Performance Skills for the Educator Part 1: Voice

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The Pre-brief

Crafting an excellent lecture is a complicated process, involving the development of concise teaching points and a “script,” as well as the creation of visually appealing slides.  But how often are you giving much thought to your performance?  In this series, we will address simple techniques you can try to enhance the presentation of your presentations.


The human voice is a powerful tool.  Like any other skill, it must be trained and cultivated.

  1. Self-care: Hospitals are loud places and while working we talk a lot, often without great consideration to the potential overuse damage we could be doing to our voices.  In preparation for a presentation, take good care of your voice with adequate sleep and hydration.  Additionally, limit exposure to loud talking environments such as bars or sporting activities in the days prior to your presentation.  Last, remember that your diet is important for your voice as well.  In the days leading to your presentation, avoid spicy or greasy foods and avoid eating late the night prior to your presentation as this may precipitate a GERD flare which could result in a scratchy throat or raspy voice. 
  2. Accent: Each of us has a regional accent.  Be aware of your audience and whether your accent will be more familiar or more foreign to them.  If your accent will be unusual to your audience you will need to place more emphasis on some of the following techniques, such as diction and tempo, to ensure your audience understands your message.
  3. Diction: Actors regularly train their oral muscles with diction exercises and warm up these muscles prior to a performance.  One popular tongue twister for this purpose is The Grip Top Sock. Practice saying the poem as quickly as you can while making sure your words are crisp and clear.  You can record yourself and listen back for clarity or recite for a friend.
  4. Pitch: The pitch of your voice refers to the highness or lowness of the tones created.  Variations in pitch convey emotion and can be used to command.  It is important to get a sense of your own natural variations in pitch and any habits you may have.  Once you have a sense of your baseline use of pitch, you can begin to strategically change this to impact your audience.  Record yourself reciting a piece of text such as a poem or piece of literature, or delivering a lecture.  Next, take a piece of paper and a pen and as you listen back to your delivery, map your pitch pattern on the paper (i.e. in one continuous line draw up or down as your pitch moves up or down).  Examine this drawing for natural patterns. 
  5. Volume:  When delivering a lecture, you must be heard.  At a bare minimum, your volume must be at a comfortable listening level for all audience members, even those in the back.  Don’t assume you will have a microphone and even if you do, don’t assume the microphone can do all your work for you.  You must rehearse projection.  Again, take any piece of text and rehearse delivering it to a large room (or even outdoor space) with a trusted friend to give you feedback on your volume.  Once you have the basics of projection down, you can begin working on varying your volume to again affect the audience’s perception of your meaning and emotion.  The mapping exercise described above can be used for volume as well. 
  6. Tempo: Speaking too quickly can fatigue your audience as they work to keep up with your thoughts. It can allow your mouth to get ahead of your own thoughts and lead to mistaken phrases.  And it can make you sound nervous.  Rarely, a person’s challenge is that they speak too slowly in public forums. Speaking slowly is harder to do with the nerves coursing, it’s easy to just speak faster and faster, but when this happens it too will lose the audience.  As with pitch and volume, variations in tempo communicate emotion and meaning and redundant patterns can lull an audience to sleep.  Again, take the mapping exercise to search for your own patterns and play with altering them.
  7. Pauses and Silence: Brief periods of silence can allow the audience to fully absorb your message, give you a moment to breathe, and signal a change in thought.  And, just like in previous concepts, pauses too can elicit emotion and return the audience’s attention to you if they have wandered.  Experiment with strategically placed pauses when your lecture calls for a serious point, a dramatic moment, or a topic change. 

The Debrief

  1. Cultivate your voice and focus on these seven concepts to improve the performance of your next presentation.

  2. Coming in Performance Skills for the Educator Part 2: Vocal “Problems”


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