Communicate Clearly and Confidently in American English – Four Ways to Use Your Voice

One of the biggest concerns I hear from my clients and students is that they want how they sound in English to reflect the quality of their ideas.

In other words, they want to communicate clearly and confidently, so that other people can easily understand and follow what they’re saying.

Let’s talk about four ways you can improve how you use your voice in order to speak more clearly so that you’re more easily understood.

These tips will encourage you to better express yourself using the language you already have.

By the end of this video, you’ll understand exactly what you need to do to communicate more clearly and effectively in American English.

Let’s get started!


#1 Improve How You Say Words You Use All The Time with Word Stress

The first thing you can do is to improve how you say the words you use all the time.

One of the very first things I notice when I meet with clients for an accent consultation is that they struggle to correctly say words that they use all the time in their work, in their field of study, or even in their daily lives.

Specifically, they struggle with word stress, which is when we emphasize one syllable of a word more than the rest by making it longer, louder, and higher in pitch, with an extra clear vowel.

Word stress is absolutely essential for pronouncing words correctly.

If you don’t stress a syllable or you stress the wrong syllable, the word will sound “off,” even if every other sound in the word is pronounced correctly!

Native English speakers listen for this stressed syllable in order to identify the word you’re using.

While it’s definitely true that everyone mispronounces words from time to time, including native speakers, if you are consistently mispronouncing words that you use all the time when discussing your work or your studies, it’s going to affect how the other person perceives you.

You may not be sure which syllable to emphasize.

Maybe you’ve been saying it with the wrong stress for years and years.

Either way, you need to unlearn the way you’re currently saying the word and replace it with the correct stress.

Or maybe you have a very similar word in your language.

These cognates can be especially tricky if they’re stressed or emphasized on a different syllable than the way we do it in English.


Practice Stressing Common Words Correctly

Let’s consider these common words that I often hear non-native speakers stress incorrectly.

When you’re talking about your work as an engineer, you want to make sure you’re stressing the right syllable.

In American English, this word will be stressed on the last syllable: engiNEER, engiNEER (IPA: /ˌɛndʒəˈnɪr/.

As you can hear, the stressed syllable is longer, louder and higher in pitch: engiNEER, engiNEER.

Let’s consider this word: communication.

Which syllable should receive the most emphasis in this word?

It should be stressed like this: communiCAtion, communiCAtion (IPA: /kəˌmjunɪˈkeɪʃən/).

As you can hear, “communication” is stressed on the second to last syllable: communiCAtion.

I find a lot of people struggle to say this word correctly because the emphasis will be on a different syllable in their native language.

How about this word? University. This is a super common word in many languages.

In English, the stress will be on the third syllable: uniVERsity, uniVERsity (IPA: /ˌjunəˈvɜrsəti/).

If you shift the stress to the beginning of the word, University, or to the end of the word, universiTY, it’s going to sound “off” in American English.

In order to help people understand you, make sure you’re stressing this word on the right syllable: uniVERsity.

Let’s look at another word: theoretical.

This word is tricky for a lot of people because of that “th” sound at the beginning of the word.

Even if you find it challenging to say a sound like the “th,” making sure the stress is on the right syllable will help people understand you.

Stress is often more important than the pronunciation of tricky sounds.

This word should be pronounced as follows: theoREtical, theoREtical (IPA: /ˌθiəˈrɛtɪkəl/).

If you stress a different vowel sound, it’s going to be hard for people to decipher what you’re saying.

So you want to make sure stress is on the right syllable: theoREtical, theoREtical.

Here’s another common word that I sometimes hear people mispronounce: website.

I often find people struggle with two-syllable words because they rush right through them.

In order to correctly, say this word, you need to emphasize one syllable more than the other.

Once again, that means you’ll make it longer, louder, and higher in pitch, with an extra clear vowel sound.

If you pronounce these two syllables evenly, the word will still sound a little off.

This is often because you’re used to rushing through shorter words in order to give yourself more time for the longer ones.

Let’s really hold and emphasize the stressed syllable on this word: WEBsite, WEBsite, WEBsite (IPA: /ˈwɛbˌsaɪt/).

As you can hear, the first syllable receives the most stress and emphasis. That means it’s longer, louder, and higher in pitch.


Word Stress Helps You Communicate Clearly So Native Speakers Understand You

When you stress words correctly, it really helps people understand you and identify which word you’re using, even if you make other pronunciation errors!

You want to help out your listener by emphasizing the correct syllables of the words you’re using.

I encourage you to make a list of words you use all the time, especially things like your job title, words you use all the time when talking about your work, your field of study, the company that you work for, the city, state, and country where you live.

Take some time to make a list and keep adding to it.

You can learn how to identify which syllable should be stressed using a dictionary by checking out this video on word stress in American English.

Want a quicker way to master word stress patterns in American English? Check out Stress Simplified, a step-by-step course where you’ll practice and internalize word stress patterns so you feel confident you’re saying words correctly.

#2 Emphasize the Most Important Words With Your Voice Using Sentence Stress

The next thing you can do is to emphasize your most important ideas with your voice.

