Speakers Need Visual Cues to Help Them Speak With Verbal Punch, Avoiding the Dreaded Monotone

Back in my preaching days, there was an oft-repeated story told among preachers. It was about a preacher who left his notes up on the pulpit, only to be discovered by a younger minister. In the margin, next to one of his main points, the preacher had written:


I’m not sure if I ever believed it as a true story, but I do believe this – the best speakers write all over their speaking notes. In big print, underlining key words, circling key words.

Among the many “sins” (to stay in the preacher story mode) of speakers is the sin of speaking in a monotone. A speaker simply has to learn to speak with great variations in the use of his/her voice. I call these variations “vocal variety” and “verbal punch.” “Verbal punch” is especially key. It is like a verbal “bold” and “italics,” and it can be done with volume variation (louder; softer) and very effective use of pauses. And, the right gesture at the right moment can add greatly to verbal punch.

I thought of all this as I read this article in the New York Times: When Your Punctuation Says It All (!) by Jessica Bennett. The article was about the new “rules” of punctuation in text messaging, and I felt pretty old and out of it pretty quickly reading her article. But this paragraph was terrific for those of us who have to speak and give presentations:

THE ORIGINS of punctuation lie in ancient oration, when marks were used in handwritten speeches to advise when and for how long a speaker should pause. A period was a part of speech that had a beginning and end, a comma indicated the shortest pause, while the colon was somewhere between the two.

I teach my students and clients that punctuation matters – as visual clues for delivery.

, (comma) = pause
; or : (semicolon and/or colon) = longer pause
. (period) = even longer pause
— (double dash) = about the same pause as a . (period)
pp (new paragraph) = longest pause.

But, here is the simple reminder: mark up your speaking notes thoroughly. Even if you speak without notes, mark up your rehearsal notes. Use thick-point Sharpies. Use different color ink than the typed or written main notes. Circle key words. Underline! Use plenty of punctuation, especially exclamation points – plural!

(By the way – this has nothing to do with the rules of “correct” punctuation for writing and publication. These are visual cues for speaking, not literary rules for publication. If a “double dash” is not the “correct” punctuation, who cares?, if it helps you verbally punch the phrase more effectively).

Then, when you are speaking, your mark-ups serve as presentation/delivery cues (clues), helping you use vocal variety and verbal punch effectively; keeping you from speaking in the dreaded monotone voice.

And, yes, if one of your points is truly weak, consider shouting like hell!


2 thoughts on “Speakers Need Visual Cues to Help Them Speak With Verbal Punch, Avoiding the Dreaded Monotone

  1. Punctuation is only an issue if the speaker is using a manuscript, and is tied to exact, pre-planned words. I find this delivery style old-fashioned, and only of interest if the speaker is accountable for those words. The vast majority of presentations today are planned, but are conversational and spontaneous. Toastmasters International coined the essence of extemporaneous delivery well – speakers know WHAT they will say, but not HOW they will say it. If you don’t know the exact words you are going to use, you would not be concerned about punctuation. – KJK

  2. Karl, I’m not sure you got my point. I was not arguing for “punctuation” as “punctuation,” but as “speaking cues.” Such could be used with any kind of speaking notes, not just manuscripts. And, in fact, I stated in the post “Even if you speak without notes, mark up your rehearsal notes.” (Note: “rehearsal notes”).
    Sure, people who speak constantly at Toastmasters have plenty of feedback to help with their verbal punch and vocal variety, but many who give an occasional speech or presentation need all the help they can get. Such marking up of notes is one way to do this.

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