Savvy Student's Study Skills: Speaking

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The Savvy Student's Guide to Study Skills—Chapter Three

There's More to Speaking Than You Think

Most people don't pay very much attention to how they read, and they pay even less attention to how they speak, since speaking is something we do from birth. But if you stop and think about it, we're better speakers now than we were then, because we are better communicators now than we were then. As infants, all we could do is cry in different ways and hope for the best. Once words came into our world, we found much greater success expressing how we felt, what we needed, and what we needed to know—unless we weren't getting enough attention, and we went back to crying.

And that's the problem with speaking—once we get most of what we need, we don't think about becoming any better at it, even though being better at it can help us, and help others. Not working harder than you have to may seem to make sense—but taking speaking for granted can be really hard on others and yourself, since it can lead to us sounding like this, or this, or this.

The last video raises an important point, since the speaker lost out on a job because she didn't realize she was talking too quickly during the job interview. That's not uncommon—we all tend to talk faster when we're nervous. But are there also times when we talk too slowly, or when we're too loud, or too soft, or say too much, or too little? All of these qualities can keep us from getting a job, a date, better friendships, being understood, and understanding others—and all of those things matter.

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What Do You Want to Sound Like?

Most people understand that writers have their own style, and they realize it takes time and practice to develop their style, and find their voice on paper. That's just as true for people who speak, but unlike authors, we're all speakers—so how do we find our speaking voice? Right-- practice.

A good place to begin is to find some role models. That's why writers read different authors, and it's the same reason we should listen to different speakers. From a calm professional who takes their career seriously, to a pumped up story teller conveying an amazing event, to a presenter who wants to share a lot of information in a way that keeps people's attention, there are many different approaches to speaking, and we can use them all to consider what we want to sound like. We may find some we like, and we may find some we don't like, but either way, we learn more about what we want to sound like, and that's the goal.

Take a second to find two online videos of different speakers, and listen to their videos twice. Take notes as you listen. What is it that makes them good speakers? What do they say? How do they say it? What don't they say? These are good questions to begin your exploration of how you speak.

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Factors in a Good Speaking Voice

Now that you've discovered some role models for speaking, let's analyze what they do in six key areas. Some may be more noticeable than others, but all six are important as you develop your distinct speaking style.


There's a good chance that the most important thing—maybe the only thing—that you admire in the speakers you've been listening to is their tone. This happens for two reasons: we really like listening to someone who speaks in a strong, clear tone, and we all cringe when we hear our own voices because we think our voice sounds too thin or inconsistent.

The video explains why our voice sounds deeper in our head than it does on tape (it's because when we talk, we hear our voice through our ears and through our bones), but now that we know our voice sounds thinner to others than it does to ourselves, is there anything we can do to improve that without destroying our vocal cords?

The answer lies with the owner of the voice we all want, Morgan Freeman. Mr. Freeman offers a simple tip to get a richer tone—yawn. It relaxes your throat and vocal chords, leaving more room for vibration, resonance, and tone. It's fun to see the other guests on the show try it, and see that it works—it's also pretty cool to hear what Morgan Freeman's voice sounds like with a little helium mixed in.

There are other ways to strengthen your tone. Finding your lowest natural pitch is as easy as humming and moving your head up and down until you find your vocal sweet spot. It's important to find out how low or high you can naturally go, since going lower or higher may end up hurting your vocal cords. Once you know that, you can make your tone more rich and strong by checking your breathing habits, and learn how to breathe from your diaphragm. So many people focus on breathing from their lungs, but there's a ton of extra air at your disposal when you breathe differently.

There are all kinds of practice exercises that are also recommended to help you cultivate a better tone, and while it may seem a little weird to practice talking when there's no one around, think back on the last time you heard your own voice. If you thought it sounded weird, it might be time to replace one kind of weird with another, and practice daily.


