My students had been chatting in between speeches like they normally did. Discussing weekend plans, complaining about upcoming assignments, or exchanging campus gossip. I called Mark to the front of the room for his speech. Mark was usually someone who kept us all laughing. He added warmth to our classroom community and encouraged his classmates. But we sensed before he began talking that something was different today. He waited for a few seconds for the classroom whispers to fall silent. Then he began with a slow, deep voice and said with a furrowed brow, “You probably think young, black men like myself are free today. But we aren’t.” In just a few seconds, Mark had set the tone for his speech. We knew this message was highly personal and important. And we listened intently as he went on to explain lingering stereotypes and the specific ways they affect him and how we could be part of the solution.
Great speakers know how to set the tone for the message that will follow in a matter of seconds. Setting the tone is a way of connecting your delivery to your content. It tells the audience what to expect in the upcoming message. If you don’t set the right tone, the audience might feel confused and betrayed, even angry. Imagine if your supervisor started a company meeting with a smile and light-hearted joke and then gradually proceeded to tell the employees that layoffs in the upcoming months were inevitable. Imagine how the mismatch of tone and content would affect the audience members’ feelings. Setting an appropriate tone is an important way of managing the connections between speaker, message, and audience. But how do you do it? Let’s discuss three specific factors that can help you effectively set the tone for your next presentation: rate, pitch, and facial expression.
The rate at which you speak tells a lot to the audience. In most cases, you don’t want to talk about something serious and use a fast rate of speech because we usually perceive a fast rate of speech to mean the speaker is excited about the message. It builds energy. If you have to cover something serious, a slower rate of speech would be more appropriate to the tone you want to set. In a study of 9 popular TED talks, Six Minutes found that the average rate of speech was 163 words per minute. You can see the results of the study below. So, you can use that as a benchmark for how fast you’d like to talk depending on the content you are delivering and the tone you’d like to set.
The pitch of your voice refers to how high or low on a musical scale you speak. When we are excited or happy, it is natural for our pitch to raise slightly. When we are sad or serious, it is natural for the pitch of our voice to be a little lower. A study on the human voice in The Journal of Natural Science says, “We can also signal differences in emotion . . . [by] altering our pitch range. ‘Yes,’ said with a pitch falling from high in the speaker’s pitch range to low signals more enthusiasm than a ‘yes’ said on a narrower pitch range, with a pitch falling from the middle of speaker’s pitch range to low.” Try matching the pitch of your voice to the content of your message, especially in the beginning of your presentation as you are working to set the tone.
You should also match your facial expression to your content. While this seems like common sense advice, it’s a reminder I have to give to my students every so often. We have some kind of misguided belief that if we are standing in front of an audience, we should be smiling. We can probably trace this belief back to elementary school programs when our teachers and parents kept reminding us to smile. But that’s advice we need to leave in the past. I’ve seen students present distracted driving death statistics or share a story of a family member fighting a disease while smiling. This creates confusion in the nonverbal and verbal communication the speaker is sending to the audience. And the result is that the audience isn’t quite sure how to feel about the message or the speaker. Try practicing in front of a mirror or recording a video of yourself, so you can see what your face is doing while you present. And work to make sure your facial expression matches the tone of your content.
You can create a powerful, even tangible, mood in the room when you use these three tactics to set the tone. You’ll help the audience know what to expect, and you’ll capture their attention. And you will be able to do it in just a few seconds or sentences.
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