Saturday, August 17, 2013

I think I can

Do you remember the little engine that could?  He worked in a railway yard shunting small stock about. One day an enormous train asked one of the big engines to pull it over the hill and down the other side, but it refused saying that it would be far too difficult. It was met with the same excuses by all the other engines until; in desperation it approached the little engine. 

“I think I can,” the little engine responded as it hitched itself to the train. Then, pulling very hard, it kept saying, ”I think I can; I think I can: I - think – I – can” as it pulled the train slowly to the top of the hill and then, in excitement, “I thought I could; I thought I could….!” speeding up over the other side.

Obviously, there is a wonderful lesson for us to learn from the determination of the little engine that did not see the enormity of pulling the train as an impossible task, but rather allowed his fortitude and strength of mind to view the task as one that was difficult but still possible.

However, in recounting the way this story was told to me when I was a child, I thought that it was a wonderful example of how vocal variety adds meaning to a speech when it is used effectively. For any speaker to use your voice to best effect, you must find a balance between the extremes of the following elements: Volume, Pitch, Rate and Quality. Allow me to elaborate:

Volume: Clearly, the size of the venue where you are speaking is a determining factor in how loudly you should speak. There is nothing more irritating than not being able to hear a speaker (although good use of stage whispers can be most effective). However, meaning can be determined or changed through placing emphasis on different words in a sentence. Look at the following statement, for example:

Her grandmother died yesterday.  By changing the emphasis so that it falls on a different word each time you say the sentence, the intended meaning can be vastly changed.

Pitch: This refers to how high or low a sound is.  Our voices, just like musical instruments, vary in pitch. Shrill, high-pitched sounds can be irritating, while warm, low tones instil confidence in an audience. A case in point: Margaret Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister of England, went for vocal coaching to lower the pitch of her voice. (Small wonder then that she became known as the Iron Lady!) Effective speakers adapt the pitch of their voices to the material in their speeches.  Look at the sentence above again and gauge the different emotional content that can be conveyed by changing the pitch of your voice when you say it.

Rate refers to the number of words you say in a minute. This will have a definite effect on how your audience responds to you. Too fast means they can’t keep up with you and too slow means they will lose interest in what you have to say. The most effective speaking rate is approximately 120 – 150 words per minute, which is fast enough to remain interesting while still allowing your audience to digest what you have to say.  Remember the little engine? It is vital to slow down vocally to show him struggling up the hill and just as important to speed up when he speeds down the other side.

Finally, we come to quality. A good speaking voice is pleasant and sounds friendly; it is natural, conveying sincerity; forceful – which means strong and vital, rather than loud; and it can be heard, because the speaker enunciates properly and controls his breathing.  If you listen to yourself on tape and hear a voice that is thin, breathy or nasal, you should work on your breathing and try some relaxation techniques to eliminate the tension in your voice.

Silence and pause are vital aspects of a good speech. It is not necessary that every moment be filled with sound. Judicious use of pause or silence can be used to draw attention to specific points, or to lay emphasis on them. You also sound far more intelligent if you use pause instead of an ‘um’ or an ‘ah’ when you hesitate!

Rehearsal is paramount, of course. Once you have written your speech; record it. Then work with it by adding notes for yourself on how to add value by varying the volume, pitch, rate and quality until you are conveying the exact meaning to your audience that you intended.
Soon, like the little engine, you might also be heard saying excitedly, ”I thought I could; I thought I could!”

Until next time
Ricky Woods

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