When asked 3 things they would like to improve in their English communication, 9 out of 10 people will include pronunciation. However, sometimes improving your pronunciation isn’t easy and this is because, while most people know their pronunciation needs improving, they can’t identify the specific problems they have.
And… you can’t fix what you can’t identify.
So, the first step towards fixing your pronunciation is to begin identifying areas that need improvement. It’s nearly impossible to hear yourself while you are speaking, so read your mini speeches and record yourself. Play the recording back and listen carefully for the following things.
Phonemes are the sound that make up words. Usually the difficulty isn’t with the entire word, but a specific sound in the word.
4 phonemes or sounds: b – k – au – s
• Identify problematic phoneme.
• Still unsure? Access online dictionary.
A word is broken up into parts according to how many vowel sounds it has (a.k.a. syllables)
1 syllable= speak 2 syllables= pre-sent
A certain syllable will be stressed if the word has >1 syllable. A stressed syllable sounds stronger and louder.
Sometimes placing stress on different syllables can change the meaning of a word.
PREsent noun PROduce noun
preSENT verb proDUCE verb
It can be tricky to work out which syllable to stress and sometime the rules change. The best way to check is with a dictionary. All dictionaries give the phonetic spelling of a word. This is where they show which syllable is stressed, usually with an apostrophe (‘) just before the stressed syllable.
This kind of stress is different from word stress. While word stress stresses syllables, sentence stress stresses words.
Sentence stress shows our listeners which parts of our sentences are the most important. It signals to the listener that certain information is important.
I used to be terrified of public speaking, but now I love it!
I used to be terrified of public speaking, but now I love it!
In the first sentence, the speaker tries to emphasize the emotions (terrified and love) but in the second sentence, the speaker tries to emphasize that it is no longer true (used to).
When stress is not used, or used incorrectly, the listener may misinterpret the meaning, or have difficulty identifying important concepts.
If your voice is flat and lifeless, your audience will either fall asleep or find something far more interesting to do on their smart phone.
Intonation involves the pitch and the tone of your voice:
angry: voice deepens
An easy way to improve your intonation is by practicing with some simple sentences.
This is what I sound like when I am angry.
This is what I sound like when I am excited.
This is what I sound like when I am scared.
Put your emotion and feeling into the sentences as you say them. Record yourself and listen to the playback. How convincing are you?
Just like a speaker, your volume can be turned up and down. We can adjust our volume during our presentation for a number of reasons:
• distance between us and audience (in a room or a hall?)
• emotion you want to convey (happy? scared? angry?)
• type of audience (young and energetic or older?)
Volume as a Tool
A great speaker doesn’t just use their voice to be heard, they use it as a tool, a gimmick. With their voice they can control the audience.
A keynote speaker walked up onto a stage in front of a large audience. The audience was a bustling group, who were chatting and joking loudly. They were making a lot of noise. As the speaker positioned herself to begin her presentation, most of the audience ignored her and keep chatting away. The speaker had a choice. She could start to yell and try to talk above her large boisterous audience, or she could try another tactic.
She left the stage briefly, retrieved a chair which she placed in the middle of the stage and sat down facing her audience. This began to attract the attention of some of the people in the room. They were curious. What was she doing with a chair? Why was she sitting down? She then began to speak softly and gesture with her hands. She spoke so softly that the few members of the audience who were paying attention had to strain to hear her. Her hand movements and facial expression was animated but they could hardly hear her voice. They began to shoosh the other members of the audience telling them to be quiet. Soon, the room was full of shooshing sounds as more and more people tried to hear what the speaker was saying. It wasn’t long before the entire audience were straining to hear the speaker. Once she had the attention, she got up from the chair abruptly, projected her voice, and strode across the stage. She had captured her audience.
Do you speak naturally slowly or quickly in your first language?
Do you need to slow down or speed up?
Do you speak faster when you get nervous or excited?
These are all questions you should ask yourself.
So, what is too fast or too slow?
slow: less than 110 words per minute
average: 120 – 150 words per minute (conversational speed)
moderately fast: 160 – 200 words per minute (news reader)
very fast speaker: 250 – 400 words per minute (a sports commentator or auctioneer)•
Speaking at the same pace is boring. Audience can lose interest and disengage. A good public speaker is aware of the speed they speak and can control it to suit their purposes.
There are a number of reasons you might want to alter the speed at which you speak during your presentation:
• audience is listening in their foreign language
• speaker wants to develop an emotional mood
• content becomes more difficult to understand
• presenter notices the audience is straining to understand
Record yourself speaking for just a minute.
Is there a variety of speed in your delivery?
If you fast: “chunk” your message, pause and breath.
If you slow: speed up and avoid fillers (ehm… err…)
More articles about English Presentations
ESL Professional Ms. Sally
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