they’re also looking at your slides, your poster, or their phone. Tailor your delivery—volume, rate, and vocal inflection—to make it easy for them to follow along. Limit distractions like filler words or mumbling that interrupt and detract from your message. This will help your audience stay engaged with your presentation despite the distractions surrounding them.

Not all audiences need the same delivery to stay engaged. Just as you vary the technical vocabulary you use for an expert versus lay audience, you can similarly adjust your rate and use of pauses, giving ae less familiar audience more time to process and understand your content. The formality of your presentation will affect how tone and vocal inflections are received. For example, playful or interactive vocal inflections are better received in an informal setting compared to a formal presentation. When preparing for a presentation, think about the needs and expectations of your audience.


Speak at an appropriate volume for your environment

Speaking too quietly or loudly can distract your audience and prevent them from understanding your message. You should speak so that you can be heard clearly by anyone in your audience. There is no one-size-fits-all volume that accomplishes this goal: you should speak differently when giving your elevator pitch to someone in front of you than you would when presenting in a lecture hall.

Practice with your friends or colleagues and ask them if you’re too quiet or loud. Before a presentation, they can go to different locations in a room and help you find the volume that allows everyone to hear you.

If you have a soft or quieter voice, you can ask the organizers at your event to give you a microphone. Be sure to test your volume with the microphone and be aware of it during your presentation so you maintain a consistent sound. To prepare for future presentations, you can also train your vocal cords through practice to help you speak louder and project better.

Speak clearly, at a rate comfortable for your audience

Being able to hear your presentation isn’t enough: your audience also needs to understand it. Clearly enunciated words spoken at a digestible rate will allow your audience to follow along, while mumbling and speaking too fast will leave your audience struggling to keep up. All words should be pronounced clearly, completely, and at a pace that makes them intelligible. If you have a strong accent or are speaking to an international audience, careful pronunciation will help your message reach your audience.

Practice saying difficult words so you’re prepared to say them confidently and correctly. Techniques from music and theater are useful practice tools:

  • Try biting a pencil while saying a difficult word, as this forces your tongue and throat to enunciate, rather than just your lips and jaw.
  • If you struggle with a complex sentence, repeat the sentence each time emphasizing a different word to get more comfortable with pronouncing each part.

Your pace also affects enunciation: it’s easier to say “flux balance analysis” when you’re speaking slowly than when you’re speaking too fast. It’s hard to self-assess what rate you’re speaking at. Practice with someone or record yourself in order to find the right pace.

Strategically alter your delivery to keep your audience engaged

Keeping audience members interested in a 60-second pitch or 60-minute keynote requires more than just audible, intelligible speech: it requires storytelling. By varying the rate and pitch of your delivery—and by including timely pauses—you can use your voice to keep your audience engaged.

Altering delivery comes naturally when telling jokes or stories to friends, and you can use the same strategies when presenting. As an example, think about how you would tell this joke:

“Have you seen the new microbiologist? Man, is he small!”

  • The first sentence is the set-up. It must be clear, otherwise the joke won’t make sense. Delivering it slowly and firmly draws attention to it while allowing your audience time to process what you’re saying.
  • Ending with a rise in pitch signals that it is a question, and tells your audience that they should try to think of the answer.
  • Pausing before the punchline gives them time to predict what the answer is, creating expectation.
  • When the punchline is finally delivered as a statement or exclamation, the difference between their expectation and the answer provides humor.

When used correctly, rate and pitch help communicate information such as importance and emotion. However, it’s easy for delivery quirks to become distracting to an audience. Try recording yourself and only listening to the audio to identify distracting habits. You can also try transcribing your recording to identify repetitive vocal patterns such as filler words. Practice will help you build new habits and enhance your storytelling abilities.

Additional Resources