Evaluating Speakers Using the Vocal Variety Factor

Admit it. Sometimes while listening to someone speak, you lose focus and your attention wanders. No matter how engaging the speaker is, you start to think about picking up your kids, navigating construction to get home in time for dinner, or who will be pitching for your team this weekend.

So certainly, you can understand when, as a speaker, some of YOUR audience members tune out from time to time. The question is, when they’re ready to tune back in, will you grab their attention with something different, or will they hear the same tone and see the same expression that led them to drift away? When your delivery has no variety from start to finish, with a sing-song sameness to it that lulls people, you’ll lose your listeners.

When they hear and/or see something delivered in a way that’s DIFFERENT, they’re much more likely to pay attention. We live in the era of statistics, so this month we introduce you to the Vocal Variety Factor (VVF), a 1-10 scale that gauges how effectively a speaker changes their tone, volume and intonation from one moment to the next. A speaker who has the same lilt and cadence throughout their speech receives a lower VVF score. Someone who adjusts their speaking approach by changing speed, volume and intonation will likely be perceived as a more engaging speaker and will score in the upper digits.

This month, we watched 17 commencement speeches by well-known individuals at many top universities, focusing on who scored highest using the Vocal Variety Factor. Rather than watching the entire speech, we clicked forward 1-2 minutes at a time, allowing us to simulate “tuning in and out” As we checked in at various moments, we focused on whether the vocal tone was the same or different than what we had just heard. The more these speakers sounded the same, the less we wanted to tune back in.

You can click on each of the names below to watch their speech on YouTube. Take a few minutes to browse through and see if you agree with our VVF rankings:

Best vocal variety (VVF score 8-10)

This first group of speakers tended to tell stories, use big gestures, sound conversational, and deliver their talks without regularly referring to their notes. They changed speed and volume often, and their audiences tended to be more engaged.

Sen. Cory Booker, Temple

Oprah Winfrey, USC

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Harvard

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, NYU

Journalist Ronan Farrow, Loyola Marymount

Not bad, but should have been better (VVF score 4-7)

This next group had some vocal variety to their presentations, but they tended to fall into predictable voice patterns over time that caused us to lose interest. Interestingly, they also tended to hold tightly onto the sides of the podium as they spoke.

Soccer Player Abby Wambach, Barnard College

Actor Sterling K. Browne, Stanford

Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya, Wharton School of Business

Actor Michael Keaton, Kent State

Apple CEO Tim Cook, Duke

Chance the Rapper, Dillard

Wish we liked them more (VVF score 1-3)

This final group of speakers lost our interest early and never really won us back. The sameness of their tones didn’t convey their messages very effectively. Mindy Kaling, for example, delivered her big message—“Go Conquer the World!”—with the same volume and speed at which she shared advice on dating.

Actress Mindy Kaling, Dartmouth

CNN News Anchor Jake Tapper, Massachusetts-Amherst

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Virginia Military Institute

Journalist Andrea Mitchell, Penn

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, M.I.T.

U.S Ambassador Nikki Haley, Clemson

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