Watch Your Tone, Little Mama

These days, I do more than my fair share of delivering speeches to large groups of people. In fact, I’ve studied the art of giving powerful presentations for decades. However, I never once thought about applying the lessons I’ve learned about public speaking to my role as a mother.

Until recently.

For starters, one great way to ensure a stellar speech is to use a technique known as “vocal variety,” this is when you use the tone of your voice to add extra meaning to your spoken words.

For instance, read the following sentence and decide how you’d speak each one aloud, based on their intended meanings.

  • (You think the opera is lame.) “John is taking Jane to the opera on Monday.” 
  • (You think John is a loser.) “John is taking Jane to the opera on Monday.” 
  • (John is going to kill Jane.) “John is taking Jane to the opera on Monday.”

See how it works? The same sentence would sound very different based on the message you’re trying to deliver to the audience.

All great presenters milk this extra layer of communication every chance they get. They’re not robots standing on a stage reciting lines; they infuse the meaning behind their words into the actual words themselves. 

What’s the lesson here? How you say what you say is just as important as what you’re actually saying. 

This isn’t just important when giving speeches; we also do this in everyday conversations. Like when you and your girlfriend are gabbing on the phone. Can’t you easily intuit exactly how she feels about her husband, her boss, the new PTA president, or her latest attempt at bangs? The way she stretches out, shortens, and emphasizes certain words gives her true feelings away. Right?

Well, fortunately (or unfortunately, in my case) the same is true when you speak to your children.

Last Tuesday, my son’s bedtime rolled around, and I was T-I-R-E-D. I needed the day to be over, I wasn’t looking forward to the bedtime routine, and I really had to go to the bathroom. While taking 30 seconds of alone time to empty my bladder, my son called out for me.


I immediately responded, “I’ll be right there, Alex!” which I thought was perfectly appropriate—until I crawled into his bed and saw his sad, little face.

“It hurts my feelings when you speak to me in that mad tone,” he whimpered. Apparently, Alex felt that my tone sounded angry and exhausted. 

And you know what? He was right. Thinking back to the prior exercise, what kind of vocal variety do you think I applied to those five words?

  •  (This is the best part of my day. I love you.) “I’ll be right there, Alex.”
  • (I’m coming, but first I need five minutes of peace.) “I’ll be right there, Alex.” 
  • (Leave me alone!) “I’ll be right there, Alex.” 

Fascinating, isn’t it? I could try to defend myself to him all night long, but it wouldn’t matter. I made it loud and clear how I felt about bedtime that night.

So the next time you’re answering a child’s call, question, or ridiculous inquiry, don’t forget that you might be communicating more than you think you are. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to start thinking twice about how I say what I say from now on.  

Katherine Wintsch