Supporting your vocal cords with support from your diaphragm is just one way your breathing can help you become a better speaker. Since you can't use this new found supply of oxygen to speak unless your diaphragm is full of air to begin with, you may need to practice breathing before you can begin your vocal exercises. This means you'll need to consider a new way to inhale, as well as exhale. Be sure to start these exercises by sitting in a chair. If you try to apply a new breathing technique while walking or exercising, it could have a dizzying effect!

The need for more oxygen also affects when you breathe while you're speaking. There's a good chance you don't really think about breathing all that much in conversation; you just talk. But any kind of public speaking where you are the only one talking requires you to have a constant, strong supply of oxygen—and that means you'll have to think about when to breathe, making sure you don't take a breath that interrupts an important point, or an emotionally strong moment of your remarks.

The video on breathing also talks about the value of breathing to calm you down. Speaking in public often terrifies people, so it's important to have a wide array of strategies to stay calm and focused. Taking deep, full breaths not only helps support your tone; it also requires you to focus on something other than your nerves, and that can help bring you back to the content of your speech, and the goal you want to achieve in speaking, whether it's remarks to a class, or asking someone out for a date. There's a reason people tell you “Don't forget to breathe” when they think you're stressed; it really does work.


Running out of breath is one telltale sign you're nervous about speaking, and an even bigger one is how fast you're talking. These two videos give you clear examples of someone who's really focused on what they have to say, and someone who's just speaking to get it over with.

It's pretty easy to say which presentation the audience will enjoy more, and that's important to keep in mind. Sure—your classmates will probably cut you some slack in speech class if you run through your required speech like someone whose hair is on fire. But the whole idea of speaking is to communicate an idea (and, in this case, get a good grade), and talking too fast—or too slow—will focus the listener on your tempo, not on what you're saying, and that's a problem.

How do we work on tempo? Practice. You can certainly talk to yourself by practicing your speech with the video app on your phone. That can give you all kinds of feedback about tone, breathing, tempo, and more. Since there's a chance you might still be a little freaked out about how your recorded voice sounds, it's also a good idea to show the video to someone else—or better yet, to practice speaking in front of them. You'll want to pick your practice audience carefully; parents are usually too kind or too hard on their children, and friends may only be able to tell you if they liked how you did, but not be able to explain why. If you don't have access to a speech teacher or coach, think closely before you find someone to talk to as practice.

Finally, remember that there are times when it's good to talk fast or slow. Tempo changes are an important way to keep your audience's attention, which is why politicians often speed up their pace at the end of sentences—or slow things up. There are also times when you'll want the tempo to be more important than your words—like here and here—since most speeches are supposed to be engaging as well as informative. The difference between nervous fast-talking and fast-talking for effect is that you're controlling the tempo in the latter, where the tempo is controlling you in the former.


Tempo changes, breathing points, and adjusting tone are just some of the decisions you have to make when you build the content of your speech. Good speakers make it look like they're saying what's on their minds, since they are so comfortable with an audience, it's almost like they're having a conversation, even if it's with thousands of people.

Formal Speaking

This is especially important to remember with formal speaking—a situation where you're being asked to give remarks that will be heard by an audience that's come to hear you speak. Some speakers have the amazing gift of being able to put a brilliant speech together at any given moment, but that's usually because they've put dozens of other speeches together ahead of time, and understand how to build a good speech.

This is harder than you might think. Many students—and, sadly, a few too many speech teachers—think the best way to build a speech is to follow the Five Paragraph Essay format we discussed in the chapter on Writing. Many writing teachers think that format can be a little limiting and uninteresting for an essay, and that can certainly be the case when that format is used for speaking. It's important to make your points clear, but they also need to be interesting to be memorable.

This is why it's important to address these key topics when you start to put your speech together. Notice that the authors are suggesting you use a conversational tone, since the best way to get people to listen to your words is to make them feel like you are talking directly, and only, to them. If you can create that kind of relationship with a speech, they will long remember both you, and what you had to say.

These approaches to building your speech show that the best way to put a formal speech together is to keep the end in mind. If you think about how you want the audience to feel as you present your speech, and especially once you complete your speech, you can see there are many different ways to build a speech that keeps their attention.

