Effective Speaking: It’s Complicated

effective speakingIt is frustrating to listen to a speaker and find yourself focused more on his or her verbal tics, an annoying tone, or not being able to hear what is being said. Lawyers, in particular, rely on their oral skills–in the courtroom, in negotiations and other meetings, and on the phone. You may be hampering your effectiveness with one or more of these vocal distractions:

Vocal Fry

A recent article in Business Insider described vocal or glottal fry as “dropping one’s voice to the lowest register, causing the vocal chords to flutter, which creates a creaking sound.” Brittany Spears and Zooey Deschanel offer prime examples of vocal fry. A number of studies over recent years suggest that although both genders often use vocal fry (consciously and subconsciously), women are more negatively impacted by it. The most widely reported study, by University of Miami and Duke University researchers, found women who talk with “vocal fry” are perceived as less trustworthy and less competent,” even while men who used vocal fry were considered to be charismatic. The study also found that not only does vocal fry make women less trustworthy; it may also impact their job prospects. Interestingly, it is generally women who drive this and other vocal trends, according to a recent article by Columbia University linguist John McWhorter.


Upspeaking, also called uptalking or high rising terminal, is when people add an upward inflection, as if they are asking a question, even when they are making a statement. A common pattern in the speech of Australians and Brits for centuries, in the States It has been associated with the early-80s “Valley Girl” stereotype, and is most common in teenage girls and young women. Upspeaking is another vocal tendency that is more common in women than in men, although studies show it is common in more educated individuals of both genders, although for different purposes. Researchers think it may be used to soften assertiveness, which would explain why educated women, who may fear coming off as too aggressive and thus less likeable, use it more often. Studies also suggest that upspeaking is used to hold attention and prevent interruptions when speaking. According to Chicago-based vocal coach Laura Kessler, “upspeaking is not a problem, if used sparingly and deliberately. President Obama uses upspeaking quite effectively.”

Verbal Tics

Verbal tics are a general reference to a variety of specific things individuals do when speaking. They’ve been likened to fingerprints because they are unique habits we have in our speech. They can range from certain “fingerprint” words we use frequently to clearing our throat in every thought transition, or using “umm,” “so,” or “OK” as a place holder while formulating our next thought, sometimes called “word whiskers.” Not only are tics unique to us, they are also unconscious. Most people have no idea how often they say a certain word or do a certain thing. It’s important for speakers to be aware of their personal tics and to work on them because they can be very distracting and take away from what a speaker is saying. Caroline Kennedy was roundly criticized for her repeated use of “you know” and “um” in speeches at the time she was considering a run for Hilary Clinton’s New York Senate seat. “It was a shame that the fillers got so much attention, because the content of her speech was quite good,” noted Kessler.

High Pitch/Lack of Force/Volume

Lack of volume can be a real problem when speaking. When speaking, you also have to be careful about going into a high pitch. Studies have shown that people tend to talk in a higher pitch when they are in positions of power, so it’s something public speakers need to be aware of. But from a listener’s point of view, higher pitch can also be associated with less authority, which could make a higher-pitched speaker less persuasive. The key is finding the right register for your voice. Aside from these issues, a common way that people use to try to be heard is to force their voice. Regular forcing of the voice can lead to hoarseness and even vocal nodules, but coaching can make a difference. “Bill Clinton had to have emergency vocal coaching shortly after taking office to prevent damage to his voice,” noted Kessler.

When asked which of these vocal issues she finds most problematic, Chicago vocal coach Kessler named two she finds much more troublesome: bad posture and lack of self-confidence. She warns against getting bogged down in every study or trending critique of public speakers, because you can’t correct or adapt to it all. “Posture affects every part of your presentation, so make sure you are conscious of it.” she said “And the single thing that most affects your impact as a public speaker is your mindset. You want to come across as confident, and for most people, preparation is key to confidence.” Kessler recommends finding a public figure whose style you admire, and watching videos to identify techniques they find effective.

Lastly, Kessler suggests, make sure you train for speaking engagements like you would for an athletic event. “Warm up your voice gradually, and focus on your breathing. You wouldn’t run a marathon before warming up, and you shouldn’t start a presentation without it either.”


Commission intern Lindsey Lusk of the University of Illinois College of Law contributed to this post.

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