Change Your Meaning with Your Voice – Intonation, Inflection, & Tone of Voice

You can say the same question in several different ways:

  • What are you doing? (falling intonation)
  • What are YOU doing?
  • WHAT are you doing?
  • What are you doing? (steep fall in pitch)
  • What are you doing? (wavy pitch)
  • What are you doing? (flat pitch)

Even though the words are the same, the feeling you get from them is totally different.

In this video, you’re going to learn three ways to change your meaning with your voice:

  • First, we’re going to discuss how to move stress or emphasis to a different word to express what you mean.
  • Next, you’ll find out how changing intonation patterns can communicate a whole other meaning.
  • Last but not least, we’ll talk about how you can adjust the overall pitch levels in your speech in order to show different emotions, feelings, and attitudes.

As you’ll often hear me say, your voice is a powerful tool.

Let’s explore how to use it to communicate clearly, confidently and intentionally.

Let’s get started!


Change Your Meaning By Stressing a Specific Word

The first way to change your meaning with your voice is by stressing, or emphasizing, one word more than the rest.

In normal, neutral sentences, the final content word is usually the one that stressed the most.

(This means the stressed syllable of this word will be the longest, the loudest, and the highest in pitch.)

Let’s look at a normal, neutral sentence:

My cousin moved to California last year.

When I’m just stating this as a fact, I’m going to stress “year”:

My cousin moved to California last YEAR.

When you stress one word more than the rest, you’re basically underlining it with your voice.

If you stress a different word than people expect, you can subtly or obviously change the meaning, depending on the context.

What happens if I stress a different word?

My COUsin moved to California last year.

If I stress “cousin,” it sounds like I’m clarifying.

My COUsin moved to California last year.

Maybe the other person thought my brother moved there instead.

What happens if I stress “California”?

My cousin moved to CaliFORnia last year.

I might stress “California” if I’m answering a question, like “Where did your cousin move to?”

My cousin moved to CaliFORnia last year.

How does the meaning change when I stress “last”?

My cousin moved to California LAST year.

Perhaps the other person got confused and thought it was several years ago, or more recently.

My cousin moved to California LAST year.

Or I might be drawing attention to the fact that last year was a particularly interesting time to move across the country.


Change the Word You Stress for Emphasis and Effect

Let’s look at a few more examples of how you can change the word you stress for emphasis and effect.

As you listen to the video, think about which word stands out the most.

The ONly way to change how you sound is through practice.

In this case, you can hear that I’m stressing “only” the most in order to emphasize that practice is the singular most important way to improve.

The ONly way to change how you sound is through practice.

Here’s another example. Which word is stressed the most?

That’s my FAVorite movie.

In this example, I’m underlining the word “favorite” so that there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind how I feel about the movie.

That’s my FAVorite movie.

How does changing the focus word change the meaning in this question?

WHAT are you eating?

If you were simply curious about the food on someone’s plate, you would stress “eating” the most.

By shifting the stress to “what,” you’re expressing shock, surprise, or even disgust.

WHAT are you eating?

Notice how I stress this sentence:

We could ask for an exTENsion.

When I say this as a declaration of fact, it’s going to sound like this:

We could ask for an exTENsion.

Stressing a different word can also soften your language or help you sound a little more tactful.

For example:

We COULD ask for an extension.

By stressing the modal verb “could,” I’m presenting it as an option and showing that I’m open to discussion.

We COULD ask for an extension.

If I shift the stress to the word “ask,” how does it change the meaning?

We could ASK for an extension.

In this case, we’re stressing “ask” to underline that it’s a request, rather than a demand.

We could ASK for an extension.

One more example:

They’re going to try to finish on TIME.

In this case, I’m stressing “time” the most.

They’re going to try to finish on TIME.

Now listen to how this version is different:

They’re going to TRY to finish on time.

How does the meaning change by shifting the stress to the word “try”?

They’re going to TRY to finish on time.

In this case, we’re emphasizing that there’s going to be an attempt to finish on time.

This subtle difference suggests that finishing on time is not guaranteed.

As you can hear, shifting stress is a powerful way to communicate your meaning.

Listen to which words people stress the most and notice how that affects their meaning.

