Titanic anniversary holds a lesson for speakers

by Halina St James

On the night of April 14, one hundred years ago, the Titanic was four days into her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. She was 375 miles south of Newfoundland.  The band had finished for the night. The eight musicians were relaxing with their leader, Wallace Hartley.

At 11.40 pm the Titanic struck an iceberg. Over the next two hours, as the crew struggled to get passengers into lifeboats, Captain Edward Smith asked Hartley to reassemble the band. He needed them to play uplifting music, to help keep the panic down.

Apparently it helped, until just after 2 am on April 15 when it became clear there was no hope. Yet the band played on. Nobody knows for sure what the last song was as the liner broke up and sank with 1000 people still on board. But many believe it was ‘Nearer My God to Thee’, Hartley’s favourite hymn.

As we remember the courage of the Titanic band, there’s a lesson for speakers. Music is powerful. It can change a sad mood into a happy one, and vice versa. It sets up anticipation. It fills us with emotion.

We all use the qualities of music when we speak. It’s in our tone of voice.

As we say in our presentation skills workshops, tone is the music of your words. It’s important that your tone matches your content. Smile if the story is happy. You’d be surprised how many people deliver wonderful news with the tone of the voice of doom.

Tone will vary in speeches. Perhaps you’re talking about a really bad period in the company’s history. You won’t be smiling when you do. But when you talk about how the company overcame the difficulties, start lightening up and build to a full smile.

We all do this naturally when we speak. We only tend to slip into a monotone when we read aloud.

Next time you set out to write a speech, or build a presentation, think about the mood you need to convey. Then figure out how to adjust your tone to suit the message. Always remember that audiences generally respond to emotion and tone before they respond to your words.

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