Three ways to help listeners understand your speaking

Having problems with people undersanding your speaking?

While things like fluency and vocabulary are important,  your delivery (how you speak) is also very important.  In fact, if your delivery is unclear, your fluency and vocabulary can be almost meaningless.

Delivery is not only about pronunciation, but also, and just as importantly, about your prosodyProsody is related to your intonation, stress, and pausing.  It helps to create the timing and rhythm of speech that listeners will be expecting.  It is also an important part of communicating meaning. It is used in all types of speaking from conversations to presentations.  

Having taught oral presentation classes for a number of years, I’ve always been surprised how quickly student delivery improved after addressing basic problems with prosody.  From this experience, and having taught a range of other speaking and pronunciation classes, below three tips I’ve found useful for improving speech delivery.

 



 

Pause in the right places
It’s difficult to understand a speaker who pauses in the wrong places.  It makes speech seem unnatural and disjointed.  It’s even more difficult to understand a speaker who doesn’t pause at all. 

When speaking, try to take short pauses between grammatical phrases eg. where you would usually use a comma or period.  For example, “Because of the rain today (pause) we’re going to have the lunch indoors (pause)”  The phrases between these pauses are called thought groups and are important to helping listeners understand you. They also help you control your speed and give you a chance to catch your breath!   Thought groups are especially important when you have to speak for a long period, for example, telling a story or doing a presentation.

Know which words to stress
The thought groups mentioned above usually have one word that has more stress than the other words in the same group.  This is called the focus wordFocus words also help to create a natural rhythm to your speech.   Usually the focus word will be the last content word (non-grammatical word eg. noun, verb) in the thought group. For example “I haven’t checked my MAIL yet.”  When stressing the focus word, be careful to stress the correct part of the word, or its primary stress (see Fig.1).  For example, “The teacher wants us to reCORD it.”

                                                                    Fig.1

Generally focus words come at the end of each thought group, but it is also possible to stress other words in the group.  This might be to compare things, for example, “I have some GOOD news and some BAD news.”  Or, this might be to give new or correct information, for example “Actually, I’m coming at ONE thirty, not two thirty.”

Use basic intonation
Changing intonation at the end of thought groups further contributes to the overall rhythm.  It also communicates meaning to the listener.  Falling intonation at the end tells the listener you have finished communicating your idea or sentence.  However, importantly, slightly falling (or even slightly rising) intonation at the end tells the listener you want to continue speaking about that idea.  

You can also use intonation changes to convey other meaning to the listener, especially in conversation.  For example, rising intonation usually tells the listener that you are unsure about the information, are surprised, or you would like check the information.  For example “You’re going whERE tomorrow?” (surprise), “You’re going to New YORK?” (check)

Want to try some thought group practice?  Listen to the MP3 file of the business presentation below (see Fig.2). Listen carefully for the pauses, stress (focus words) and intonation. Then practice reading it aloud to yourself. Try and copy the thought group patterns. 

 


                                                                                                   Fig.2

                                                                                               Audio file

Extra tip!!  Record yourself speaking

Try writing a short 2min speech about yourself.  Mark your thought groups, focus words and intonation.  Practice the speech by reading it aloud a few times. Then record your speech (use your smart phone) and play it black.  Check your thought groups with your written speech and remark any remaining problem areas.

Repeat the process.

Related links:

Recommened free pronunciation sites (and apps)

Do people speak too quickly for you?