Tuesday 8th October, 2013

No-one Hears the Sirens

I grew up in a town not too far from the infamous secure psychiatric facility known as Broadmoor.

Anyone who lives or who has lived within a couple of miles radius of Broadmoor will react to the mention of ’10am Monday mornings’.

This is the time of week – every week – when the Broadmoor siren is tested.

The siren, a Claxon CS8, has been active since 1952. The Monday morning tests have two distinct tones.

The first is a sequence of two ‘high/low’ notes to signal an escape.

The second comprises a continuous drone to denote ‘all clear’.

Each tone is sounded for two minutes during the test.

When you are used to hearing the sirens in the same sequence at the same time every week you grow to expect them but you cease to associate them with danger.

After a while, they might as well be church bells. I’d even go as far as to say that local people have come to hold the siren in some affection.

As a kid, aged about 10 or 11, I distinctly remember hearing the siren at 10am one Monday morning and thinking to myself ‘How can it only be 10am – I’m desperate to eat the mini Mars mum put in my lunch box’.

The sirens become almost comforting once you’re used to them. Rather than triggers for concern they become audible symbols of peaceful normality.

In fact, so used had we all become to hearing the sirens, when a different – albeit similar-sounding – siren was triggered by accident one weekday mid-morning nobody reacted.

The local paper ran a story about how calm the citizens of our leafy suburbs appeared when faced with imminent Armageddon. (The siren no-one heeded was intended to give us the notorious ’4-minute warning’ of a nuclear attack… this was the 1980s, I might add.)

I’m sure we wouldn’t have been quite as calm had any of us realised what that particular siren meant. We’d simply been conditioned into associating sirens with, well, with nothing.

When the Broadmoor siren sounds for real in the middle of the night, however (and it has at least once in my living memory), you pay attention (and immediately check that you locked all your doors and windows).

You don’t have to live near Broadmoor to understand my point about sirens.

If you are aged 20 or above, you’ll remember how the sirens on ambulances, fire engines and police cars used to sound.

That was until 1995, when research revealed that people’s brains were often unable to detect the direction from which the sound of an emergency vehicle siren was coming.

Turns out, sounds really matter.

Hence, new sirens (‘nee naw’ was replaced by ‘wow wow wow shish’) were introduced with the aim of ensuring that people would both hear and react¬†appropriately to their sound.


When you address an audience, are you like a siren that everyone has become accustomed to?

Do you use all the expected words, in the expected order, at the expected pitch, with the expected tone?

Are you making sounds that your audience can’t decipher?

Are you talking in a drone that just makes people want to cover their ears?


If the answer to those questions is ‘yes’ then it’s reasonably likely that your audience isn’t hearing you because your voice is just a sound and your words aren’t breaking through the general cacophony of background noise and the audience’s own internal dialogue.

So what can you to make sure that you are properly heard?

1. Pause. Try pausing for a couple of beats (seconds) longer than you would in normal conversation. This disrupts the expected rhythm of your speech and may be enough to bring your voice back into your audience’s awareness.

2. Tone. You don’t have to sing, but experiment with melody when you’re doing your mental rehearsals and see how the words feel in your mouth and your ears when you vary your tone. You’ll sound more interesting, right?

3. Gesture. Use your hands to accompany your words. Although your gestures are silent, they create a kind of ‘visual noise’. Pop over to¬†YouTube and watch any TED Talk with the sound turned off. You will notice that none of the speakers ever stands stock still. Gesture adds power to voiced words.

4. Language. Use unexpected words. I don’t mean swear words (though they do have their place). Spend a little time coming up with interesting adjectives to drop into your talks. People are jolted into the present by unusual and unexpected language.

5. Pitch. Your conversational voice may rest comfortably at a particular pitch, but after a while the same pitch becomes difficult to actively listen to. Try experimenting with higher and lower pitches, particularly for dramatic effect.

6. Volume. Just because you’re speaking into a mic it doesn’t mean you can’t vary your own volume. Sometimes, quietness can be extremely disarming. Other times a loud, booming voice will drive your point home.

7. Movement. A click of the heels, a shuffle of the feet. Any subtle movements that create a sound can be a welcome distruption that brings your audience’s attention back to you.




Categories: Pausing, Tonality, Words

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