Chances are the way you’ve been trying to improve your speech has been doing more harm than good. For 20 years, people have been coming to me to improve their speech. Their goals are to be crystal clear, highly influential, and very confident during speaking situations. They want to speak better. Almost always people think the solution is to improve their articulation and the pronunciation of sounds.
Pronunciation is Over-Rated
Working on your pronunciation of sounds makes you sound less intelligible, significantly less interesting, and just plain old hard to follow. And maybe even a bit pompous. Why? Because your speech becomes staccato and even-steven. Our brains have evolved to process information based on intonation, not specific sounds.
There are many moving parts when you’re learning to speak better, but your focus should be on intonation.
What is intonation?
Good question, thanks for asking. Intonation is the placement of emphasis in the form of volume and duration of a vowel within a syllable.
Let me explain. The use of intonation in Standard American English (SAE) is a mystery to most. Romance languages have strict rules for placing emphasis on words and sentences. And when there’s a change in emphasis, they use an accent mark. Asian languages also follow strict intonation patterns. Usually, those consonant and vowel patterns have an even emphasis on each syllable.
In SAE, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to where we place emphasis, but there is reason — and it’s a real reason as to why we place emphasis where we do. We use intonation to convey information that goes beyond the words we speak.
Lots of information is dispersed using just emphasis alone.
Have you ever had a television program on where the volume was too low to hear what the actors were saying but you could still make out their speaking cadence and sound? You still got the gist of what was going on, right? That’s because our American brains are programmed to process intonation as information.
Have you ever gone to a conference with great interest in the subject matter only to start dreaming about what you’re going to have for lunch five minutes after the speaker starts? Well, most likely it’s not your fault. It’s the fault of the speaker who, in an honest attempt to speak with great emphasis, is using staccato speech with no intonation.
Why Poor Intonation = Poor Speech
I’d like to show you what even emphasis on each syllable looks like. If you could hear me speaking right now, that would be great. But let’s settle for font formatting.
“Thank you all for coming. Today I’d like to discuss the business practices of the green monkey.”
Say the above sentence out loud. I bolded the vowels. When you come across a vowel, make it louder and longer. You hear how it sounds staccato and even? It’s how most people try to improve their speech.
Listening to someone speak in a staccato tone makes me think about lunch. Should I get chicken cutlet on a roll with mayo? Or should I be really good and get a salad?
I will do anything other than listening to what the speaker is saying if she’s using an even-steven tone. The more I listen to this drone, the more I think I have to treat myself and get the sandwich. With a Diet Coke, of course.
I’m here to help.
Using Intonation to Improve Your Speech
Let’s try that sentence again the right way. Here’s what you do:
First, determine which words provide the most information and emphasize them and only them. Ok? Good start. It gets a little trickier.
Now determine which syllable in those words get the main stress and only emphasize that vowel. There should be no more than 15% of your vowels considered important.
The other 85% of vowels should be reduced. I mean crazy-reduced to the point that they may not exist. Let’s try it together.
“Thank you all fr coming. T’day I’d like t’ discuss th’ bizness practices f’th’green monkey.”
How exciting is that?! Hello! That is so much more interesting. You can make what you consider to be the most boring topic in the world interesting. Resulting in people loving your presentations & following your call to action.
Following my direction gives you control over your speech, yourself, and others. Contact our team right now for a free, no-obligation speech assessment. We’ll make you sound crystal clear and smooth. Learn a bit about me.
“Just be yourself!” Possibly the most well-meaning but awful advice. It’s really hard to be ourselves when we’re nervous. You’ve got a speaking event or a first date or a toast at a wedding and your friends & your mom suggest you just be yourself. Thanks! It’s so complimentary because they obviously think “yourself” is something special. But the advice is ineffective.
When we’re feeling nervous we have a very hard time being ourselves. Someone else comes out. Someone stiff, maybe awkward. Someone who’s not as funny and smart as we are.
Here are a few solutions to being yourself & speaking better during challenging situations:
- Relax. I don’t mean that in an obnoxious way. I mean literally. Learn to eliminate the tension from your musculature. That tension is closing up your throat & cutting off your access to your brain. That’s where the stuff is that you’re trying to get across to your audience. Once you’re relaxed you can speak better.
- Love your audience. Don’t focus on yourself. Don’t think about what they’re possibly thinking about you. (You don’t know because you’re probably not a mind reader.) Think about what they know, what they need to know & how much you love them.
- Open your throat. This is part of relaxing. But if you learn the trick to keeping your throat open it will also keep your mind open & allow you to be yourself. Do you know the expression “choked up”? It means that you feel so much emotion you can’t speak. Of course there are varying degrees. In charged situations (like giving presentations, going on a job interview or a first date, during an argument with a colleague or family member) our throats literally close up & we lose our ability to get our genius out! That’s how you speak better during presentations 🙂
How to Be Yourself
When are you totally yourself? It’s when you’re in comfortable situations with the people you’re most comfortable with. When do you need to be yourself? When do you need to be an effective & persuasive speaker? It’s when you’re in situations that don’t lend themselves to relaxation. Ha! You need to be amazing in the times & places that are the most anxiety-ridden. That’s where the money is.
So yes, you can forgive yourself for not being the best communicator in the world during high-pressure situations. But you don’t have to live with it. Set up a meeting to consult with me & we’ll get you started on your journey to speaking better & sounding amazing!