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Key Elements to Effective Public Speaking

By Jeff Shuford

Key Elements to Effective Public Speaking - Part One

Jeff Shuford

When people imagine Abraham Lincoln giving a speech, they most likely assume that he had a deep, commanding voice that was strong as a hickory tree. In truth, Lincoln's speaking voice was not impressive. One person who was alive at the time described Lincoln's voice as being almost as high as a whistle.

Even though Lincoln did not have as powerful of a voice as we would imagine, his words have echoed down through the ages. Although Lincoln may not have had a great voice, he had a powerful way of delivering his words. With practice, you can improve your speech delivery as well and improve your speeches no matter what your voice may sound like.


If no one can hear you, it doesn't matter what you are saying. You might have a fantastic sales pitch that is guaranteed to move product, but if the customer can't hear you, then you won't sell a single thing. Fortunately, the volume is one of the most accessible parts of your speech to control, and that it is why it is first on our list of ways to improve your public speaking.

In Lincoln's time, if he wanted to be heard at the back of the crowd, he would have had to shout. Thanks to technology, you rarely have to worry about those things today. Wireless sound systems, headset microphones, and rooms designed specifically to carry sound make it easy to ensure that your words can be heard. This means that you have almost full control over how loud your speech will be, but how loud should it be?

Ideally, your speech will not be at one single volume for the entire time. There will be times when you want to raise your voice a bit to emphasize a point or to make sure your audience is paying attention. Other times you will soften and lower your voice to evoke sympathy and convey the seriousness of what you are saying. You want to avoid the extremes, however. It is an infrequent occasion where you would be shouting at your audience, and of course, you never want to speak so softly that they cannot hear you at all.


Some people naturally have high, shrill voices almost like a bird. Other people have a sound that is low in pitch and rolls like thunder. Most of us are somewhere in between with our natural, everyday voice pitch. As we talk, our voices raise in tone when we are excited or scared and lower in pitch when we are sad or angry. These inflections, the raising, and lowering of your pitch, can add a great deal of variety to your speech and help not only keep your audience attentive but signal how they are supposed to feel then.

Varying the pitch of your speech makes it sound more natural and conversational. It makes it sound like you are really talking to someone and not just delivering a set of lines like a bad actor. Someone who does not alter their pitch when they speak is said to be speaking in a monotone, and nothing can push an audience away faster than a flat tone of voice that goes on and on. Even if your message is essential and targeted directly at your audience, if it is delivered in monotone pitch, then most of your listeners will tune out quickly.


The rate refers to how quickly you are speaking. In ordinary conversation, most people talk at around 120 words per minute or so. This rate goes up and down depending on the occasion and what exactly the speaker is trying to say. Since we do not speak at a constant speed in normal conversation, you should not talk at a steady pace when you are up on stage, either.

A quick rate of speech is useful for exciting news or for reviewing the information that you are sure your audience already knows. A slower pace is needed when explaining a complex topic or when you are trying to convey the seriousness of what you are saying. Sometimes you will start slow and throughout your speech, increase your speaking rate a great deal. You might start off describing a problem or difficult situation at the beginning of your speech using slow, carefully chosen words to paint a picture in the mind of your audience. As you move toward the climax of your story or the solution you propose to the problem, you will increase the rate of your speech to excite the audience, so they will remember your story or buy into your proposal.

Again, you want to avoid the extremes, and you want to avoid speaking at the same rate throughout your entire presentation. Practice your speech several times into a digital recorder to test different rates during different points in your speech. Not only it an easy thing to do, but it can also make a powerful impact.

In my follow up column, I will discuss the final vital elements of effective public speaking that will include; pauses, articulation, and putting it all together. Follow these tips and you will crush your next speaking engagement or business presentation.


Jeff Shuford is an internationally-syndicated columnist with Auspac Media and a nationally syndicated columnist with the American City Business Journals and GateHouse Media. A former TEDx speaker and award-winning technologist, Shuford's columns cover innovative digital marketing, technology, and entrepreneurship.

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