On Speaking Well – And Why It Matters

I decided to take a different tack for this post, while still keeping to the overall theme of personal transformation and the concept that ‘Self isn’t something we find, it’s something we create.’ Self is not just what goes on between the ears, that is, our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and attitudes. Self is the whole package, including our personal presentation.

My shy and awkward younger self had a lot to learn about personal presentation. I had very little in the self-esteem and confidence department and, as a result, I interacted poorly with people. It was a frustrating situation, as much for me as it was for them.

I became drawn to the notion of improving personal image and presentation, reading a great deal about the topic. I still have those books. They were written three decades ago, and the pictures give away their age, but the principles are timeless and endlessly helpful.

Here’s a snippet of what I learned.

First impressions count, although you don’t need me to tell you that. Here are some interesting statistics. How we look, dress, and behave accounts for around 55% of the impression we create. What we say accounts for just 7%. The rest – a whopping 38% – is how we sound, our voice!

So, in making a good impression, our voice and words carry almost the same weight as our appearance and actions. Many people put a lot of effort into looking good, but how many put effort into sounding good?

Do you like the sound of your voice? Is it strong or weak? Does your voice sound unnaturally high, especially when you’re nervous? Do you speak too softly or too loudly? Are there lots of ums and ahs? Do people ask you to slow down, speak up, or repeat what you said? Do you have a strong accent? (We Australians have a notoriously difficult-to-understand accent, made harder by speech that is often way too fast and peppered with puzzling idioms.)

Why it matters

Why does sounding good matter? For one thing, it fosters good communication when others enjoy listening to us and good communication is the lifeblood of human relationships. It helps us to accurately convey our feelings, thoughts, and ideas. Being easily understood helps us to get our needs met. Understanding others helps us to meet their needs.

And secondly, sounding good can build in us a more positive view of ourselves, which in turn increases our confidence. It doesn’t necessarily work the other way around. Robust self-esteem and confidence do not always make us sound appealing. In fact, the opposite can be true: an overly self-confident person can come across as brash and egotistical, and that is never pleasant to hear.

If you have read any of my previous articles, you will know that I learn a lot from TED talks. Over the years, I have curated a great playlist of personal growth material, including this one: How to speak so that people want to listen by Julian Treasure, a sound expert. I love listening to Julian speak and I’ve come back to this talk several times.

After explaining some types of speech that are difficult to listen to, such as gossip, judgment, blaming, exaggerating, and complaining, Julian offers some great advice on always speaking well. It’s in the form of an acronym – the word HAIL (meaning to “greet or acclaim enthusiastically.”)

  • H – honesty or speaking our truth, clearly and directly
  • A – authenticity or being ourselves, “standing in our own truth”
  • I – Integrity or doing what we say and being trustworthy
  • L – love, the kind that “wishes people well” which makes it difficult to judge others and prevents our honesty from being unkind

This is sage advice that goes a long way to always speaking well. 

Three more ways to improve how we sound

1. Voice quality

Google the word timbre and you’ll find it is used mostly in the context of singing voices to describe tonal quality. One definition of timbre is the “phenomenon of the specific colour or texture of a voice.” Listen to the rich, smooth, chocolate tones of Tracy Chapman. On the other hand, Sarah Brightman has a more sparkling, bell-like, and silvery timbre.

Everyday speaking voices also have a timbre. Each of us has a unique timbre; it is what makes us instantly recognizable when, for example, we call a friend on the phone. What is the timbre of your voice? How would you describe it? How would others describe it?

Some people speak with a harsh, flat tone, regardless of whether the pitch is high or low. Their voice seems to come from high up in the mouth, resulting in a lack of resonance. Top-of-the-mouth speakers also tend to use less intonation. Intonation imparts emotion, meaning, and emphasis to what we say; without it, speech sounds monotone.

Is it possible to modify the timbre of our voice? Julian Treasure suggests that it is. He recommends learning to speak from lower in the throat, or even from the top of the chest. Doing so makes our voice warmer, richer, and smoother. Sounds good to me!

Try this: record yourself speaking naturally for a few minutes, maybe describing what you had for dinner or what your pet looks like. Then do it again, this time speaking from lower down in your throat or chest. Does the timbre of your voice change? Do you like the sound?

While you are at it, check for other habits that don’t sound good, such as filler words (e.g. um, ah, you know, like). Do you speak in a somewhat monotone manner, or do you finish sentences with a rise like you are asking a question when you are making a statement? While it can be really uncomfortable listening to a recording of yourself, it’s a great way to ascertain what others hear when you speak. Awareness is the first step to improvement.

2. Pace

It is hard to listen for long to someone who speaks fast. A torrent of words delivered rapid-fire is tiring and it’s tempting to switch off. Slowing down creates small silences in speech, which is both refreshing and pleasant. Those small silences are like the spaces between notes that give music its beauty and emotional power. Without the silences, a piece of music is simply nerve-jangling noise.

Speaking rapidly has another downside – miscommunication. Talking fast doesn’t give our brains time to search for exactly the right word to accurately express what we are thinking or feeling. In our haste, we risk snatching at near-enough-in-meaning expressions that do not convey precisely what we mean. We can end up simply throwing words at a subject in the hope that somewhere in the avalanche of verbiage, our listener will catch our meaning. We can’t expect to be clearly and deeply understood when we don’t say exactly what we mean.

3. Knowing when not to speak

Interrupting is probably one of the most common barriers to speaking well. We all do it – jumping in to respond or say something that just popped into our head before someone has finished their train of thought.

When someone habitually interrupts, everyone loses. It shows disrespect for the person speaking, who doesn’t get to deliver their punchline or pearl of wisdom, and the hearer/s miss out on the chance to learn something potentially useful, entertaining, or inspiring. Moreover, it’s practically impossible to forge a genuine connection with someone who doesn’t make the space to listen to another’s thoughts and feelings without interruption.

I love what Oglala Sioux chief Luther Standing Bear said about communication in Native American Lakota culture:

“Conversation was never begun at once, nor in a hurried manner. No one was quick with a question, no matter how important, and no one was pressed for an answer. A pause giving time for thought was the truly courteous way of beginning and conducting a conversation. Silence was meaningful with the Lakota…[this] was done in the practice of true politeness and regard for the rule that, ‘thought comes before speech.’”

In modern conversation, silence even in small doses makes some people uncomfortable. This was not the case with the Lakota people. “Pauses were acknowledged gracefully,” says Luther Standing Bear, “and did not cause lack of ease or embarrassment.” In fact, pausing was considered a mark of poise.

And finally…

Our world is filled with the sound of beauty. Our voices and the ability to communicate give us the opportunity to add to those beautiful sounds. The better the use we make of our marvellous gifts, the richer our life becomes and the more we enrich others.

Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash



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2 Responses

  1. On Speaking Well – And Why It Matters.

    This article I found very interesting,
    I like the way you include other people’s thoughts including the knowledge, culture and wisdom of the Lakota, a native American people I so admire.
    It helped see from their perspective.
    Thanks Sharon🙏

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment, Steve. I agree; I think the sentiments of the Lakota people towards communication are worth emulating.

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