Are We There Yet? 3 Speed Traps to Speaking

This blog was originally published on Forbes as Are We There Yet? 3 Speed Traps to Speaking on Wednesday, October 18, 2017.

As soon as I heard my new navigation system announce the routing for my trip, I recognized the male voice. It was the same man who greets me whenever I call United Airlines: warm, friendly, conversational and, most of all assured—unlike the characterless robotic voices that I (and you, too) must endure in so many other automated voice systems. As a result, I listened to his guidance instructions with extra attention.

That’s when I noticed his interesting vocal pattern: Every time he provided an update during the route, he ended his phrase abruptly, his voice rising on the last word — a sharp contrast to his confident United Airlines persona: “Continue on El Camino Real for three miles…,” “Continue on El Camino Real for two miles…,” “In 200 feet, turn left…”. But then, when he delivered his last instruction, “You have arrived at your destination,” he said the last word assertively, his inflection dropping.

This pattern works well for guidance systems because it indicates a continuing journey, but works against speakers because a rising inflection pattern produces three negative effects:

• Question At a very basic level, rising inflection indicates a question. To demonstrate, try this: speak this simple phrase, “I had lunch today.” Now say it again, two different ways, first as a question, with your voice rising on the last word, “Did I have lunch today?”, then as a declarative statement, with your voice falling on the last word, “I had lunch today!” 

Do you hear the difference? At this simple level, if a speaker is making an assertion (after all, that’s what presentations are meant to do) then the speaker’s voice must convey — not contradict — the meaning of the words.

But it gets worse…

• Uncertainty Rising inflection sounds tentative and uncertain, the very opposite of assertive. Rising inflection is often associated with the way teenagers speak and so it conveys immaturity in adults. Rising inflection is also known as “uptalk” or “Valley Girl talk,” the frequent target of mockery in television and films.

• Steady stream If a speaker’s speech pattern continues at the same vocal level without breaks, the words string together in a continuous flatline stream, making it difficult for the audience to separate—and process—ideas. Create breaks by dropping your voice at logical points — phrases and sentences — throughout your presentation.

Give your audience (a) breaks! Give them clarity. Guide them to your destination.

You have arrived.

This blog was originally published on Forbes as Are We There Yet? 3 Speed Traps to Speaking on Wednesday, October 18, 2017.

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