You’ve sat at the back of the room and struggled to make out what the person up front is saying. Aware of how aggravating that is, you try and do things differently the next time it’s your turn to speak—to “project” and “speak up.” You think the extra volume helps your voice carry and makes you sound authoritative.
But just ask anybody seated in the front row—or even the tenth—and once their eardrums are done ringing, they’ll probably tell you they felt shouted at, that it was no less annoying than listening to someone who’s hard to make out. Maybe they even missed your message completely as a result.
The truth is that projecting power as a speaker doesn’t mean getting louder. Here are a few tips for speaking more powerfully without having to raise your voice.
1. SHIFT FROM “PROJECTING” TO “RELEASING”
Whenever you’re coached to “project,” there’s one thing you’ll almost certainly do: push harder. You force yourself to get louder. You think of your sound like a bullet or a cannonball. You use all the energy of your breath to propel your sound up and forward, which makes it louder but also more piercing. Your audience will naturally pull away.
Now for contrast, think of releasing your sound instead of projecting it. Think of the sound of your voice more like a rainbow stretching across a wide expanse of water—and the smooth surface of the water placidly reflects it, rather than trembling in short, choppy waves. To see what this feels like, count to five loudly. Then just say the word “one” slowly, extending that single syllable for the same amount of time it took you to reach “five” a moment ago. Chances are your volume will have dropped a bit, but not your vocal power.
By thinking in terms of releasing your voice, you’re simply allowing your breath to support your natural sound—one that’s colorful and inspiring rather than harsh.
2. MAKE YOUR GESTURES FLOW
Take it from one of Bruce Lee’s best-known adages: “Become like water, my friend.” Power demands fluidity; it means letting your energy flow through your body. Think about how you gesture: Do you hold your arms tight against your body and move from your elbows or, even worse, your wrists? That’s great—if you’re a seal playing piano with your flippers.
But if you want to command a room, you need to gesture more fluidly. Your movement should begin in your center (in the pit of your stomach), then flow up through your chest and out through your arms and fingertips. These are a few more tips on gesturing in a way that feels easy and natural, not stiff and forced.
3. MOVE PURPOSEFULLY
Speaking more powerfully also requires moving with purpose—and consciously so. Just like when you stand still, you need to appear balanced and grounded as you move. When you don’t give your movement much thought, it will appear light. You may stop and perch on one foot, or even pace back and forth. That’s just annoying to watch; it doesn’t project power.
One of the most brilliant demonstrations of purposeful, powerful movement is the opening scene of the James Bond movie Spectre. The setting is a Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico. Daniel Craig is wearing a black costume painted on both sides with a body-size skeleton. In a long, unbroken tracking shot, the camera follows him from behind as he strides purposefully through a crowd, enters a building, walks up a flight of stairs, and steps into an elevator.
Keep your eye on that bold, white-on-black skeleton, which makes it easy to notice the steady, rhythmic way Craig moves. His body swings forward in a measured, fluid cadence but he doesn’t appear light or bouncy. Each step seems to ground him, giving an impression of power contained by poise.
4. THINK OF THE WHOLE, NOT ITS PARTS
One of the biggest challenges for even the most masterful speakers is to integrate all the elements that make for a good performance. It’s easy to try out a speaking tip thinking it’ll improve your presentation, only to wind up seeming disjointed. There’s no surefire way around this except through practice. But one place to start is simply by avoiding shortcuts—like raising your voice.
True power comes from balancing your movement, gestures, and words as you deliver your message. In any piece of music, the instruments and vocals need to blend together; if they don’t, they won’t sound any better when you ratchet up the volume. Ultimately, projecting power is just about being in the moment with ease and purpose—all at once.