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What makes a voice sound persuasive?

By Crews Owen


Persuasive speaker Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King. Margaret Thatcher. Mahatma Gandhi. What do these three have in common? Not only are these leaders known for their vision and principles, but they are also celebrated as inspiring speakers. But, what exactly makes a person a persuasive speaker? Certainly they must have valuable ideas. Perhaps equally important is how a person uses the sound of their voice to be convincing. Pittsburgh activist Frankie Mae Pace was an important leader who helped the Hill District community by establishing organizations like the Homeowners and Tenants Association as well as the Citizens Committee for Hill District Renewal. To accomplish all of this, Frankie Mae needed to communicate effectively to unite her community and to make their concerns heard by the city. 

Researchers have studied the ways that vocal qualities are perceived by others. A 2023 study by phonetics expert Gabrijela Kišiček outlines how elements like pitch, articulation, and tempo affect the meaning and mood of the speech. Take pitch, for instance. When we hear someone speaking in a high-pitched range, we might associate it with joy, but also anxiety or fear. Lower ranges can be associated with sadness, but also competency and strength. A speaker who uses a wide range of pitches is perceived to be dynamic and extroverted. Articulation refers to the way words are emphasized, some treated lightly or with more weight, some with brevity and others with length. A very staccato phrase can suggest intensity and even aggression, whereas a legato, smooth phrase suggests sensitivity and gentleness. The tempo of speech also can be persuasive. Fast speech is associated with high energy, extroverted personalities while a slower tempos can reflect boredom or sadness. In the following audio clip, you will hear how Frankie Pace uses these three persuasive tools – pitch, articulation and tempo – in her everyday speech.

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Frankie Mae Pace (1905–1989)  

Charles Henry Pace and Frankie M. Pace Gospel Music Collection, 1822-1958, ULS Archives & Special Collections, Pittsburgh University Libraries 

Listen to the excerpt from Gary Walters’ 1973 interview with Frankie Pace in which Pace talks about the protest march to the city hall. At the beginning, she speaks at a brisk tempo and uses a narrow range of pitches to deliver information. Notice that she slows down to emphasize certain words (“actually” “first march” and “city hall”). She sounds assertive, showing the calmness she maintained in the midst of protest. She accents the word “70” and places it on a higher pitch to emphasize the large number of people that she had gathered for the march. At the end of the clip, her voice dips to the deepest pitches on the words “council could give us a hearing.” It is a point of resolution because the march served its purpose. To accomplish all that Pace did, she had to be an effective communicator with confidence and poise, traits that Pace clearly had in spades. 

Frankie Pace Interview
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Pace, Frankie, and Gary Walters. “Pace, Frankie, April 8, 1973, Tape 1, Side 1.” 8 April 1973. Pittsburgh Renaissance Project: The Stanton Belfour Oral History Collection, 1971-1973. University of Pittsburgh.  

Transcription of Frankie Mae Pace: We had been fighting with city council and things so long for some lighting and some cans on the street and to pave some of the streets up here and especially to get rid of the dirt street. So actually the first march on city hall since I have been here in these 35 years to march right into the council chambers. Now, people were probably thinking, what is this organization? We didn't have any money, but we made us some little cardboard signs on sticks and it was 70 of us! I'll never forget. And we marched into city council with all those signs and went right into the chambers and they said, We want better lighting. We want our streets cleaned. Down with dirt streets, you know, and just the different complaints that we had. And at that time, council could give us a hearing.

In your opinion, what part of persuasive speech do you think is the most important? 
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Harris, Charles Teenie. Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America


Pace, Frankie, and Gary Walters. “Pace, Frankie, April 8, 1973, Tape 1, Side 1.” Request Rejected, 8 Apr. 1973. (7:09-7:59) 

Kišiček, Gabrijela. “Sonic Rhetoric.” The Routledge Handbook of Language and Persuasion. New York: Routledge, 2023, 131–146.  

Five Ways to Get Public Speaking Opportunities Even If You’re New to It.” Midas PR, 16 Aug. 2020. 

Kahlon, Smiti, et al. “Perfectionism as a Predictor of Change in Digital Self-Guided Interventions for Public Speaking Anxiety in Adolescents: A Secondary Analysis of a Four-Armed Randomized Controlled Trial.” Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, vol. 53, no. 2, Mar. 2024, pp. 152–70. EBSCOhost.

García-Monge, Alfonso, et al. “Embodied Strategies for Public Speaking Anxiety: Evaluation of the Corp-Oral Program.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, vol. 17, Nov. 2023. EBSCOhost

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