Using Your Tone of Voice

by Stephen Boyd | January 31, 2003

In speaking, we know that what we say may not be as important as how we say it. When my children were small, the tone of my voice when I called their names told them whether I was angry or happy with them. If I called them for dinner, they could tell by my tone of voice whether they should have been at the table ten minutes earlier or if they had another ten minutes to play. The tone of voice says everything. As James J. Kilpatrick wrote about speaking in a column entitled, "Thinking About 'Like and As,'" "We have one tone for a eulogy, another tone for an address to the 20th Precinct Democratic Club. Depending upon our audience, we shift keys like a pickup pianist at a homecoming party."

We tell an audience by our tone of voice whether we are in fun or are passionate about our topic. The tone of voice shows our concern for the audience and determines in the minds of the audience whether or not we are sincere. The audience may say a speaker is boring even though the content in very stimulating. It's the monotone voice that makes them think the presentation is dull.

So as speakers we must be concerned with exhibiting the appropriate tone of voice for our content and have the appropriate tone for the message we want to communicate. Here are some suggestions for making our content more impactful by the tone of voice we use.

  • Pause before emphasizing an important word or concept. Doing that will make you punch out what comes next to show the audience this is important.
  • Speed up your rate to show excitement. Speeding up will invariably make the tone of voice more urgent and compelling.
  • See in your mind the story you are telling.This will translate into your vocal quality. That is why a person who retells a story of an event that just happened will tell it with more excitement in the voice because the picture of the event is still fresh in his/her mind. Talk to a child at the end of a school day and he/she will give a more excited and animinated summary of the day than if you ask about the day later in the evening or the next day. Train yourself to relive the story as you tell it and you will see a difference in your tone of voice.
  • Define a place in your speech that might be considered a "wow" factor for the audience. When you get to that point, the audience will think, "Wow! I did not realize that!" If you can anticipate that point in the speech, you will be more likely to put punch into the tone of voice as you speak and your content will impact your audience with greater effect.
  • Include vivid facial expression or bigger gestures when you get to an emotional or dramatic part of your presentation. More expressive body movement body will often be reflected in the tone of your voice.
  • Include dialogue in your speech. Narrating a conversation will cause you to vary speaking rate and volume to accommodate the different characters in your story so that your tone of voice will be more expressive.

During World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave us hope by the tone of voice in his famous Fireside Chats. Today, we communicate fun, excitement, passion, anger, and enthusiasm by our voices. Set the tone for your next speech by preparing your tone of voice.

About the Author

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. See additional articles and resources at To book Steve, call 800-727-6520 or email him through his website.

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