Experiment with stressing, emphasizing, or underlining different words with your voice.

See how that can make your meaning more clear, or your ideas more compelling and interesting.


Change Your Meaning By Changing Your Intonation

Besides moving stress around, you can also change your meaning by changing your intonation.

When you use a different intonation pattern than expected, people are going to be listening for the deeper meaning behind your words.

If you’re simply stating a fact, you’ll use falling intonation.

They’re not here yet. ↘️ They’re not here yet. ↘️

If you fall consistently throughout the sentence, it sounds annoyed.

They’re not ↘️ here ↘️ yet. ↘️ They’re not ↘️ here ↘️ yet. ↘️

If you use rising intonation on this statement, it turns it into a question.

They’re not here yet? ↗️ They’re not here yet? ↗️

If you use an even higher rise at the end, it can sound shocked or surprised.

They’re not here yet?! ↗️ ↗️ They’re not here yet?! ↗️↗️

If you’re asking a straightforward yes or no question, it may sound like this.

Are you sure? ↗️ Are you sure? ↗️

If you use falling intonation instead, it signals doubt or disappointment.

Are you sure? ↘️ Are you sure? ↘️

To sound tentative or uncertain, you can use “wavier” intonation with a slight rise at the end.

Are you sure? 〰️ ↗️ Are you sure? 〰️ ↗️

As you can hear, there’s a lot you can do with your voice to express a totally different meaning.

When we change stress and intonation to express meaning it’s often called inflection.

In other words, you’re adding extra information and nuance with your voice.


Change Your Meaning By Changing Your Overall Pitch Levels

Last but not least, let’s talk about how your overall pitch levels can affect your meaning.

As you’ve often heard me say, pitch is relative to you and your own voice.

When people are listening to you, they’re listening to your words, and they’re also gathering meaning from your voice.

In other words, they’re seeing how your words compare to your tone of voice to decide how you really feel about what you say.

Your voice often reflects how you truly feel, intentionally or not.

When we’re speaking naturally, we generally move between four pitch levels, which I explain in this video on pitch and intonation when speaking.

Consider this sentence:

It’s so nice to finally meet you. It’s so nice to finally meet you. (normal pitch levels)

If you’re expressing stronger, positive emotions, such as excitement and enthusiasm, you may use an even wider pitch range:

It’s so nice to finally meet you. It’s so nice to finally meet you. (wider pitch range)

If you’re showing somewhat negative emotions like disinterest or boredom, your pitch range will be more narrow.

It’s so nice to finally meet you. It’s so nice to finally meet you. (narrower pitch range)

You can also use a wide pitch range with steep drops in pitch to sound sarcastic or annoyed.

It’s so nice to finally meet you. It’s so nice to finally meet you. (wide pitch range with steep drops in pitch)

In the video, you can compare these versions back to back:

  • It’s so nice to finally meet you. (normal pitch levels)
  • It’s so nice to finally meet you. (wider pitch range)
  • It’s so nice to finally meet you. (narrower pitch range)
  • It’s so nice to finally meet you. (wide pitch range with steep drops in pitch)

Big difference, right?

That’s why people often say, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”


Pay Attention to How People Communicate Meaning and Experiment with Your Voice

At the beginning of this video, I reminded you that your voice is a powerful tool.

Now you want to tune in to the additional meaning that we’re communicating through stress and intonation.

Stay curious when listening to other people:

  • Can you hear which words are most important?
  • Are they always the words you expect?
  • Do you notice how the rises and falls change based on what’s happening in the conversation?
  • How does their pitch express how they feel about what they’re saying?

To feel more confident expressing your meaning through your voice, you have to experiment.

Change things up, and pay attention to how people respond to you.

If you need to review how we use stress, pitch, and intonation, check out these videos:

Remember, once you’re consistently speaking with stress and intonation, you have so much more control over your meaning and your message.

For more guidance and practice as you explore how to use your voice to communicate your meaning, consider joining the Intonation Clinic. Step-by-step, you’ll discover how to use pitch and intonation to communicate your meaning.

Leave a Comment

You agree to share your name and email address with Kim in order to leave a comment. The data from this comment form will only be used to respond to your comment.