In addition to using examples or anecdotes to support the points you're trying to make, humor is a great way to keep people engaged in a formal speech—but there is such a thing as too much humor, or humor that's not likely to be very funny. Even if your friends have said you're a pretty funny person, follow these guidelines to build successful humor into your remarks.

As you're actually giving your remarks, something may occur, or an idea may come to you, that you'd like to add to the speech. These kind of impromptu remarks can really add to a speech and personalize the experience for your audience—and often, like this last line from President Obama, it can be one of the most memorable parts of the speech. But other last minute ideas can really take away from a speech, so it's important to develop a good sense of what to add at the last minute, and when to stick to your prepared remarks. Speech coaches say this is more of a gut instinct you develop as you speak, but two good rules of thumb for going off script are to keep the remark brief, and watch your audience. Keeping your inspired thought brief means you won't lose your original point, and watching the audience gives you an idea that they're either enjoying your speech (so stay with it), or you need to change things up a little (so it might be time to improvise a little). As you build experience in speaking, you'll become more comfortable knowing when to do both.

Informal Speaking

Once you've developed the habit of preparing for formal speeches, you'll see what a huge benefit it is to do even a little preparation for any speech—and you may come to the conclusion that you now know enough about your subject to put together a speech as you're giving it. Other occasions will come up when you're asked to present some ideas in less formal settings, like class discussions, where you're going to say whatever comes to mind at the moment. If that sounds a little scary, it certainly can be, especially if the topic is controversial or something others feel very strongly about. This is especially true in the Internet age, when so many people let their emotions get the better of them and they end up posting things on social media that they really should have kept to themselves.

The structure of putting together a formal speech can really come to the rescue here, giving you a clear path to knowing what to say, avoiding saying the wrong thing, and earning the respect of those who agree and disagree with you because you're expressing yourself so well. Two structures for an impromptu speech or remarks can be found in this short video. With each approach, it's important to keep two things in mind:

Close and end with your point.

Informal speaking usually means you aren't going to talk for very long, so you want to make your main idea as clear as possible. Starting and finishing with your main point, with some supportive facts in between, is the best way to do that.

Don't ramble.

Informal speaking is designed for everyone to have a turn, so make sure there's time for everyone to talk. It may be appropriate to go into greater detail if someone asks you a question, but your first response should be to the point, and any follow-up remarks should be short as well.

So if the class is discussing if rap music is really just an extension of the sonnets of Shakespeare, you could say:

It would be pretty easy to think there isn't any relationship between the two, especially if you're listening to an inexperienced rapper. But if you listen to Lin-Manuel Miranda, you'll discover he follows a series of meter and rhyming schemes that show the structure behind his rapping. They aren't the same rules Shakespeare followed, but they are the glue that keeps his raps together. So yeah, I'd say they're similar.

There's your point, nice and tidy, spoken in a way that respects those who might see things differently, but contributed your point of view, strong and clear for all to see.

Since informal speaking often involves a give-and-take that isn't a part of formal speech making, it's also important to keep the following points in mind:

You don't have to win.

Informal speaking involves a sharing of ideas, and if everyone involved in the discussion doesn't see things the same way you do, that's not only OK—that is likely the goal of the conversation. A few formal speeches are about winning the audience over to your point of view, but even then, the best way to do that is to present your points and respect your audience. That's even more the case with informal speaking, since it could include a give-and-take of ideas.

Acknowledge the other person's point.

Take a second to look at one of the social media platforms you're on. Chances are there's a discussion going on where there are different points of view, and the discussion may be getting out of control. Look at the comments—is anyone saying “I see your point”, or “That may be true?”, or are they just jumping in with their opinion, even if it isn't connected with the last point made in the thread?

The goal of most informal speaking opportunities is both to inform and to engage—as it's often been said, that's why it's called social media. It's possible to reach these two goals at the same time, but only if you make sure you're including everyone in the conversation, especially the previous speaker. It's amazing what a handful of words can do to make someone else more interested in what you have to say—and isn't that the goal of speaking in the first place?


