One of the fun things about my years spent toiling in the vineyards of public speaking, storytelling, body language and communications is that sometimes a story comes along that is both irresistible and immediately useful. Call it the reward of a life spent insatiably seeking the next nugget that could help public speakers everywhere.
This one’s a doozy. And it comes from Animal Behavior, Volume 130, August 2017. Really. I was tipped off by the New Yorker, and immediately found myself deep in a journal I never expected to read.
It turns out that male animals grunt and growl at each other during mating season as they compete for female attention. OK, not much of a surprise there. You’ve probably seen those antlered animals crashing into each other in an effort to scare off the competition on some National Geographic special. Well, noises play a role as well as head-butting.
Here’s the point. Some of the same experts that study, say, red deer, also have a passion for tennis, and what they’ve found is that the grunts that the top pros (both male and female) make when they’re serving at each other are predictive of whether they’re going to win or not. In fact, if you train yourself to listen to the grunting in the right way, you can predict winners more accurately than the bookies. There might be a cash profit involved here.
And it’s pretty simple. The higher the grunts are in pitch, the more stress the tennis player reveals and the more likely he or she is to lose.
What’s the connection to public speaking? We humans are incredibly sensitive to stress in each other’s voices. Adrenaline produces stress, and the adrenaline speakers get before they speak tends to push their voices higher, revealing the stress.
That doesn’t mean that you’re going to drop the serve (I’m not a tennis player) but it does mean that the audience will unconsciously experience you as less confident than should be consistent with your persona as a top-notch keynote speaker with something to say. In other words, just like the tennis player who gives away his impending defeat, you will reveal your fear, uncertainty, and lack of confidence. That will undercut your performance and make it less likely that people will find you persuasive.
So there’s a lot riding on getting your voice right. In this case, the stress in your voice will hurt your performance. As I’ve blogged about before, you need to establish a strong routine of breathing, hydration, and vocal exercises to ensure that your voice is ready to support you and both of you are in top form when it comes time to take the stage.
I recently was working with an executive who was delivering some humorous remarks. During one of the last rehearsals, you could hear the stress in his voice and it was at least a half-tone higher than normal as a result. I drew him aside and gently reminded him how important it was – if he wanted the laugh – to keep his voice in the lower, more conversational end of his range. Fortunately, he took the hint, lowered his voice, and on the day of the live speech, he got the laugh when it counted.
It’s amazing what we can learn from red deer and Andy Murray.