The communication we have with others is made of three components: word choice, vocal qualities, and physiology. The order of importance has been debated throughout the years, but one thing is agreed upon – each of the three plays a role.
Vocal qualities include: tone, word emphasis, speed and volume.
You’ve heard people use tone to help make their point. Think of any time your parent, significant other, or teacher said your name – probably your full name, and said it with a strong, loud tone. How did you interpret that? It’s likely you were in trouble or weren’t giving them the attention they required. We learn to try to prevent that type of tone being used on us.
There are many vocal tones. We use tone to convey different emotions such as sadness, anger, and surprise. Our tone combined with other vocal qualities gives others the impression we are weak or strong, happy or sad, confident or confused, bored or excited and so on.
Word emphasis conveys meaning more than word choice in many cases. Take the example: "I didn’t say he ate a cookie." Let’s look at the different meanings people are likely to infer based on the word we emphasize. (emphasized word underlined)
I didn’t say he ate a cookie. (Someone else said it)
I didn’t say he ate a cookie. (I implied it, but I didn’t say it)
I didn’t say he ate a cookie. (Someone else ate it)
I didn’t say he ate a cookie. (He did something else with it other than eating it)
I didn’t say he ate a cookie. (He at many cookies)
I didn’t say he ate a cookie. (He ate something, but it wasn’t a cookie)
Emphasis matters! Even when the meaning we are conveying is clear, emphasizing a particular word can add affect. If I were to say, “I climbed from the very lowest of the socioeconomic classes to the highest,” and really emphasized “lowest”, my audience is more likely to understand my emotional state coming from having been in the bottom class. In all of the years I’ve been speaking from stage, I feel emphasis is one of the most useful tools for conveying an emotion. A fun exercise is to watch people communicate – whether it’s someone formally speaking to a group, friends just hanging out and talking, or a conversation you’re having one-on-one with another. See if you can catch their tone and emphasis, and be aware of how it affects your understanding of what they are saying.
Speed and volume also affect how well others understand you. Toastmasters suggest the most effective speaking rate is 120 – 160 words per minute. Speaking fast can help convey excitement or express humor, but you don’t want to speak so quickly that your audience can’t keep up or process your information. Volume can be used to convey emotions similar to emphasis. Overall, speak with enough volume to be heard and not so loudly that it is painful to listen to.
The most important aspect of speed, volume, and tone is that you vary them. Inflection is a key to being interesting. Mixing different speeds, tones, and volumes minimizes or eliminates monotony.
Though the jury is still out on which area of communication is most important – words, voice, or physiology – one thing is certain; Using all three is the best approach. If you’d like to make a clear point, be sure your words, vocal qualities, and physiology are all expressing the same message.