I have excellent news for you: sounding professional is NOT about having perfect pronunciation.
When you’re trying to increase your authority, be taken more seriously, and achieve success in a professional or academic setting, you may obsess over these things:
- how your accent sounds to other people
- what you are (or rather your mouth is) doing wrong, or
- identifying the ways in which you don’t sound like a native speaker.
Does this sound familiar? I know it does because I’ve been there too!
And I’m here to tell you that your goal of having “perfect” pronunciation is actually holding you back and distracting you from a much more important goal.
Remember, if you are living, working, or studying in any English-speaking country, people interact with non-native speakers on a daily basis.
(Yes, it’s true that more rural locations may see fewer foreigners, but if you’re living in a city, there are so many other immigrants, tourists, and international students there.)
If you’re working in an international company, many of your colleagues probably have their own accents! It’s really not a big deal.
Yes, cleaning up or fine-tuning your pronunciation will help you sound more natural in English, but it’s not where you should focus your attention first.
Once you’ve mastered the skills I’m about to describe in detail, you can start targeting pronunciation issues one by one.
Let’s discuss a powerful tool that can be so much more effective in communicating your ideas, opinions, and attitude, connecting to other people, and expressing not only your meaning, but also your personality: your voice.
Why You Need to Learn How to Use Your Voice and Breath Effectively
Let’s dig into your toolbox: you can use your voice and breath to emphasize the most important aspects of your speech.
Native English speakers often do this without even thinking about it because these techniques come natural to them as part of the rhythm of English.
Pay closer attention to politicians giving speeches, interesting people sharing TED talks, or comedians delivering monologues, and you’ll notice certain characteristics that truly great speakers, or orators, share.
(You can also hear some of these techniques by listening to podcasts or talk radio. Because you’re not able to watch the person so they have to be extra clear with their voice!)
Talented public speakers do the following:
- pause for emphasis,
- slow down to let a point really sink in
- highlight their key points with word stress
- change their volume to engage their audience, and
- express themselves with intonation to make what they’re saying more relatable.
So I repeat: you don’t need to have perfect pronunciation to be an effective speaker.
Instead, you need to learn how to control, use, and leverage your voice and breath for maximum effect when speaking English.
And I’m going to show you how.
Seven Ways to Use Your Voice and Breath
All of these public speaking skills skills are connected and build on and support each other.
To some degree, they’re variations of the same concepts, but you still need to improve your use of each of them individually so you understand how the pieces fit together.
Here’s what we’ll be looking at today:
- Breathing and Your Breath
- Slowing Down
- Pausing and Phrasing
- Punctuating with Your Voice
- Stress and Emphasis
- Increasing and Decreasing in Volume
1. Breathing and Your Breath
To sound more professional in English, you need to breathe. Why is breathing number one?
Well, if you’re like me, you get nervous when giving a presentation, speaking in front of an audience, or having a job interview.
You get a little uncomfortable when all eyes are on you. When you’re speaking your second (or third) language, it’s even more unnerving.
Even though I’ve been teaching for almost a decade, I still get nervous when lecturing.
Then what happens? I start speaking too quickly.
As a native speaker talking to other native speakers, this is no big deal; it’s just a signal that I’m nervous.
But if you’re a non-native speaker talking quickly, your speed can emphasize or enhance pronunciation challenges.
Speaking too fast can also make it sound like you’re not very careful (or worse, thoughtless) when you express your thoughts.
So here’s what I want you to do instead: I want you to breathe.
Breathing more deeply and more often naturally forces you to slow down (which leads to point number two!).
But most importantly, breathing gives you an extra moment to gather your thoughts if you got distracted or veered off subject, rather than filling in with a thinking word like “um,” “ah,” “I mean,” or “like” (my personal enemy).
Instead of trying to fill in the empty space, just take a deep breath.
2. Slow Down
Now that you’re paying more attention to your breathing, you’re going to naturally slow down.
I want you to slow down, and then I want you to slow down even more.
When we are speaking another language, we have this tendency to try to impress native speakers with how quickly we share ideas.
We think speaking quickly is a sign of fluency or mastery of a language, but I’d like you to think about it differently.
You actually need time to clearly express word stress, sentence stress, and intonation.
Slow down to give yourself enough time to truly lengthen your vowels on stressed syllables.
Slow down to give yourself time to fully pronounce your words and get through those tricky consonant clusters with better accuracy.
(Be sure to watch the video on how to slow down to reduce your accent and speak English more clearly.)
Slow down to give your voice a chance to rise and fall so that other people can clearly hear different tones in your voice.
Slowing down can help you sound more intelligible and easy to understand, which is key if people aren’t used to your accent.
Most importantly, slowing down gives you a chance to fully express your thoughts. It gives other people time to think about and respond to your ideas.
When you speak deliberately and confidently, people pay more attention to what you’re saying.
Slowing down puts you in charge of your voice.
3. Pausing and Phrasing
As I mentioned above, we tend to speed up when we’re uncomfortable with the idea of silence.
You may think pausing between ideas means you’re not speaking fluently, but it’s actually quite the opposite. Silence is very good.
When you take a moment to pause between ideas, you help your listener process the meaning of your words.
We break sentences into manageable chunks organized in thought groups that are separated by short pauses. This is called phrasing.
For example, when you read long sentences like these out loud, you need to breathe somewhere.
You can’t just wait until you get to the period at the end of the sentence!
Take a look at this example and think about how you can breathe after each short phrase.
You would pause at each slash (/): The most important thing / that we need to do to succeed / is to pay attention / to the way we are helping others.
