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  • Writer's pictureJoan Medlen

It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

This is the second part of a three part series of posts based on  a quote from Linda Hodgdon’s book, Visual Strategies for Improving Communication:

“Communication is 55% visual, 37 % vocal, and 7% verbal, or the actual message.”

The “vocal” piece of a message is not the words, but the sound of them as you deliver your message. This vocal portion of clear communication has two pieces: tone and rate of speech.


We all had that teacher from Charlie Brown  at one point in our lives. The words all sounded the same. “Blah blah blah blah.”

On the flip side, there’s the person who presents everything as the most exciting thing ever (think “infomercial”).

Effective communication happens when the vocal tone that fits the message and the audience.  Using a variety of tones when you speak helps people most people stay tuned in to the message.

Most of the time.

Sometimes the typical tone and variation in voice will create trouble. Some people experience sensory integration issues, an “invisible” disability. For example, a person with the dual diagnosis of Down syndrome or autism may become over excited with certain voice tones. A happy, energetic tone is usually appropriate. However , a sensory-related issue can mean the same tone is overwhelming. Some cues to this may include “flapping” (waving hands in the air), tapping fingers relentlessly, playing with hair, tapping toes. These behaviors are like filtering for a person with sensory integration issues who is overwhelmed and calm them. Once this begins, they are no longer able to take information in. Think of it as “verbal clutter.” All that intonation and emotion clutters the message if a person does not have a filter to weed out what is not important.

There are other things that influence sensory integration issues, but that’s for another day.

You may not know which presentation is best for the person you are coaching. There are a few things you can do to help. Add questions to the intake form that provide useful information.  Ask the person, their parent, or their support person how this person learns best. These small steps will save you a great deal of time and provide the best presentation.


The speed of your speech is another key to understandability. If you speak too fast, the person you are communicating with may be overwhelmed and shut down. Rather than hearing a clear, statement, they hear, “BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ!!!” It all begins to run together.  Again, verbal “clutter.”

At the same time, if you speak overly slow, your listener may turn you off because they are impatient. They begin to become anxious to get to the end.

I can’t stress this enough when talking with people who have intellectual disabilities. There’s no need to speak so slow that you are over-enunciating every syllable. It is, however, important to speak with a rate that does not overwhelm either.

Finding the right rate of speech can be tough. If you are not sure, ask. Say something like, “Sometimes I talk too fast or too slow. I am never sure. Will you tell me if I am going too fast or too slow?”

The most common influence on rate and tone of speech is emotion. Everyone reacts differently when under stress or anxious about a conversation or presentation. Those emotions affect each person’s speech differently. In small groups – even large presentations – it works best for the listener to acknowledge the situation. Admit your emotions and encourage the listener to tell you if you are going too fast or too slow. Draw them into the conversation by asking for their help. You will be glad you did. It’s 37% of what your listeners hear!

Consider including other ways to see if the person you are working with understands, as well. For example, ask if they are comfortable telling you what they are learning (repeating back) or develop “next steps” with them to see if you’re on the right path.

People respect the professional who takes the time to check back for understanding. Find a meaningful way to do that so you can check your rate and tone when communicating with people with intellectual disabilities.

Next up: Visual Communication.

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