I was watching this year’s Victorian final of the Plain English Speaking Awards the other evening. Couldn’t help being impressed by the confidence on display by each of the student finalists. The presentation was online, which is a public speaking challenge for anyone, and yet each speaker’s personality shone through.

Winners were announced and the standout attribute the adjudicator identified in the winner was her tone. Looking at last year’s PESA Grand Final winner, there was a similar tone.

The right tone engages an audience. Storytelling is often used to engage an audience, but really that’s because the speaker changes their tone when they tell a story. It becomes a ‘gather around and let me tell you something that might interest you’ type of tone when a story is told.

Some of the students in the competition had a certain tone, but it was a lecturing tone. They were almost badgering the audience to agree with their argument. And it was a lecture.

Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen fame has a lovely tone in his presentations. Watch any of his YouTube presentation videos and his tone of voice and content is engaging. His 2008 presentation to Google is a great example.

Some students need to show their passion. That’s great. The audience needs to share that passion. To achieve that the speaker has a lot of work to do. It’s fine for the speaker to be passionate about a topic, but the speech needs to avoid being accusatory, it needs to be non-badgering, not lecturing, not pleading, imploring, demanding, threatening – none of these. These alienate the audience.

The speech needs to contrast light with shade, needs to be friendly, needs to make the audience feel comfortable. Asking, requesting, explaining, illustrating, showing are all examples of getting the tone right.

A speech’s tone is about the writer’s attitude to the audience. Tone is a reflection of the speaker and affects how the audience receives the message.