#286: Improve Your English Speaking Skills with Emphasis and Vocal Variety

Sep 6, 2023 | Communication Skills, How To Develop Skills, Most Popular, Public Speaking & Presentations

In English we have an expression, “It’s not what you say but how you say it.” 

In other words, not only are the words you choose important – along with accurate grammatical structures – but also the way you use your voice to express yourself is important.

Your voice can carry meaning. It can express emotion and depth. Doing so requires vocal variety – the ability to volume, pitch, and tone, for example, to add variation to your voice.

When you use vocal variety in your communication

  • Your message has improved clarity
  • Your audience is more engaged
  • Your words are more memorable

One way to improve vocal variety is through emphasis.

In today’s Confident English lesson, you’ll learn 3 ways to add emphasis when speaking English for improved vocal variety.

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Improve Your English Speaking Skills with Emphasis and Vocal Variety

What is emphasis and why is it important?

Emphasis is the way we use our voice to stress or add intensity to specific words, indicating significance or importance.

Without emphasis in our speech, every word sounds exactly the same — flat and monotone.

Have you ever been at a lecture, conference, meeting, or even listened to an interview where the speaker sounded flat? Did it cause you to lose focus after a few moments? 

Consider:

  • She said the dog is sick.
  • She SAID the dog is sick.

By adding emphasis to ‘said’ and ‘sick,’ I drew your attention to those details. 

As you’ll learn in this lesson, with emphasis you can change the meaning of a sentence, bring attention to particular details, and grab the listener’s attention. 

Strategy #1: Stressed Words Within a Sentence

English speakers naturally add stress to particular words in a sentence such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.

This natural speech pattern is called Sentence Stress; it’s the music of the language.

  • Yesterday I started watching a new TV show on Netflix.

 

You should notice that the pronoun ‘I,’ the article ‘a’, and the preposition ‘on’ are not pronounced as clearly or as loudly.

This is natural Sentence Stress in English and when used accurately, it communicates the primary message.

For example, if I sent you a text message I could say:

  • Yesterday started new TV show Netflix.

 

Sure, it sounds a little strange. It’s obvious some words are missing. But the main message is there. The meaning is clear.

In addition to following natural Sentence Stress, we can also CHOOSE to add increased emphasis to particular words in a sentence.

This especially happens when we’re surprised, excited, frustrated, or simply being funny. 

We can emphasize particular details and even shift the entire meaning of a sentence. 

  • Ex. For instance, take a look at the following sentence: “I spoke to Julia yesterday.

When I add stress, to different words in this sentence, the meaning changes:

  • I spoke to Julia yesterday.” (myself and no one else)
  • I spoke to Julia yesterday.” (Julia and not another person)
  • I spoke to Julia yesterday.” (this happened yesterday)

 

👉Check-in: Following the rules of basic Sentence Stress, which words should naturally receive stress in this sentence?

  • Ex. “My mother owns the largest collection of roses in the neighborhood.

Answer: “My mother owns the largest collection of roses in the neighborhood.”

And now, if I CHOSE to add emphasis to the word ‘my’ in the sentence, how does that change its meaning?

  • MY mother owns the largest collection of roses in the neighborhood.”

 

That’s right. I want it to be clear that it is MY mom — not your mom or someone else’s mom — who has the largest collection.

When you utilize natural sentence stress patterns or choose to emphasize a particular word, you increase the overall vocal variety and make the most important words of your message clear.

Strategy #2: Volume

Secondly, playing with volume is one way you can add more energy and variety to your speech. 

Just like in the first strategy, you can draw attention to particular details by raising your voice or speaking more softly. 

Raising your voice can help to grab the listener’s attention once again AND put dramatic emphasis on a detail/word. It’s also one way you can emphasize the emotion associated with a particular point. 

  • Ex. For example, when talking about climate change, you might passionately say, “We must act soon if we hope to save the Earth.

 

Alternatively, softening your voice can also lead to more dynamic speaking. This can force the listener to lean in and further focus their attention on what you’re saying.

In fact, you may notice speakers do this when they want to convey a so-called “secret.” Comedians employ this strategy often.

  • Ex. For instance, imagine you’re telling a story and you say, “Bob said the dog was a stray.”

    Then, you may quietly/softly add, “But, we all knew he stole the neighbor’s dog.”

 

Overall, by increasing your volume a powerful statement or an emotional moment, it helps convey intensity, conviction, and passion.

A sudden increase or decrease in volume can instantly grab your audience’s attention.

And a deliberate decrease in volume can create intrigue, causing people to lean in and listen more attentively. 

 

By incorporating variations in volume, you introduce dynamics and variety into your speech. This keeps your audience interested and prevents them from tuning out due to a lack of stimulation.

Strategy #3: Pauses

Last, but not least, the power of pauses. 

Pauses help us to slow down our speech, especially when we feel nervous, and give the listener enough time to process the details we’re emphasizing. 

Even better, they add emphasis and variety when speaking. 

There are three ways we can use pauses:

  • Between syllables
  • Before and after a keyword
  • After an introductory phrase

 

Let’s practice using pauses in the following sentence:

“We need to meet this deadline or the contract will be canceled.”

 

If I wanted to stress and further emphasize the word ‘canceled’ I could say,  “We need to meet this deadline or the contract will be can//celed.”

However, I could add even more urgency and weight to this statement by choosing to add a pause before and after ‘need.’

We //need// to meet this deadline/ or the contract will be canceled.”

 

I could also add an introductory phrase to this sentence and say,

Most importantly,// we need// to meet this deadline/ or the contract will be canceled

👉 Related Lesson: 4 Steps to Control Your Voice and Sound Confident in English | Voice Training

How to Practice

Keep in mind that learning to recognize patterns and opportunities for emphasis and adding them naturally can take some time. 

To practice, try recording a daily speaking journal

  • A speaking journal is a series of audio/video recordings of yourself speaking about a particular topic and practicing a particular skill. 
  • In this case, you would be practicing ways to add emphasis. 
  • When integrating these strategies into your speaking skill set, start with one strategy at a time. Only move to the next strategy once you feel confident with the one you’ve practiced.

 

~ Annemarie

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