Vocal tricks for speakers to sound smarter and more composed

Jitters can undermine a presentation. It’s not just that nervousness causes stammering and forgetfulness; it strains your vocal cords and makes you race through. Wise up, and calm down.


You’re standing in the wings, getting ready to go on stage to give an important speech.

If you’re like most people, you’re a little nervous. Well, OK, maybe you’re more than a little nervous. Maybe you’re terrified, and maybe you’re asking yourself: How do I sound more intelligent, confident, dominant, and attractive than I really am in order to win over this audience?

Fortunately for you, Susan M. Hughes, from the Department of Psychology at Albright College, has carried out a neat little research study to help you do exactly that.

The results are more nuanced and surprising than you might expect.

Let’s say you want to sound more intelligent. Simply speak more slowly. We’ve all noticed the speakers who rarely pause for breath, filling up all the available airwaves with their talk, as if afraid of having the microphone taken away from them. Well, apparently, we rate that torrent of sound as a lack of expertise, rather than a sign of it. So, to increase the estimations of your IQ by the audience, slow down, build in pauses, and breathe. In addition, talking a little louder also appears to help to make you sound more intelligent.

What about confidence? There’s a difference between men and women here: To sound more confident, both men and women talk louder, but men move the pitch of their voices higher, and women go lower.

Then there’s dominance. Not surprisingly, perhaps, louder and slower helps here, too, for both men and women. The main difference from confidence comes in that both sexes’ voices are perceived to be more dominant when they are made lower.

Finally, attractiveness is easier for one gender than the other. Women make themselves sound more attractive by lowering their voices and making them sound huskier. The same move is not available to men, however; neither sex thinks men are more attractive if they make their voices lower. (That’s good news for tenors.)

In sum, you can improve the way people rate the intelligence and dominance of your voice, man or women, by speaking more loudly, slowly and with a lower pitch. Confidence is the outlier for men, requiring a higher voice.

There’s a further challenge when thinking about the voice as an instrument for projecting your power to an audience. That is implied by the scenario at the start of this post: your nerves. One less obvious result of stage fright is that you tense up your vocal cords, which pushes your voice higher and makes you talk faster. You need to overcome, therefore, that natural tendency, thanks to performance anxiety, to talk too fast and with a squeaky voice.

Here’s a simple trick to fight this problem. Record a few snippets of yourself talking normally, in conversation, on your mobile phone. Then, when you get ready to go on stage, play that brief recording in your ear. The sound of your own voice, relaxed, will help you calm down and get your pitch right.

Then, breathe deeply, walk out on stage, and—taking your time—start speaking in a voice loud enough to tell the whole room that you’ve got this.

Nick Morgan is a communication theorist, author and coach. A version of this post first ran on Public Words.

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