Use Characters, Personas, Puppets and Animal Sounds to Boost Your Vocal Variety
Everyone agrees more vocal variety is preferable. But how does one add more vocal variety? Especially in the Competent Communication manual assignment #6, we are implored to pick a topic, write and deliver a speech to showcase vocal variety. Yet so often I hear speeches whose topics don’t lend themselves to variation in tone and pitch, cadence, volume, inflection and intonation. Nor does their delivery include much vocal variety. This article is a call to arms to invoke more vocal variety — in all speeches.
Yet some Toastmasters around the world are finding creative ways to employ more vocal variety. Many of them do so through Telling a story. In their stories they exaggerate each character’s voice. One character may have a high and squeaky voice while their protagonist’s voice might be low and sinister. By first creating different physical characteristics — posture and presence — for each character, they find the corresponding voices emanate from the physical manifestations of their characters. It is not only easier to generate appropriate voices, but easier to re-inhabit them during scenes with back and forth dialog.
Talking With Your Hands
Some members have given puppet shows using finger puppets or hand puppets where each one not only looks but also sounds different, enhancing vocal variety. Puppets feature different styles of speaking, accents and use different registers to distinguish themselves from each other and help the story along.
A Family of Sounds
A great vehicle for showcasing vocal variety is to give a speech describing an inter-generational family dinner where kids, parents and grandparents interact. Think of a family reunion, Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner or holiday BBQ. Kids’ voices are usually higher; grandparents may speak more deliberately or with a stronger accent, perhaps from the old country. We all have interesting characters in our families. Part of what makes them interesting is their manner of speaking: their vocal stylings, vocabulary and unique way of expressing themselves.
Traveling At the Speed of Sound
Your travelogue of a trip to another region or part of your country, continent or world is a wonderful showcase for vocal variety. Be diligent and respectful when mimicking or approximating the accents of others in your story or speech. For example: The fast-talking New Yorker who visits the deep south in the US where folks speak slowly and more deliberately. Emphasize contrasts. Alternately, a speech about a visit to the United Nations and meeting different delegates from around the world or to the Hawaiian Islands — where you find many nationalities in close proximity.
Creating a new persona can be fun and liberating. Like wearing a costume at Halloween can free us up to act beyond our usual comfort zone and inhibitions, dressing in a persona’s costume similarly frees you to embrace vocal variety where you might otherwise demur.
“When you connect with a persona people connect with you!” So says Leona Hamel, DTM, a past District 61 Governor of Granby Canada. A twenty-year member of Toastmasters, in 1996 she created the character of the romantic LouLou L’amour and using a sensual French voice she mesmerized her audience with the language of love as she baked chocolate chip cookies. Dressing the part further helped her deviate from her usual vocal patterns, exaggerate her voice and infuse her words with passion in her “Fait ça vite!”presentation. She encourages others to take little steps beyond one’s comfort zone. Little did she know at the time that this character would have “legs” and return every few years for other events: Toastmasters contests and conferences, a spoof on a talk show and leading a workshop as a romance agent. She’s now working on a book based on this character. C’est la Vie!
For this author’s Vocal Variety assignment yours truly became an evangelical preacher, the Very Right Reverend Verbal T. Toastmaster, to really expand my vocal variety. I used an accent from the deep south of the United States, elongated my vowels and spoke in rhyme when I told audiences “I Aaaaaam, the Veeeeeeeeery Right Rev-verrr-rend Verbal Teeeeeee Toastmasterrrr!” Dressing the part with a yellow silk robe and a tambourine at my side helped me stay in character as I employed the call and response technique to engage and exhort my audience to testify to the Gospel of Toastmasters.
Who Will You Be Today?
To facilitate your exploration of vocal variety in your next speech consider becoming a boardwalk barker, a racetrack announcer of a fictitious newscaster with pronounced elocution.
Consider the example of 1994 World Champion of Public Speaking (WCOPS), Morgan McArthur. What did he do after winning it all? He spent $2,000 to attend a two-week course on how to become an auctioneer. Already gifted with an ability to mimic voices and sounds, a practice begun in his youth, Morgan explained, “I am a huge believer in the power and essential nature of using your instrument to be more impactful, powerful and versatile. And I always like to expand the tools in my toolkit.”
Auctioneering helped McArthur with enunciation as he compressed his words while speeding up his delivery. He described the chant, “auctioneers have an ongoing conversation with bidders. Their conversation is a hybrid between speaking and singing.” McArthur learned how to be long and loud, generating his voice deep down from his diaphragm, not his throat. “If your jugular veins are bulging you’re pushing from the wrong place.” Try it for yourself! How fast can you say the following sentence: “I’m-bid-a-dollar, now-would-you-bid-me-two?”
