4 Ways to Use Your Voice to Hold People’s Attention

Image © Shutterstock

Editor's Note:

Vanessa Van Edwards is the lead investigator at the Science of People – a human behavior research lab. As a published author and speaker she runs original research experiments on topics such as the science of attraction, human lie detection, body language hacks, and other people skills. Her latest book, Captivate: The Science of Succeeding With People, was chosen as one of Apple’s Most Anticipated Books of 2017.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone or given a presentation and watched as people’s attention slowly stopped focusing on you and began drifting elsewhere? It’s a super awkward experience that can leave you feeling like you’re not worthy of being listened to. Chances are, however, it’s not what you said that failed to engage your audience but rather the tone of voice you used.

As a human behavior investigator, I have spent the last ten years studying the Science of People in my human behavior research lab. In my new book, Captivate, I present a completely different approach to interacting with people. I think that everyone has the potential to be highly charismatic and influential – one of the most important skills to do that is being able to speak effectively.

The number one reason why people lose the attention of the people they’re speaking to is because they lack vocal power. Vocal power is when your voice has the energy and strength to make audiences not only hear you, but listen. You can think of it as the difference in voice between someone with severe social anxiety compared to an experienced public speaker.

Vocal power plays an influential role in your ability to capture your audience’s attention because people judge speakers based on their tone more than their verbal content. The research firm Quantified Communications had 1,000 ordinary listeners and ten communication experts evaluate speeches from 120 executives and discovered that voice quality accounted for twenty-three percent of listeners’ perceptions of the speeches; in comparison, the actual words spoken accounted for only eleven percent of listeners’ judgements of the executives.

Here are four ways to increase your vocal power:

Avoid the question inflection.
This is when your voice gets higher at the end of your statements making them sound like questions. For example, if I introduced myself with the question inflection it would sound like “My name is Vanessa?” Instead, you want to make it authoritative by going down at the end of the sentence. “My name is Vanessa.” An easy way to avoid the question inflection is to take a deep breath and begin speaking on the outbreath. This prevents the sudden intake of air that causes your voice to rise.

Let your passion be heard.
Excitement is contagious and when you allow it to fill your voice it commands your audience’s attention and creates vocal variation that makes you more interesting to listen to. This is why people are more likely to be engaged by a high-energy motivational speaker who shares mostly cliché advice than they are by an expert who shares their groundbreaking research with a calculated, monotone voice.

Warning: Don’t fake passion. This strategy works only if you’re talking about something you are genuinely excited about and could reasonably be exciting for your audience.

Practice pausing when you speak.
When people are nervous or if they are naturally fast talkers, they can easily share multiple paragraphs worth of information without taking a break. This causes two problems for the audience: First, it is difficult for them to process so much new information so rapidly, and two, speaking quickly can cause people’s voices to crack because they are not taking in enough oxygen. Both of these issues are an incentive for audiences to tune out. To prevent this, practice pausing for a breath every time you finish a point. This also gives your audience an opportunity to engage by responding to what you said.

Keep the volume of your voice steady.
One of the vocal variations that listeners in the study reported as annoying was people who spoke louder than what is necessary for the situation. Even if it is not the individual’s intent, when we hear someone raise the volume of their voice and/or consistently speak louder than others in the area, we get the impression that they are yelling. In conversations, match the volume level of the people you are speaking with, and in presentations, speak just loudly enough so the people in the back can hear you.