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Presentation Skills: Vocal Variety and Timing

Last week we introduced you to the first three of the five presenter tips on the presenter skills checklist. Today, let’s take a look at the next two tips on the checklist; vocal variety and timing.

Vocal Variety

vocal varietySpeakers who don’t use vocal variety well can be distracting. I recently attended a session where the speaker used poor pitch. Her presentation was fantastic, and she was obviously an expert in her field, but I couldn’t pay attention to her words. As you practice your presentation, pay attention to the four “P’s” of vocal variety. Here are the key vocal variations to be aware of as you speak.

  • Pitch – The variation of your pitch brings your voice to life, conveys emotion, and indicates punctuation. If pitch is not executed well it can confuse participants or lose their attention entirely. Uptalking or ending sentences in as though they are questions is a habit I notice in a lot of presenters. If you “uptalk”, work to control your nerves with belly breathing and power through your pitch to the end of the sentence.
  • Pause – One of the most powerful forms of vocal variety, in my opinion, is the pause. I had the opportunity to see Barak Obama speak last week at ATD ICE and he might be the most effective “pauser” (yes, I made that word up) I have seen. He would pause for two or three seconds without losing the audience as he collected his thoughts. As you work to control nerves or tackle other skills on this checklist, work to embrace the pause.
  • Power – It isn’t so much the volume of your voice, but rather your ability to vary it. Power should be used with driving a point home, saying something shocking, or the punch line of a joke. If you have a softer voice, be sure to use a microphone so you can easily vary your volume without losing your voice.
  • Pace – The rate at which people speak varies, but most formulas indicate a good pace to be around 1 minute to say 100 words. I speak much quicker than that, around 150 words per minute. If I am nervous, it is closer to 180. People have a tough time keeping up when you go that fast, even if it feels comfortable for you. Time your presentation and check your pace. If you are over 150 words per minute, work to incorporate more pauses and slow down. If you are under 80 words per minute, try to pick up your pace a bit.


Manage timing with a lesson planThe clock is feedback, and you should pay attention to what it is telling you each time you practice your presentation. If you request 15 minutes to present during a meeting, only use 15 minutes. Similarly, if you design a two-hour presentation, map out your session timing (might I suggest this lesson plan template) and have a clear understanding of how long activities take. It is professional to keep things to the time you allocated and it disrespectful to take the time allocated to others. Timing is an art form, and like any other form of art takes practice to execute well. To master your timing, concentrate on two aspects of timing:

  • Accuracy – I find many people to be unaware of how long it takes them to say something or execute an activity. Whether they take too much or not enough time, they are concentrating so hard on what they are saying or doing that they lose sight of the clock. To work on this skill, time your practice sessions, review the recordings you made when you were working on dropping filler words, and run practice sessions of your activities. To be a master of the clock, you should develop this skill to the point where you can easily speak extemporaneously within any predetermined time constraints.
  • Consistency – Once you understand how long it takes you to say or something, you should aim to maintain that timing. When you design an icebreaker to run for 15 minutes, and it routinely runs long, you need to revisit your design and variables that are shifting the timing of that activity. Take notes on your lesson plans on how long things should take vs how long they are actually taking to make sure you are executing this skill.

I heard from a few of you on Twitter on other things to add to this list, and I want to know more. Do you use a presentation skills checklist or some other form of tool to help you validate that you’re giving your best presentation? What about managing timing and vocal variety? Let’s talk about it in the comments below!

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