You need to think strategically about where it makes more sense to pause.
You don’t want to separate a series of adjectives, or break up a phrasal verb, or pause in the middle of a common expression that carries its own rhythm.
In addition, you should pause any time where you would have a punctuation mark. This signals that a thought is complete.
If you’re speaking too fast, you’re probably not pausing – or not pausing enough – between sentences.
You need to give your listeners time to digest and consider what you’re saying – not everyone processes information as quickly as you do!
Further, you should pause when you really want to emphasize a point that you are making.
This is how you signal to your listener that what you’re saying is important.
It is only when you pause (by taking a longer breath) that your point really “hangs” in the air and becomes crystal clear to your listener.
Yes, it can feel uncomfortable to let an idea hang, like maybe it reveals that you don’t know what to say next.
But all great speakers get really good at pausing effectively.
There’s an added bonus to pausing: if someone in the meeting or discussion has “zoned out,” stopped listening, or gotten distracted, your pause can actually return them to the conversation and bring their attention back to what you are saying!
Consider how you can pause to help your listener understand your key ideas.
4. Punctuating with Your Voice
Pausing at the end of a sentence is just one way that you can punctuate your ideas with your voice.
As I mentioned above, you want to pause anywhere you would see a period and come to a full stop (and a full breath).
But when you’re speaking spontaneously, you’re not thinking about punctuation.
If you’re like me, you’re probably speaking in a series of run-on sentences strung together.
So how do we distinguish between thoughts?
Breathing, pausing, stress, and emphasis work together to help us punctuate with our voice.
For example, when reading out loud, we pause when we reach a semi-colon (;) and transition to a somewhat related idea.
We pause when we reach a colon (:) and give an example.
We pause slightly when we see a comma in a series (for example, you’re an incredibly fascinating, interesting, intriguing person).
When you’re speaking, you also want to punctuate these ideas by pausing slightly just as you would when reading out loud.
Further, if you have some very important points to emphasize, you may want to pause between each word to make sure your listener pays extra close attention to what you’re saying.
(Former President Obama does this in all his speeches. You can watch his farewell speech to see what I mean.)
Those simple pauses are like underlining or bolding your words in a text document.
Try it and see how much better your communicate your ideas when speaking in front of others!
5. Stress and Emphasis
Beyond punctuating with pauses, word stress and sentence stress can be extremely effective to convey your ideas and emphasize your main points.
You use stress and emphasis to signal that these particular words are especially important.
Remember, we use sentence stress to create the natural rhythm of English. The key words of your sentence will be stressed.
Stress helps your listener follow the most relevant parts of your speech and ignore words that aren’t as important.
We always use special stress to emphasize the absolute most important words of a sentence, especially when they are different than what you’d expect them to be.
If you want your listener to pay special attention to your focus word, you will make it especially longer, louder, and higher in pitch.
In this way, stress creates the natural, expected rhythm of English, and can also be used to make what you’re saying sound more dramatic, more engaging, and more interesting.
Intonation is another way that you can keep your listener interested in what you’re saying.
If you’re expressing surprise or doubt, you want your listener to hear this feeling.
If you’re expressing excitement or enthusiasm, you want to demonstrate it with your voice.
Besides pausing at the end of a sentence, you also want to signal the thought is complete with sentence intonation.
The brief rise, then fall at the end of the sentence tells your listener that you are done talking.
(Not sure what I mean? Learn how to use intonation for better conversations in English.)
Moreover, you can use question intonation for effect when leading a presentation or giving a speech.
Even if it’s not an appropriate time for you to be interrupted, you can use question intonation to ask your audience or listener a rhetorical question (a question that you don’t expect them to answer right now).
Using question intonation can engage your audience by encouraging them to reflect on and think about what you are saying.
You can sound more interesting and more professional in English just by varying the rise and fall of your voice.
7. Increasing and Decreasing in Volume
Last but not least, you can sound more professional by learning how to control the volume of your voice.
First of all, you want to speak at a volume that is appropriate for your setting.
We’ve all been in a situation where someone is speaking too loudly and people are staring or when someone’s speaking too quietly and people are whispering, “I can’t hear him.”
Are you in a big room or is there outside noise?
Then you need to project your voice and make it louder.
Are you talking about a secret topic or is the person you’re talking to you seated closely to you?
Then you need to speak more quietly so that you don’t disturb others or reveal the secret.
Increasing your volume is essential for clear word stress; stress is not just about longer vowels or higher pitch, but also louder syllables.
You’ll also notice that volume influences how you express your emotions or attitude through intonation.
Further, increasing and decreasing the volume of your voice can get your listener more engaged in what you are saying.
You have the power to inspire reactions simply by raising and lowering your voice for effect.
If you choose to lower your voice or whisper, they’ll be intrigued.
If you boom out with power, they know you’re making a really important point or feel very strongly about what you are saying.
Experiment with including more volume variation when you’re speaking; this type of control of volume can be far more effective than mastering the “th” sound once and for all!
Watch this video for more information on how to use volume effectively in English.
As you can see, there are several ways that you can use your voice and breath to speak more effectively in English.
Sounding more professional is not just about learning the right language; it’s about showing your authority when speaking and engaging people in what you have to say.
These ways of using your voice can be experimented with and learned one at a time.
Once you feel confident using your breath effectively, you’ll naturally slow down, which will lead to more pauses, better punctuation with your voice, clearer stress, more effective intonation, and more engaging speech!
So now it’s your turn! Which aspect of using your voice are you going to focus on first? Are there any suggestions that surprised you? Let me know in the comments!