What's up with your handshake: Voice - Tone, Melody and Control

By Mark Jeffries
Author, What's Up With Your Handshake?

The more senior or apparently successful someone becomes, the more this self-belief applies. Now, there is nothing wrong with a healthy dose of self-confidence but occasionally, like a


finely tuned piece of machinery, you need to conduct a self-diagnostic, an honest “self-audit”.

I want you to be the best you can be.With this in mind I would like to draw attention to one of the items that people often entirely overlook when evaluating their performance – their voice. Your voice has many components: volume, projection, diction, pace and tone.

Your voice is your single most important instrument in conveying your message. If your words are great but your delivery of them is poor, or worse, annoying in some way, then people aren’t going to want to listen to you for very long.


Think of the last time you were in a restaurant or on a plane or anywhere else that people may gather in a confined space. I’ll wager that you could hear one or two voices above everyone else’s. I was recently dining with a client at a smart place in Chicago and on the table next to us were three business sorts having a dinner meeting. Fine. Nothing wrong with that. Except that I could clearly hear one of them over the others. I heard about

the value of the property deal they were working on ($20 million), I heard who he did and did not trust. I know that during the following weekend he fully intended to fly to Miami. Meanwhile, I could not hear a single word from the other two participants in the conversation, I could only hear the “shout lout”!

Setting aside the rules on dining etiquette for just a moment, this entire “broadcast” could well have been a major breach in client confidentiality……I could have been a journalist or, worse, a competitor.Walls have ears and so do we.

But here’s the thing.He clearly had no idea about his bullhorn megaphone voice. His colleagues were clearly too embarrassed or did not feel sufficiently empowered to draw attention to the fact that he was bellowing like an over-excited soccer coach; he carried on with his public pronouncements throughout dinner.

I glanced over several times and pointedly made eye-contact, attempting to communicate that I could hear every word he was saying. But he was too busy enjoying listening to the sound of his own voice to bother with reading the reactions of people around him.

So, for his benefit and for the benefit of others like him, here are my three top tips regarding volume control. If any of these apply to you, you may want to turn down the volume a little:

1. Your interlocutors seem to be talking very quietly – subtly encouraging you to join them at that level

2. People keep looking at you – and you’re not famous

3. Someone comes over with the opening comment “I thought I recognized that voice.”


The moral of the “shout lout” tale is that one needs to be aware of one’s environment, and modify one’s voice accordingly. The “shout lout” is probably great when addressing a large meeting of shareholders, but was awful in the more intimate restaurant setting.

At the other end of the spectrum, of course, is the whisperer or mumbler. Here is someone who believes that just because they can hear themselves, everyone else can hear them too – a bit like an ostrich which, having hidden its head in the sand believes that no part of its enormous body is now visible.

How can you tell if you are a whisperer or mumbler? If people have to lean closer and closer when you speak or consistently ask you to repeat yourself, then you may need to project a little more. Mumblers often speak quietly, but also too quickly, swallowing their words and speaking as fast as they think. So, even if you’ve got a lot to say, remember, slow down sufficiently so that people can understand what you’re saying. Don’t forget, the whole thrust of soft skills or strategic communication is how we affect and influence other people.We have to make everything around us feel good, right down to the volume and pitch and sound of our voices.


When you watch TV – especially the news and breakfast TV shows – you will notice that the hosts and presenters have a certain way of speaking.Their voices are mellifluous – their words tend to flow in a pattern that sounds attractive to our ears. Their comments are filled with phrases like “Still to come”“Don’t forget”, and “Just ahead”.
This vocal embellishment is no accident.TV presenters are chosen not only for the way they look but also for the way they sound. A good voice is never monotonous, but is punctuated with pauses, punches, rises and falls, and is delivered in a steady rhythm.This is a major asset when trying to impart crucial information, such as how busy the roads are,whether it’s going to rain or which politician is ahead in the polls. “SIT!”

Whether talking tête-à-tête with a new lover, motivating a group of ten employees, or addressing a conference room filled with 200 delegates, the aim is always to keep the attention of your audience, have them wanting to hear more.A perfect example of the effect of “melody” – the rise and fall in your voice – can be taken from how
we deal with our fabulous, tail-wagging, four-legged friends.

