It’s Not What You Say,but the Way that YouSay it

Why tone is important in public speaking

Tone of voice isn’t just about intonation and inflection, but about the emotion behind your words. Words alone will not persuade anyone. Tone is crutial. Understanding tone and the emotions you need to deploy will help you to become a true master of public speaking.

English is a powerful language. The intent of the speaker is as important as the words spoken. In other words, it’s the way that you say something that matters. Here’s an example of what I mean about tone. How would you say this sentence?

“Oh, great, a meeting! Just want I need.”

The obvious way to read this is with a sarcastic tone. Now imagine, that you’ve been working all morning with difficult customers and the boss asks you to come to a team meeting. There will be coffee and biscuits, and for a whole hour you won’t have any more angry faces to deal with.

Always start your preparation with the end in mind. What do you want your audience to do with the information you will be presenting? Think about that all important call to action (CTA). So many rookie speakers (myself included) forget their CTA. Without that your speech is just a bit more hot air in the Sahara.

It’s Not What You Say, but the Way that You Say it

You need to go one step further back than your CTA and imagine your audience member having got home. There they are, glass of wine in their hand relaxing after the evening spent with you. What you must ask yourself is what is going to stop them forgetting about you?

The sad truth is, that no matter how much work you poor into your presentation, no matter how careful you are about your choice of words, if you don’t make your audience feel anything, they will not act. You must fire them up with such a passion that, if they haven’t already done so, they will be compelled to reach for the phone in the morning.

What is that feeling? It can’t be anything too tame. Emotions come in a spectrum. At one end are the strong negative feelings like fear and hate, at the other the strong positive ones like love and compassion. In the middle lies “meh!”. Meh is no use! You need the stronger feelings to motivate people. Don’t be frightened of the strong negative emotions. Fear of missing out is frequently used by marketers. Those limited time offers play on this fear.

If this is new to you and you’re struggling to think of the names of emotions, you could look up Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions. Plutchik identified eight primary emotions:

– Anger
– Fear

It’s Not What You Say, but the Way that You Say it

– Sadness
– Disgust
– Surprise
– Anticipation
– Trust and
– Joy

The wheel shows how these base emotions can be mixed, so to speak, to create others. It’s a useful starting point.

Now that you’ve identified your emotion, take that feeling and weave it through your presentation, so that every sentence you utter is tinged with the tone of voice you need to make your audience feel that emotion in their in their bellies.

If you have one, you may need to annotate your script to remind you what tone you’re trying to achieve next to each sentence.

Here’s one for you to have a go at. A very simple sentence but you can say it lots of different ways.

– I don’t think he should have got that job.

Try saying it in each of Plutchik’s basic emotions, you’ll find some easier than others. How could you rephrase the sentence to make it work with the emotions you find difficult to express with the words in the current order? You’ll probably notice that as you try to express things like disgust, that your face will contort to fit the mood. You may find yourself shouting to express one or two of them, or saying the sentence quickly.

The English language is good at expressing intent because it allows the speaker to imbue any sentence with completely different meaning simply by tone of voice. So, what are you trying to achieve in your presentation? What change do you need to see in your audience? How do you need to make them feel? What tone of voice do you need to use in order to instil that feeling in them and get them to act on your call to action?

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It’s Not What You Say, but the Way that You Say it

Robert Pattie-Williams
Clearly Talking, Melbourne
April 2023