The Value of Volume When You Speak

What do I mean by the value of volume?

The amount of sound we make when speaking in public has impact far beyond simply people being able to hear us. And it doesn’t matter if you’re highly experienced, or new and nervous:

working with aspects of volume is a great way to access greater courage or presence.Sound wave in different colours

1. Let’s look at volume and nerves first:

If you’re anxious, your system tends to shrink and contract. And you may recognise any of these as a result: low breath, low energy, mind-blanks.

This contraction happens to both your mind and your body…one follows the other: and the result is that you can’t think clearly, and your body tenses up. You’ll then struggle to access any free flow of energy and ideas.

It’s an awful feeling, and I used to know it well. Thinking coherently while being watched just wasn’t available.

So what works?

Well one action step which I’ve seen get great results is this:

Go (up to) 20% louder.

Yes, I know it’s counterintuitive: every fibre is probably telling you to hide and avoid scrutiny. It works, despite feeling like you’re “going the wrong way”, because you override the inhibited part of your system. By going louder, you have more access to energy – and this feeds into a positive reinforcement loop.

Two thoughts I need to add here: it needs to be tested in a safe environment. When you first try it, going louder can shock your system. So it’s important to test using a mental sliding scale and with somebody, or somewhere, safe.

And it’s also important to speak louder by using more breath from your diaphragm. Lower in your body: not from your upper chest, which is where we breathe from when we’re stressed.

Or your throat – your throat’s job, contrary to what many people think, is to get out of the way of the air coming from lower in your body.

Remember that our words are carried on our breath: you won’t have volume if you’re barely breathing. I’ve written more about the importance of breathing here.


2. You’re already confident, and are looking for greater vocal presence or variety.

Perhaps you’re already comfortable, and looking for that 1 or 2% improvement tweak. This is around having command of a room and showing that you have belief and confidence in what you’re saying.

Where it can go wrong is when I see people go into what a musician friend calls “blastissimo” territory – EVERYTHING IS LOUD! (‘Very loud’ in music terminology is ‘fortissimo’.)

Remember this if you’re a strong speaker and don’t think about your volume much: confidence and knowledge don’t have to equal high volume.

Nuance and variety make for an engaging and persuasive presentation or talk – and the more experienced you are, you more it’s fun to play around with volume.

Sometimes going softer at key points will draw people in, and engage more effectively. Or subtle emphasis on certain words is shown in research to help guide discussion down the path you want your audience to go.

Particularly in negotiating, you can ramp up – or do the opposite, downplay – what you want to achieve from speaking.

Something worth thinking about – and putting into action, if you don’t do much of this already.

I’ve also written about being a low-energy speaker and volume here.

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