Voice Skills

by Judy Apps

Emphasis

An important point to remember about speaking English aloud is that it is a stressed language, unlike French or Italian, which are syllabic. In syllabic languages, part of a word is marked out by lengthening the syllable, and the overall effect is quite smooth and fluid. In a stressed language, such as English, certain words are heavily stressed, while the others are very quickly glided over. The stressed words are the most important content ones. Listeners understand English by taking particular note of the stressed words. To speak with impact, you need to concentrate on pronouncing the stressed words clearly. The other words will broadly look after themselves.

Example

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

or, in a business example:

We can understand your reservations about the new planning system.

Notice that negatives always need to be stressed to be correctly understood.

We can’t understand your reservations about the new planning system.

Stress and meaning

Stress is doubly important, as any change of stress affects the meaning.

Example

1. ‘I’m not going’

  • not me; maybe someone else – you, he or she.

2. ‘I’m not going’

  • I refuse to go.

3. ‘I’m not going

  • It’s not going I’m doing; it’s coming back!

Unemphasised sounds

The English language makes big use of the sound ‘er’, and if we are a bit lazy in our speech every syllable turns into a version of this one sound. A flattened voice colours every vowel with an overlay of ‘er’, to deadening effect. In order to transform your speaking voice for the better, you need to let some of the real vowel sounds come into their own.

It is quite OK in English for many of the unemphasised sounds to have an ‘er’ quality about them. See, for example, how many times the sound ‘er’ (written ø) naturally appears in the following sentence when we speak at normal speed:

The purpose of this oration is to communicate to the assembled circle the considerable importance and worth of manipulating the facial muscles as well as pronouncing the words.

Thø pørpøse øf thøs øratiøn øs tø cømmunøcate tø thø øssemblød cørcle thø cønsidørøble importønce ønd wørth øf mønipulatøng thø faciøl muscøls øs wøll øs prønouncøng thø words.

This is quite correct English pronunciation, though it will vary from person to person. To bring the sentence alive, we need to make clear vowels on the emphasised words, thus:

Thø pørpøse øf thøs øratiøn øs tø cømmunøcate tø thø øssemblød rcle thø cønsidørøble importønce ønd rth øf mønipulatøng thø faciøl muscøls øs well øs prønouncøng thø words.

Try reciting the sentence above, and bring the edge of one hand down into the palm of the other on each emphasised vowel to make the point stronger.

Sounds convincing doesn’t it?

Exercise

Switch on a radio programme – maybe a news or current affairs programme – that has a dynamic interviewer. As he or she speaks, imitate the voice, a second or so behind the speaker. You won’t catch everything, but that doesn’t matter. You might like to think of one aspect of voice at a time.

It feels pretty exaggerated, doesn’t it? But not when we listen to it. Get used to using your voice with greater variation and emphasis. If interviewers use that much on the radio, how much more will you need when talking to a large live audience?