If you want to attract the attention of your dog, you don’t use a dull, lifeless voice. They won’t listen, and they won’t respond. No, instead, you need to adopt that highpitched, excited voice that accompanies such promising offers as “Wanna go for walkies?”,“Wanna treat? Do you? DOYOU?Yes you do!!”The goal here is to arouse
their sense of anticipation. Normally the voice goes way up in pitch towards the end of each sentence.The tone adopted makes the offer sound so tempting that your dog is skipping around, flapping his little ears, barking with excitement about your proposal.

Now I’m certainly not saying you should burst into the CEO’s office and scream “Wanna quarterly financial report?? “Do you? Do you???” But if you believe that you may be at risk of sounding dull from time to time, what you can always do in any meeting, conversation or interaction is vocally animate your voice. Let’s explore in greater detail various ways you can do this.


When you are media-trained to appear as a television or radio guest “expert”, you are instructed to “keep it short”. In fact the ideal length of a piece of spoken content is about 20 to 25 seconds.This is known as the perfect soundbite.

Why? Well, apparently, somebody has sat down and calculated the span of attention of an average “remote control-wielding” viewer.They concluded that the viewer will stay tuned to a channel, listening to a message for about 25 seconds before they fundamentally need something to change. Unless the image, message, person blabbing or TV show changes, boredom may set in.

So, to meet this evident need, smart players in a media-savvy world need to truncate their words and ideas to adapt to this gold-fish-like attention span.Politicians do it, sharp spokespeople do it and winning leaders seem to have a talent for reducing complex ideas, initiatives and concepts into a succinct 20-second hit.

You have to be brutal with yourself.You have to examine what it is you need to communicate and chop it down with a word-cleaver* so that the absolute bare minimum survives.

* There is no such thing as a ‘word cleaver’


Let’s take an imaginary news story and look at long rambling version and the attention-grabing soundbite version.

Not getting to the point:

“A small furry black and white cat known to locals and, occasionally some people who live further afield, as ’Alfie’ has, it would appear and despite previous warnings and some degree of training, while wandering freely in a park, which was inadviseable from the start has somehow and inexplicably, taking into consideration the absolute level of chance involved, tumbled into a well.”

This “epic” has taken up way too much of our lives.There are people who can daisy chain a neverending group of flowery, unnecessary sub-clauses together to create the world’s largest sentence, seemingly without ever getting to the actual point.Don’t let this person be you. The above example is extreme – but long drawn out overly ambitious sentences fill people with a sense of entrapment and dread.

Perfect Soundbite:

“Onlookers were shocked to discover that local cat,Alfie fell into a well today - this clearly highlights the dangers of allowing cats too close to wells.”

With minimal fuss and elaboration, this soundbite reaches the point before people have had a chance to mentally switch off. Effective vommunication should quickly get the message across and not fill the maximum time available. (No animals were hurt in the creation of the previous example.)

In business or personal relationships, short is sweet. Be succinct, concise and to-thepoint. If you have any story to tell, any new initiative to pitch, frame your text around the following questions: “Who?” “What?” “When?” “Where?” and “Why?” If this excludes something you still want to tell, keep it in hand to bring out when your initial pitch has aroused such interest and enthusiasm that your audience is clamouring to know more. Then, you can expand further, give more detailed examples, or whatever.

Remember, your audience has a short attention span.Don’t bog them down with long drawn out overly-ambitious sentences. Instead, inspire people with your vision and concision of thought. Free your audience with your brevity and get to the point!


Can rhetorical questions work? Do they appeal to people? Might they be your way of creating additional interest?Yes, yes and……yes! Of course, one does not live one’s everyday life asking rhetorical questions (certainly not out loud!): “Would I like a Martini? Yes.”“Am I happy to pay these prices? No.”

But, used sparingly, within important pitches, meetings and presentations, they

are an excellent way of reinvigorating your audience and ensuring that people around you believe that you are interesting.

Facts and statistics can become tiresome and dull, but a direct question needs answering, a story needs ending,we need closure.A rhetorical question is the opening that facilitates this closure:

“So, exactly how many people would die in a Luxembourg-based tsunami?”

“What was the single biggest cause of food poisoning last year”

“Which is the best way to make someone fall in love with you?”


I need to know! I would listen to anyone that makes me think of questions like that! Rhetorical questions can be a fantastic tool to show that you have really focused on the key issues at hand.

Rhetorical questions are like joker cards – you can’t use them all the time. So, save them up and deploy when necessary.


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