When we’re speaking, we emphasize the words that truly matter and de-emphasize, or hide, the words that don’t.

In a normal sentence, you’re going to have a number of words that are the content words.

They’re the words that convey the meaning of the sentence.

In order to help other people understand the most important ideas in your speech, you want to emphasize these words.

You’re also going to have words that help with the grammatical structure. These are called function words because they’re not as important for meaning.

This concept of emphasizing the words that truly matter and de-emphasizing or reducing the rest is called sentence stress, and it works together with word stress.

When you’re stressing or emphasizing a word, you’re bringing more attention to the stressed syllable of that word by making it longer, louder, and higher in pitch.

When you’re saying words that just have to do with the structure of the sentence, with the grammar of the sentence, you’re going to deemphasize them, or hide them, beneath the content words.

In other words, you’re going to make them shorter, quieter, and lower in pitch.

The contrast between the important words and the words that don’t really matter will help you sound more natural.

When you help other people understand your most important ideas by drawing attention to them, you’re reducing the amount of work they have to do to understand you.

You’re pointing out the words that really matter so they can follow your ideas.


Practice Stressing the Most Important Words in a Sentence

Let’s take a look at how this works in a few examples.

Take a look at this sentence: I have some feedback on the final sales figures from last year.

When you look at this sentence, try to identify the words that express the meaning.

Which are the words that matter?

The important words are “have,” “feedback,” “final,” “sales,” “figures,” “last,” “year.”

If you just say those words, I can still understand your meaning.

The other words are simply helping you have a grammatically correct sentence.

Now let’s try saying it by stressing or emphasizing the key syllables of these words:

I HAVE some FEEDback on the FInal SALES FIgures from LAST YEAR.

Try it again: I HAVE some FEEDback on the FInal SALES FIgures from LAST YEAR.

As you can hear, the content words are stressed or emphasized.

They stand out in comparison to the other words.

Let’s try another example: The research proposal is ambitious, but interesting.

Take a moment and think about which words should be stressed in this sentence.

In this sentence, you’re going to stress “research, “proposal,” “ambitious,” and “interesting.”

Let’s practice saying it a few times:

The REsearch proPOsal is amBItious, but INteresting.

One more time: The REsearch proPOsal is amBItious, but INteresting.

Let’s try a question: Do you have a moment to discuss the project I’m working on?

Take a look at this question and think about which words are most important.

In this example, you should stress “have,” “moment,” “discuss,” “project,” “working.”

Once again, you can understand the meaning of the question just by hearing those words.

Let’s try saying this with the correct stress on the right syllables:

Do you HAVE a MOment to disCUSS the PROject I’m WORKing on?

Say it again: Do you HAVE a MOment to disCUSS the PROject I’m WORKing on?

As you can hear in the video, I’m calling your attention to the most important words by making the stressed syllable longer, louder, and higher in pitch, with an extra clear vowel sound.

If you’re not used to emphasizing the most important words in your sentences, it’s going to take some practice.

As you continue to advance, you’ll also notice that there are different levels of stress within phrases.

But for now, focus on emphasizing your most important ideas by using sentence stress.

For even more practice with content words and function words, and how to stress your sentences correctly, check out this video on sentence stress in American English.


#3 Help People Follow Your Ideas Using Smaller Chunks and Thought Groups

Another way is to help people follow your ideas by separating them into smaller chunks.

In English, it’s the responsibility of the speaker to make sure the ideas are packaged in a way that’s easy for the listener to understand.

In other languages, the responsibility’s on the listener to decipher the meaning.

When you’re interacting with native English speakers, they’re expecting you to deliver your message in a way that helps them understand what you’re saying.

We’ve already talked about two ways to do this through word and sentence stress. Now we’re going to talk about thought groups.

Thought groups are how we break up our ideas into smaller, more digestible chunks.

We use short pauses and slight changes in pitch in order to break ideas into smaller pieces.

These pauses and slight changes in pitch signal to the listener that this idea goes together.

They’re listening for these in order to follow what you’re saying.

When you package your idea into these smaller chunks, you’re easy to understand!


Practice Using Thought Groups to Communicate Clearly

Let’s return to the examples we just discussed.

Let’s look at this sentence again: I have some feedback on the final sales figures from last year.

When you look at this sentence, think about how you can separate these words in order to break them into smaller ideas.

Here are the thought groups I would use in the sentence:

I HAVE some FEEDback / on the FInal SALES FIgures / from LAST YEAR.

Listen to how I say the sentence:

I HAVE some FEEDback / on the FInal SALES FIgures / from LAST YEAR.

As you can hear, there’s a slight pause after the words “feedback” and “figures.”

You can also hear a slight rise in pitch after the most important word in that chunk.

Listen to me say it again: I HAVE some FEEDback / on the FInal SALES FIgures / from LAST YEAR.

As you can hear, that short pause and slight rise in pitch signals that I’m not done speaking yet.

When you have longer sentences, this helps the other person digest what you’re saying.

Once again, you’re highlighting the most important ideas.

Let’s try another one: The research proposal is ambitious, but interesting.

Where should I break this sentence up into chunks?

