The Pitch of Your Voice: Some tips to consider to make your story more engaging

Are you a storyteller on stage? Do you want to engage and inspire your audience comfortably and naturally? The great news is that you have one of the essential tools to accomplish this already! Let's explore how you can adjust your voice to tell your stories in a more impactful way.

Pitch

Have you ever watched a presentation where the speaker seemed to grab your attention with the tone the used to pronounce specific phrases? Let me jog your memory in case you can't recall. Do you remember any of these lines from famous movies?

"You shall not pass!" - Fellowship of the Ring, 2000

“I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!” The Wizard of Oz, 1939

“You can't handle the truth!” A Few Good Men, 1992

“Here's Johnny!” The Shining, 1980

“My precious.” The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers, 2002

These are all from some great movies! Each of these stands out for various reasons. But one of the keys we should focus on is the pitch of the actor/actress's voice. I bet as you read them you could hear the actor/actress's voice in your head. Now trying saying these yourself without using any of their vocal changes.

Did you notice that each of these quotes were said with varying degrees of a high and low vocal pitch? Some were softer, some louder. Some were faster, some slower. Some were deeper and some higher pitched. The changes in pitch (we'll focus there for now) can help grab attention mainly when used sparingly at critical moments in the delivery of your story.

What is Pitch?

Pitch is the highness or lowness of your voice. It can be a handy tool for you when presenting.

Pitch, Not Volume

We'll talk more about volume in a future post. These two topics can overlap a little, but the best way to think about these is that the pitch is the deep or high voice you use. And you can still adjust the volume independently of the pitch.

Try this Exercise

Let's start with an exercise you can try right now. Let's take the phrase "Winter is Coming" (yes, I am a Game of Thrones fan). Try saying this phrase first with a high pitch, then a typical pitch of your voice, then with a deeper pitch. Notice how they sound different.

The odds are that some of these may sound natural and compelling while others may sound awkward. That's understandable. Pitch isn't a tool that should be wielded lightly. When it works, it works great. But it should be used with purpose and sparingly to capture attention.

Now say this phrase in a high pitched voice. It just doesn't work for the story. Does it grab attention? Very likely it would. But it may catch the wrong kind of attention by causing confusion for the audience as they think "why is the actor saying it like that?"

Proper use of pitch adds to the story. Using a low and deep pitch throughout, and slowly (note the speed can play into this too), gives some sense of aw to the phrase.

Another Pitch Exercise

What is your baseline for your pitch? Let's find out. We'll pick a simple word like "yes" and repeat it till you find your comfortable, typical, baseline pitch.

Now say "yes" at your baseline pitch and then raise it a step higher. Continue going step by step higher to get a feel for your comfort range. Then take a few steps down in your pitch to find your deeper pitch for "yes".

The key here is to use varying pitches that are comfortable and natural for you. If you don't like the way they sound, odds are others will not either. So find the pitches that work for you and are not forced.

Where is this useful?

Changing your pitch can make the difference in your story being followed and remembered, vs. quickly forgotten.

Let's start with some boundaries and guidelines for pitch. Pitch isn't something I recommend changing too often in your presentation. Otherwise, you risk sounding a bit off, and you lose the value of the infrequent pitch change to grab attention.

Changing pitch can help grab attention most especially when used within a part of your story where the pitch is one way, and then you adjust the pitch suddenly. Here are some examples of changing pitch:

Questions

During your story you pause, move forward and bend a little and speak into the mic "Has this ever happened to you?"

If you were talking in a high pitch before this, try using a deeper tone of your voice for the question. Or, use a higher pitch for the question if you were speaking more deeply prior to it. This gives a chance to your audience to re-focus on you and your voice.

Note that using a higher pitch at the end of sentences is similar to the tone used when asking a question.

Exclamations

Your story may have "aha" moments. In these, a high pitch can emphasize the moment. For example, imagine you are telling a story that suddenly changes the narrative to show the audience that a great secret is revealed. You could stop and exclaim in a higher pitch "Woah? What just happened here?". Or you could use a deeper pitch for the same phrase. Depending on the context of your story and what pitch pattern you had been speaking in, going deeper or higher can help grab the audience.

Avoid the Sleepers

When we speak in the same pitch and tone and pace and volume, it is natural for humans to tune out from your presentation. You don't want heads to nod off - and yes, I had this happen to me when I presented. Some people can't stay awake. Changing any one of these can help and changing more than one can help even more!

We hear the term "monotone" often when referring to the same pitch of a voice for a period of time. By changing the pitch at a critical moment in your talk, you can avoid this and be sure to grab (or re-grab) attention

Parting Tips on Pitch

Here are quick tips for using the pitch of your voice.

  • Discover your typical and most often used pitch. Then find small variances you can comfortably use.
  • Try using a high pitch for asking questions to your audience.
  • Use a deeper pitch when you want to convey more authority at a point in your story.

Finally, observe the audience when you vary your pitch. Make mental notes of their reactions and make adjustments for the next time you present.

What's in This Series?

Here are the other topics in this series, in no particular order. I'll update these links as I publish them.

1 - Using Your Voice
2 - Pace of your voice
3 - Pitch of your voice
4 - Volume of your voice
5 - Emphasis of words in your speech
6 - Clarity of your speech

Good luck with your next presentation!

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Hi, I'm John Papa. I author this blog, create courses for Pluralsight and am a Google Developer Expert and Microsoft Regional Director. I travel speaking at events and train technology thought leaders

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