Scene and Heard
A great way to invoke vocal variety is to recreate a scene from your favorite play or movie and share it with your audience within your speech. Some go Shakespearean. Others prefer more current content. I once performed a scene from the movie Pulp Fiction where I played John Travolta’s character and my fellow Toastmaster played Samuel L. Jackson’s character as we mused about Le(s) Big Macs, Royales with Cheese and eating French Fries with Mayonnaise.
Veteran Toastmaster Andrew Margrave of Speakers Corner Club 5131-36 in Silver Spring, Maryland, recreated an Opera scene. “I impersonated three characters from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, speaking (not singing) the lines. Don’s character was baritone, the statue Il Commendatore, and the servant Leporello were both basses. I impersonated the baritone with an unnaturally baritone inflection. I differentiated between the bass characters by using a quicker, more detached articulation for one than for the other.”
“Practice, practice, practice until the it’s a Pavlovian reflex!” Margrave counsels. “It has to make sense to your voice.”
Exploring the animal kingdom
Write a speech with dogs or cats in it, lions or tigers, egrets or even a parakeet with an attitude, are all ways to add vocal variety to your next speech. You might write about your visit to a zoo. Whether you give us the animals’ native sounds or anthropomorphize and let your animals speak your native tongue with their own (animal) accent, variety will ensue! WCOPS Morgan McArthur, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, has been known to make the sounds of dogs and hogs and galloping horses in his speeches. He recommends the book Mouth Sounds by Prairie Home Companion co-host Fred Newman.
Off Stage, Back Stage, All The World’s A Stage
Consider giving a speech about sounds heard off-screen in a movie theatre: whispering, loud cell phone conversations, judgmental snipes about how others are dressed, opinions about the actors and special effects, and more.
Alternatively, a speech of sounds heard at a flea market, at a farmer’s market or at an international airport terminal, or backstage at a playhouse or the Opera house, would allow for various sounds, accents and even languages.
You might describe a recent networking event you attended and conversations with the various characters you encountered: the loud salesperson, the whisperer, the question-asker, the sultry voiced hostess, the ill-mannered student, the boastful businessperson, the bellicose lawyer, etc. Give us dialog with vocal variety.
I once heard a Toastmaster open up his pocket address book and, using its contents, give a dramatic reading full of drama, pauses, bold declarative statements, rhetorical questions, and different accents, about his friends, colleagues and contacts in his directory.
Characters With Or Without Character
Create characters in your speech or story with distinctive voices. They can be high or low, the can speak deliberately or rapidly, in rhyme or alliteration, in questions or jargon. Give us a classic bureaucrat, the laid-back surfer dude, an emotionless robot, or a female or male “drama queen.”
Consider a speech about a parent’s repertoire of voices. In raising children, parents alternately need to sound stern or lenient, understanding, patient or exasperated, opinionated and impartial. Share how you sound in each instance when speaking to your children.
And you can always deliver a speech in which you compare and contrast your favorite Opera singers, or pop music artists, or futbol or baseball or newscast announcers. Help us hear their signature phrases, phraseology or style of speech.
Developing Your V-Chip
Remember to practice your various voices. Consider the technique “Six Voices in 60 Seconds” shared by Lisa Safran, Improv Consultant and Presentation Coach of San Rafael, CA, who founded www.improvconsultants.com: “Set a timer for 10 second intervals and each 10 seconds speak as if you are a completely different character. In order to find your natural voice and one that has variety, go first for extremes and then dial it back. One of my acting teachers taught us that it was all about going for big, and then reigning it in.”
Svetlana Danilova of Evening Stars (1424967-4) in San Francisco, uses a scientific approach to ensuring her speeches employ sufficient vocal variety. Proficient in four languages, once she has written her speech in English she graphs it out to chart its variants in volume (loud vs. soft) and pitch (high vs. low). If she sees straight lines along either plane she knows she needs to introduce more variations and contrasts to keep her audience’s attention. She asks herself, “where can I go softer? When should I raise my voice to emphasize key dialog? When should I raise my voice’s pitch? Or lower it?”
To get the most out of the Vocal Variety assignment I strongly recommend speakers explore exaggeration. For many, vocal variety doesn’t come naturally. Through the process of deliberately exaggerating the voices in your speech, you are forced out of your comfortable vocal registry and forced to explore extremes, often with comedic effect. Let go of your inhibitions. Stretch those vocal chords and remember, variety is the spice of life.