Quiet Enough To Be Heard

Of all the aspects writing, from sentences to dialogue to character, perhaps none is harder to teach than voice. After all, if your voice is your voice it ought to be distinctive, and if it’s distinctive no one has ever heard it before—and so how do you teach it?

Yet one of my favorite teaching stories involves voice. Granted, it’s an actor’s voice, but I believe it applies. Richard Burton, a man known for his voice, was supposed to have been trained in elocution by a teacher with whom he lived when he was a teenager. The story goes that the teacher would have young Burton stand a short distance away and recite a piece of Shakespeare as clearly as possible. He would then have Burton move back another ten yards, recite the same piece so it could be heard just as clearly, but without reciting it any louder. So on it went, with Burton moving further and further from his teacher, never raising his voice, but always being heard.

This story goes deeper than the pure technique of being heard. The greatest orators I know, those I’ve sat with and those I’ve watched, never shout. Yes, they speak clearly, yes their voices are rich, but beyond that, through presence and focus they attract the totality of their listeners’ attention. Once you have that, it’s very easy to be heard.

This is our job as writers as we seek to have our voices heard. Your readers begin at a great distance from you. They are physically distant, and, at least at the beginning of a novel or story, emotionally distant—they do not know yet whether they trust you take them somewhere they want to go. The best orators always begin by putting their audience at ease. Sometimes it’s a joke, sometimes a warm greeting, sometimes saying nothing at all. However it’s done, he is assuring his listener that he will be a calm and able captain for this short journey.

You could shout to gain your reader’s attention, and just as in the public square, heads will turn if you raise your voice loud enough. But most of us can only be shouted at for so long. The most memorable openings I have read weren’t exciting or titillating, but were a simple assurance that you were about to spend some time with someone who only wants the best for you.

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