How ‘focus words’ can help you become a better speaker

Do you know what a focus word is?  It is a word that has more stress in speech.  It is said slightly more loudly or strongly than the other words around it.  It is also sometimes said with a higher pitch.

Focus words help to create a natural rhythm to your speech.  They help listeners process your speech.  They can also help you convey slightly different meanings in your speech.

In natural spoken English, focus words are very common.  In fact, every thought group or clause usually has a focus word.   So, if we think of the average thought group being about eight words long, then around 12% of speech is made up of focus words.

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Usually the focus word will be near the end of the thought group.  It is usually the last content word (non-grammatical word eg. noun, verb) in the thought group.  For example “David hasn’t checked his MAIL yet” or “They decided to drive to the BEACH.”  For focus words with more than one syllable, the stress always goes on its primary stress syllable.  For example, “The teacher wants us to reCORD it.”

While focus words usually come near the end of each thought group, it is possible to stress other words in the group instead.  This can help convey different meanings.  It might be to emphasize comparison, for example, “I have some GOOD news and some BAD news.”  Or, it might be to give new or correct information, for example “Actually, I’m coming at ONE thirty, not two thirty.”  It might be to emphasize an adjective, for example “It was a REally scary movie.”

Focus words are common in all types of speech from casual conversations to business meetings.  However, they become even more important when many people are listening to your speech such as in oral presentations, announcements, and story telling. 

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So what can you do to practice focus words?  Well, first you need to listen to examples of focus words in natural speech.  Try to notice the speaker’s thought groups and where their focus words are.  Also, try to notice how their focus words are stressed compared to the other words. Sometimes it’s also a good idea to repeat or shadow the speaker (just pause the audio or video). 

You can find a short audio example of focus words in a business talk at the end of the  three tips for improving your speech delivery post.  There are also many other good examples online of speakers using focus words naturally and effectively.  Try listening to experienced presenters doing TED Talks or professional storytellers reading children’s stories on YouTube.

Related links:

Why is word stress important?

Effective oral presentations

Ten recommended TED Talks for language learning