Here are the thought groups I would use:

The REsearch proPOsal / is amBItious, / but INteresting.

As you can hear, I’m pausing and slightly changing my intonation after the words “proposal” and “ambitious.”

This helps bring attention to these key words.

Let’s try it again: The REsearch proPOsal / (pause, rise) is amBItious, / (pause, rise) but INteresting.

One more time: The REsearch proPOsal / (pause, rise) is amBItious, / (pause, rise) but INteresting.

The slight rise in pitch signals that I’m not done talking and there’s more to come. (We’ll talk about intonation in just a moment.)

Now let’s try it with the question.

Take a look at this question: Do you have a moment to discuss the project I’m working on?

How would you break this question up in order to make it easier to say and easier to understand?

Here are the thought groups I would use: Do you have a MOment / to discuss the PROject / I’m working on?

Try it again, remembering to pause and slightly rise after the most important word of each chunk:

Do you have a MOment / to discuss the PROject / I’m working on?

As you can hear, I’m breaking this longer question into shorter chunks.

This makes it easier for me to say, because I get a chance to breathe, and easier for the other person to understand.

Keep in mind that we sometimes use longer pauses at the end of sentences or even mid-sentence in order to draw extra attention to these key ideas.

When you add a longer pause after certain words, it signals that this is really important and that you’re trying to make a point.

Start experimenting with adding more pauses to your speech.

Think about how you can break your ideas into smaller chunks to make them easier to understand.

For more practice with breathing, pausing and thought groups, check out this video.

The Stress Simplified program includes even more practice with sentence stress and thought groups.

#4 Change Your Tone of Voice and Communicate Clearly Using Intonation Patterns

Another way to sound more interesting when speaking English is to consider your tone of voice.

In American English, we use intonation or tone of voice in order to communicate additional meaning.

Intonation is how our pitch rises and falls to communicate additional meaning.

We use changes in intonation patterns to express different emotions and attitudes.

Let’s focus on the three main intonation patterns you need to use to express yourself effectively in English.

First, let’s talk about falling intonation.

We use falling intonation at the end of statements and information questions.

You can hear falling intonation at the end of the two sentences we practiced.

I have some feedback on the final sales figures from last YEAR. ↘️ (rise, then fall)

As you can hear in the video, my pitch is rising and then falling at the end of that sentence.

This signals that my idea is complete.

We’re listening for this fall at the end of neutral, normal declarative sentences in order to communicate that we’re done talking, or at the very least, that we’re done with an idea.

Try it again: I have some feedback on the final sales figures from last YEAR. ↘️ (rise, then fall)

Let’s practice falling intonation in this example:

The research proposal is ambitious, but INteresting. ↘️ (rise, then fall)

Because the final word of that sentence is a little bit longer, you can hear me step down in pitch.

The research proposal is ambitious, but INteresting. ↘️ (rise, then fall)

Try stepping down in pitch from the stressed first syllable: INteresting, INteresting, INteresting.

I’m stepping down from the stressed syllable: INteresting, INteresting.

This fall signals that the idea is complete.

We use rising intonation when we’re asking a yes/no question.

A yes/no question is one that can be answered with a simple yes or no.

Let’s practice with our example question:

Do you have a moment to discuss the project I’m WORKing on? ↗️ (rise)

As you can hear in the video, my pitch is rising at the end of that question to signal that I’m waiting for an answer.

Do you have a moment to discuss the project I’m WORKing on? ↗️ (rise)

We also use rising intonation to turn a statement into a question.

That’s why if you use rising intonation at the end of a declarative statement, it can confuse your listener.

They’ll think that you’re asking them a question, or that you’re not done talking.

If you do this consistently throughout your speech, it can make you sound less confident, insecure, uncertain.

That’s why it’s so important that you finish your declarative statements with a fall in pitch.

Practicing the difference between falling intonation and rising intonation is really important for communicating your meaning clearly.

Check out this video on choosing falling or rising intonation for even more practice.

The third intonation pattern that you need to pay attention to is the slight rise in pitch we discussed with thought groups.

This intonation pattern has a number of different names, such as fall-rise intonation, a continuation rise, a slight rise, a mid-level rise, or non-final intonation, but I prefer to call it holding intonation.

It’s holding intonation because you’re holding the other person’s attention until you fall at the end and signal your idea is complete.

As we just discussed, we use this slight rise after thought groups, and it also signals that we’re not done talking yet.

Once you’ve completed the thought, you’ll use falling intonation to signal that the idea is complete.

If you’re asking a yes/no question, you’ll use rising intonation to signal that you need a response.

Learning how to use falling intonation, rising intonation, and holding intonation effectively will make it easy for other people to understand you, because you’re using your voice to help communicate your meaning.

Interested in learning how to use intonation and your voice to clearly communicate your meaning? The Intonation Clinic is for you.

Your Turn

As you can tell, your voice plays an important role in American English.

It’s about working with what you already have in order to communicate more clearly and effectively.

Leave a comment and let me know which of these tips you’re going to focus on first!

Want to communicate clearly and confidently using stress and intonation in American English? Take a look at the Express Yourself Naturally bundle.

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