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.



  1. Good afternoon Nick

    Great advice as always. I understand you have Scotish heritage coursing through your veins which might explain, Andy Murray.

    The Grunt Masters were Connors and John McEnroe.

    I make this point in a speech on our evolution from grunting to speaking, a speech about how we started drinking alcohol and elephants, my line is “out of the lubricated larynx leapt language and we have not stopped speaking since.”

    Kindest regards

    1. John, great to hear from you. I love your theory for how language began. And you’re right. My direct line ancestors came from Dundee in the 1840s. This may also explain my fondness for marmalade. Andy Murray’s grunts were higher than usual, and he lost….

      1. Nick- I think it may be more than a theory- when we drink to much we return to grunting!!!

        I understand President Trump doesn’t drink but makes strange sounds.

        I look forward to a blog, an updated blog, on speaking the truth.

        Kindest regards John

        1. You ask for the truth, John! An increasingly rare commodity in the current era. Sadly. My hope is that we can ultimately return some decorum to the political world, and yes, some truth as well.

    1. The question, Rick, is where were her “squeals” in relation to her past history of squealing. If the same or lower, then she’s winning. If higher in pitch, then she’s losing. It’s all dependent on knowing the base line of the usual performance.

  2. When I was in college, I took karate as a stress-relieving course. The sensei always said that we have to make a grunt or battlecry to scare the opponent. Whether it’s a “heeeeyaaah!” or a “whoowaaah” it seemed to me feel a bit more prepared to engage the opponent. I have to admit in the beginning it felt rather silly to make any sound at all. After all I wasn’t a martial arts expert. I was just there to get some exercise and relieve stress. After months of training with my sensei it became more natural.

    1. Thanks, Jerry — here’s hoping that your “heeeyaaah” was low enough in pitch to reduce your opponent to a quaking, abject creature of fear and thus easily defeated.

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