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Improving Your Public Speaking Skills: Screaming and Whispering

People remember a mere 7% of what they hear. Huh? Yes, you read correctly. A mere seven percent of the substance of what you say will be retained by an audience. What then is remembered? In The Magic of Rapport: How You Can Gain Persona/ Power in Any Situation, Jerry Richardson insists that a presenter’s tone of voice accounts for 38% of what is retained by the audience; facial expression is responsible for 55% of how people absorb and remember a message.

As presentation professionals, we know information can dazzle and delight. It’s our job to put our best foot, or shall we say, face forward to make sure our speeches are suited to the messages we aim to convey. We make mental checklists and review our outline sheets. We cater to our visitors’ intellectual needs and continually brush-up our knowledge.

Even so, crowded galleries or unforeseen factors can challenge even the most experienced docent’s presentation. In Central Park, docents vie for audiences’ attention against a backdrop of ever-changing distractions: horses and carriages, skateboarders, roller bladers, the occasional Park vehicles, musicians, the whir of the carousel. The Conservancy’s expert volunteer guides think on their feet and use their voices and gestures to commandeer diverse audiences from most alluring attractions.

The following exercise encouraged Central Park Conservancy docents to explore and utilize the range of their voices. It was a valuable way to hone both verbal and non-verbal communication skills. Screaming is unpleasant and rarely a feasible way to appeal to visitors. Whispering teeters on the inaudible. This exercise gives presenters a chance to experiment with both extremes.

Preparation for Screaming and Whispering

1. Choose a five or six sentence text that is related to your subject matter. (I used excerpts from Henry David Thoreau’s journals at Walden Pond as a way to reconnect Central Park Conservancy guides with nature and the changing seasons.) Surprise participants. Select a text people will want to read again and again. Give each participant a copy of a text to take home as a souvenir of the exercise. Wherever possible, give each person a different text. The more varied the texts, the greater the cacophony, the more each person stands to learn. If you plan to ask people to read their texts to a small group at the end of the exercise, ask people to form groups at the beginning of the exercise. Make certain each member of the same group has a unique text. Participants will need to use texts in the second part of the exercise.

2. Situate yourself in a place with room to move around. Space is of the essence. You will need room for people to move, breathe and gesticulate, if they so choose.

Part One: Screaming and Whispering (With Your Eyes)

Direct participants’ movements. Keep the pace upbeat. Notice what is happening within the group. Here is a sample set of directions. Use these commands as written, add to them, or invent your own. Most importantly, have fun.

  • Walk around the room.
  • Walk faster.
  • Slow down your pace.
  • Stop.
  • Continue walking.
  • Speed up the pace.
  • Stop.
  • Make eye contact with someone near you for 60 seconds.
  • Keep walking.
  • Walk faster.
  • Change your direction.
  • Stop.
  • Make eye contact with someone near you.

Ask one person in each pair to raise his hand. Ask that person to send a message to his partner with his eyes. Invite all the partners to respond to the message with their eyes. Ask the group to keep walking. Invite participants to make eye contact with as many people as possible.

Whew! Take a break. Let people close their eyes for a moment. Then, solicit feedback from the group. Find out what people learned, what was comfortable, what was not comfortable. Discuss the applications for your specific tour situations.

Part Two: Screaming and Whispering Out Loud

Distribute a 5-6 sentence text to all participants. Ask participants to read the texts continuously in a normal voice for a minute or so. Then, invite them to vary their reading styles by incorporating some of the ideas below. Add your own variations to the list. Call out instructions based on the group’s pace. Keep the exercise lively and interactive.

  • Read the text in the softest voice possible.
  • Read the text in the loudest voice possible.
  • Go from your softest to your loudest voice.
  • Read the text in a “stage” whisper.
  • Read the text to yourself and make a note of the most prominent words.
  • Emphasize the prominent words as you read the text out loud.
  • Read the text backwards starting with the last word.
  • Intersperse the phrase, “I’ve got good news!” after each phrase in your written text.
  • Intersperse “Welcome!” (a prime function of our job as tour leaders, after all).
  • Read your text out loud with a smile. Read as quickly as possible. Enunciate each syllable . as you read. Punctuate important points in your text by making eye contact. Read the text in your normal voice. Read the text in the upper range (7 out of 10) of your vocal scale. (This is usually the correct register for a verbal presentation.)

Before you leave, be sure to elicit feedback on how the exercise worked. Find out what people discovered, what they’ll take with them, how this verbal and ocular work-up will influence their presentations in the future. Lastly, thank everyone for their participation, with your smile, your eyes, your friendly tone of voice and your words, in that order.

Laura Silver likes to write poems and make eye contact on the New York City subway. She is the tour program manager at the Central Park Conservancy. Ms. Silver wishes to Thank fellow educator Kristine O’Brien for introducing her to the fundamentals of Screaming and Whispering.

Silver, Laura. “Improving Your Public Speaking Skills: Screaming and Whispering,” The Docent Educator 9.1 (Autumn 1999): 18-19.

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