Life on social media or in classroom discussion clearly shows that not everyone is interested in what others have to say, and that can lead to some real challenges. We're going to talk more about listening in another chapter, but the value of recognizing what someone else has to say in informal speaking situations is invaluable—especially the checking for understanding piece that's highlighted in the video. The only way you can respond to someone else's point is to make sure you first understand it, so if a point is raised that isn't clear, start by saying “OK, let me make sure I have this right.” This puts the previous speaker at ease, since you're saying you might not have heard them correctly—so this is about you, and not about them.

The other important way to make sure you're listening is to not interrupt another speaker. Social conversation can often occur at a very fast pace, especially among young people, and if you wait too long to jump in, you may never get a chance to speak. Still, starting to talk before someone else is finished, especially if they haven't made their point yet, can lead to hurt feelings fast, especially if the person disagrees with your point of view.

The best way to avoid this conflict is to spend much more time listening than talking at the start of a discussion. Most discussions start at a slower pace, then pick up steam as more people join, so that makes it easier to get a sense of who gets right to the point, who talks a little longer, and when you can safely say what's on your mind. Just like formal speaking, this part of informal speaking is a habit you can develop over time, and it's a skill that can take you places, since most people value a good listener over a good talker any day.


You've probably heard the famous, but untested, statistic that people are more afraid of speaking in public than they are of dying. That may be the case, but it's easy to see why; very few people actually speak in front of crowds, so it's new to them. This makes getting started a two way challenge; not only are people afraid to speak in public, they also don't know how to do it.

Now that you've read this chapter, you're halfway there. Practicing the techniques and applying the strategies to developing your speaking style and the content of your speech is the best way to feel more confident about your abilities—so you have to get out there and try it out. The first few efforts may not be perfect, but they'll give you new ideas on how the speech can improve, and that's the key to growth. You didn't hit a home run the first time you swung a bat; this is the same thing.

“OK”, you're saying, “I get how to research a speech, improve my tone, breathe, and prepare, but I'm still a wreck. What should I do?”

One thing not to do is the classic advice, “Look out at the audience and see them wearing just their underwear.” That advice may be designed to get your mind off yourself, but it replaces one bad idea with another—talk about awkward.

When it comes to nerves the advice of the professionals is as follows:

Listen to other speeches.

This works especially well if you're at a program where there are other speakers. It gives you a good feel for what the audience responds to, the jokes or remarks that bring a positive response—and the ones that leave the room quiet. This is one way to get to know the audience you're addressing, and that's very helpful.

Keep things in perspective.

Speech coach Darlene Price says there are three “audience truths” that are a key to an effective speech: “One: They believe you're the expert, so don't tell them otherwise. Two: They want you to succeed, so they're on your side. Three: They won't know when you make a mistake, so don't announce it.” Part of the reason the audience wants you to do well is so they can have fun, too. They're rooting for you. You should root for you, too.

Use the restroom.

It's good to review the essentials right before you speak— make sure your hair is in place, check to make sure your clothes look good, and use the restroom. This kind of habit has a way of keeping you calm and focused on the task at hand in a positive way.

Practice, practice, practice.

One speech coach advises you to practice until “you're bored” with your speech. That guarantees that you won't arrive at the front of the room, worried that you don't know the material.

Another important practice tip is to watch the “ums” and the “ers”. It's more than OK to have pauses in your speech, and while it's best to plan them, you may hit a spot where you've forgotten what you want to say. No problem—just take a look at your notes (if you have them) and pick up where you left off without saying a word. They'll think the pause was planned.

Not everyone will engage in public speaking as part of their career, but the skills learned from studying public speaking can be a huge help in everyday conversations, building new friendships and professional relationships, and understanding others whose point of view might be different from yours. These aren't just the building blocks of a better life and a better career; they are the essential parts of better communication, which leads to better businesses and neighborhoods. Give it a try…

…and make sure you take the gum out of your mouth first.

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