Vocal Variety – How To Be More Expressive

Vocal variety

Ben Stein speaking at 2006 National Summit on Retirement Savings

In 1986 film maker John Hughes pitted the “Ultimate High School Cool Guy”, Ferris Bueller against the man who represented law and order in secondary education, Ed Rooney.  Many of you may know I’m talking about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  In which the main character Ferris Bueller is determined to be truant one last time before he graduates from high school.

Also in this film we meet Ferris’ economics teacher, played by actor Ben Stein. If you’re familiar with Stein’s dry, monotone delivery (Bueller, Bueller, Bueller) you have an insight into the second problem we run into with expressiveness. Lack of Vocal Variety.  

On Episode 66 of the The Platform Giant Show, we covered part one of our three part series on how to be more expressive.  In that episode we talked about eliminating “useless modifiers” or “throw-away” words from our language. On today’s podcast, we’re covering vocal variety. We’ll be covering five elements of vocal variety and how you can add them into your next speech, podcast or webinar.

Vocal Variety encompasses several aspects of speaking including:

  1. Pitch – The highs and the lows how you speak.
  2. Loudness – How loud or soft your voice is
  3. Articulation – the clearness and crispness of your language.
  4. Rate- How fast or slow you speak
  5. Pausing – Do you leave room for people to absorb what you’re saying or do you just ram the sentences together
  6. Quality – The resonance of your voice. It’s richness or fullness.


You may have picked up on the fact that Pitch, Loudness, Articulation, Rate, Pausing and Quality create an acronym – PLARPQ.  It sounds like a nonsense word but it makes it simple to remember the elements of vocal variety.  

The credit for this acronym goes to Rebecca Shafir from her book Speaking with Power and Persuasion  While I’ve been familiar with several elements of vocal variety for quite sometime Rebecca packaged them up rather nicely in her book with the acronym PLARPQ



Michael Clark DuncanYour pitch is how fast your vocal chords vibrate when you speak. The faster the vibration the higher the pitch. From a practical standpoint, lower pitches are associated with authority and higher pitches are seen as less  threatening, unless of course that pitch becomes shrill.  

If your pitch is consistently too low, it can be hard to understand you. The example that comes to my mind is  the late actor Michael Clarke Duncan, who you may remember as John Coffee in the movie The Green Mile. His voice was so deep, sometimes you had to listen closely to understand what he was saying.

Like all things in life, variety creates interest.  Being able to move up and down and use a variety of pitches creates interest in what you’re saying.



Loudness is the volume of your voice. Knowing how to use loudness appropriately can make a huge difference in the impact you have on your audience.

If you’re speaking from the stage, you want to be loud enough the back of the room can hear you, but not so loud as to make ears bleed in the front row. You have to know how loud is too loud.  

When it comes to making your point, you may be tempted to raise your volume to show emphasis. What if instead, you lowered the volume so people had to listen carefully to what you are saying. Now you have their attention.

Let’s not forget that sometimes, like on a webinar or a podcast or a YouTube video, your volume is actually controlled by recording software; get too loud and you can experience something called “Clipping” where the microphone and or recording software can’t take the loudness so they just truncate the sound.

At [6:32]  in the podcast you can hear clipping.

In these cases a little trickery is in order.  You can use a mic technique to still sound loud without blowing out the recording simply by moving away from the mic when you want to sound louder and moving closer to the mic when you want to sound quieter. In both cases, the listener understands it’s supposed to loud or quiet without you changing the actual volume of the recording.



Articulation is the clearness or crispness of your voice. I have to admit I struggle with this one. I tend to get lazy with language; we all do. Our words run together. We trail off at the end of sentences. We don’t pay attention.

Tongue Twisters, vocal warm ups and practice with or without a coach can help improve your articulation.  The goal is to be understood, not to articulate every word perfectly. It would sound ridiculous if I talked like this wouldn’t it. That’s not articulation, that’s over articulation.



Rate is how fast or slow you speak.

According to communication expert and past guest on the Platform Giant Show, Lisa B Marshall speaking rates can vary greatly depending on a variety of factors 

Most Americans for example, speak at a rate of 110-150 words per minute. Lisa says when reading audio books, most publishers prefer a rate of 150-160 words per minute. If you’re wondering how fast you speak vs how fast you can read; you can cover much more terrain by reading – about 200-300 words per minute.

So how can you use rate to be more expressive?  When you want to ramp up the excitement or intensity, speak faster. When you want capture your audience’s attention, slow down. I mean really slow down.  By varying your rate, you take your audience on a ride.  Let them experience the excitement of your words whizzing by and let them catch their breath as the words slow way down.


Which leads me right into the next aspect of vocal variety – – The pause.

Think about it, you’re at an event. You hear the speaker’s voice, but you’re not really paying attention to the words; something on your mobile device has your attention. That’s when you notice the eerie sound of silence. You look up to see what’s happened. The speaker has paused and you noticed.  

If you want to drive home a point, wait a few seconds before delivering it.  The awkward silence causes people to pay attention.



When you listen to broadcasters, voice over artists or actors narrating for TV, there’s something pleasing in the quality of their voices. They may have a melodic timbre like Morgan Freeman as the narrator in The Shawshank Redemption or a deep and breathy  quality like voice over artist Don LaFontaine,  

but vocal quality isn’t just how we would rate the sound of a voice, vocal quality is how we’d describe it.  For example,  take some of the vocal qualities the National Center for Voice and Speech listed on their website.

  • Aphonic – no sound or a whisper
  • Breathy – the air quality in the voice is apparent
  • Creaky – sounds like two hard surfaces rubbing against one another
  • Flutter – often called bleat because it sounds like a lamb’s cry
  • Resonant  brightened or ‘ringing’ sound that carries well
  • Rough – uneven, bumpy sound appearing to be unsteady short-term, but persisting over the long-term
  • Twangy – sharp, bright sound

There are exercises you can do and coaching you can seek out to bring out different qualities in your voice. This is something you learn when start doing voice over work. It’s incredible how much variety you can bring to the quality of your voice when you have someone show you how to do it.

Final Words

Nobody wants to be “That Speaker”. You know, the one who drones on for what seems like hours, but in fact is only minutes. Their unwillingness to vary their pitch, loudness, articulation, rate, pauses and vocal qualities make us want to be anywhere but in the seat listening to them.

A study at University of Glasgow’s Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology found when we encounter a boring speaker, we don’t actually tune them out. Our brain kicks in and creates a more interesting monologue in our head to stay engaged.  The author of the study, Dr. Bo Yao says

“When the brain hears monotonously-spoken direct speech quotations which it expects to be more vivid, the brain simply ‘talks over’ the speech it hears with more vivid speech utterances of its own.”

So if we don’t engage our audiences with variances in pitch, loudness, articulation rate, pauses and quality, their brains will do it for them. In other words, they’ll go inside of their heads and start listening to the conversation in there because it’s way better than the one they’re having with you.



Michael Clark Duncan By blackurbanite, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6094524