GD
Geodynamics

Presentation skills – 1. Voice

Presentation skills – 1. Voice

Presenting: some people love it, some people hate it. I firmly place myself in the first category and apparently, this presentation joy translates itself into being a good – and confident – speaker. Over the years, quite a few people have asked me for my secrets to presenting (which – immediate full disclosure – I do not have) and this is the result: a running series on the EGU GD Blog that covers my own personal tips and experience in the hope that it will help someone (you?) become a better and – more importantly – more confident speaker. In this first instalment, I discuss everything regarding your voice.

Disregarding the content of your talk (I can’t really help you with that), mastering your voice is an important first step towards presenting well and presenting with (or feigning) confidence. An important thing to always remember, is that your audience doesn’t know how you feel. If you come across as confident, people will perceive you as such, even though you are not necessarily feeling confident yourself. With time, I promise that you will in the end feel at ease and confident in front of an audience.
Using your voice optimally is, obviously very important: it is the one thing people will have to listen to in order to get your message. Therefore, knowing how to use your voice is essential to presenting well. And note that your ‘presenting voice’ doesn’t necessarily need to match up with your ‘normal voice’.

1. Volume

First things first: make sure all people can hear you wherever they are in the room! This is a very basic tip, but one of the most important ones as well: if people can’t hear you, it doesn’t matter how well you present, they won’t understand what you’re talking about, because they literally won’t be able to hear it. Depending on your voice, this will result in one of the following adjustments to get into proper ‘presentation voice mode’:
• You will raise your voice to make sure everyone in the back can clearly hear you. I always do this myself, so my ‘presentation voice’ is always louder than my more natural, soft everyday-talking voice.
• You will lower your voice, so that the people in the first row don’t get blown away: you don’t want your voice to be so loud as to be a nuisance for people sitting close by.

Make sure your voice carries across the room

To test how loudly you need to speak, you can ‘scout’ the room beforehand with a friend. Make sure they stay at the back of the room, and walk up to the front of the room and start talking in your ‘presentation voice’. Can your friend clearly hear everything you say? Then you are good to go. Otherwise, you can adjust and test the volume of your voice according to the comments of your friend. No time/opportunity for a test round of your voice volume? Start your presentation with ‘Can everybody hear me?’ and you’ll soon find out how loud you need to speak.

Help! There is a microphone: now what?!

If there is a microphone available, you should refrain from using your loud presentation voice, because no one wants to go home after a conference with hearing damage. Often, you can test out the microphone shortly before your presentation. Make use of that opportunity, so that you don’t face any surprises! Also, if there is a stationary microphone (i.e., not a headset), make sure to always talk into to the microphone. Adjust it to your height and make sure your voice is optimally picked up by the microphone. It is very tempting to start looking at your slides and turn your head, but that means your voice isn’t optimally picked up by the microphone, which will result in the fact that people in the back can’t hear you! If you alternate speaking into the microphone and turning your head, the sound of your voice during your presentation becomes a rollercoaster of soft-loud-soft-loud. This is very annoying to listen to, so try to avoid this! Having said that, I find this to be one of the hardest things ever, because I’m not used to talking into a stationary microphone… Let’s say practice makes perfect, right?

2. Tonality

It is incredibly boring to listen to someone who speaks in a dull, monotonous voice. No matter how interesting the content of your talk, if you can’t get the excitement and passion for your research across in your voice, chances are that people will start falling asleep during your presentation. And we all know how hard it is to stay awake during even the most animated of presentations, just because of irritating things like jetlag (or trying to finish your own presentation in the dead of the night on the previous evening). Therefore, I suggest practising the tonality of your voice.

Speak with emotion

If you want your audience to feel excited about your research or motivated to collaborate with you, you need to convey those emotions in your voice. Think about what you want your audience to feel and how you can convey that emotion with your voice. For example, if you want people to get excited, you can increase the pitch of your voice to indicate excitement.

Emphasise the right words

Another way of getting rid of a monotonous voice is putting emphasis on the right words, to make your point. Obviously the effect is negated when you overuse this method, but when used in moderation, you can use emphasis on words to get your message across more easily.
You can practice the tonality of your voice all the time: try reading a book out loud, tell a story about your weekend in an animated way, incorporate it in your day-to-day conversations, etc. Try to let your tonality come across as natural (and not over the top) and engaging. Recording your talks and listening back to them or asking comments from friends/family can help when you practice your presentation.

3. Pitch

The pitch of your voice should be pleasant for the audience. Now, of course you can’t (and shouldn’t) change your voice completely, but a very high-pitched, squeaky voice can be very annoying to listen to and a very deep voice can be hard to understand. So, depending on your voice and on what you think people find pleasant, you could consider slightly altering the pitch of your voice.

Don’t worry if your voice gets squeaky, because there is an easy way around it

My voice (and everyone else’s) gets really high-pitched and squeaky when I get excited and presentations make me very excited. So, I always make sure that my presentation voice has an ever-so-slightly lower pitch than my normal speaking voice (and doesn’t get near the high-pitched excitement voice). By lowering the pitch of my voice I (think I) am more clearly understandable and if I do get excited and my pitch increases due to the emotion in my voice, it is still at a very manageable and pleasant pitch, so no-one gets a headache on my watch.

Bearing these tips in mind, you can start honing your perfect presentation voice. Next time, we will start using our voice and tackle the subject of speech!

Iris van Zelst
Iris van Zelst is a PhD student at ETH Zürich in Switzerland. She is working on the modelling of tsunamigenic earthquakes using a range of interdisciplinary modelling approaches, such as geodynamic, dynamic rupture, and tsunami modelling. Current research projects include splay fault propagation in subduction zones and the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman earthquake. Iris is Editor-in-chief of the GD blog team. You can reach Iris via email. For more details, please visit Iris' personal webpage.