“Improving your speaking is like training for sports.” Last year, one of my clients made this very wise observation.
You show up almost every single day; you practice drills; you take small, consistent steps; you push yourself to improve a little each day, and over time you make big progress.
The same goes for anything you practice: yoga, meditation, painting, drawing, woodworking, writing, photography, cooking, baking, you name it. The list goes on and on.
You have to put in the work to get the results you want.
The Only Way to Improve How You Sound When Speaking English: Practice
When it comes to improving how you sound when speaking, are you prepared to put in the practice?
The problem for many non-native speakers I’ve met over the years is not finding motivation.
Whether they need to improve how they sound to communicate better with their clients, students and friends, or they need to speak more naturally to give presentations, apply for a new position at work, or start grad school, they have plenty of reasons to work towards their goals.
But often they think that there’s one right way to achieve what they want.
Searching for that one ideal method is keeping them from taking the necessary steps forward.
The truth is, there are many, many, many, many, many paths that lead towards the same goal.
You can follow one approach for a while, and then change course when it no longer seems like it’s helping you.
You need to be able to notice small, incremental changes and improvements without getting discouraged if there’s still a big gap between where you are and where you want to be.
Most importantly, you have to trust the process. You have to believe that the work you’re doing will change how you sound.
The Four Stages of Learning
You’ve probably heard other people talk about the four stages of learning. Let’s review how they apply to improving how you sound when speaking.
First, you’re completely unaware of a particular concept or skill.
This is when people tell me, “I never noticed stress before,” or “I never realized that intonation mattered.”
Then you become aware of this particular concept and you understand that it matters.
This is when you make the decision to make a change.
The third stage is where the work begins.
You know what you need to do, but it requires consistent practice, conscious thought, and a lot of hard work.
This stage takes time, patience, and, of course, practice.
If you’re in this stage (and you probably are), I encourage you to trust the process.
Keep making progress toward your goal. As I always say, small steps lead to big progress.
The final stage is when it becomes automatic and unconscious. You don’t have to think about it; you’re just doing it.
This is what you’re aiming for. This is your end goal. This is where you get results.
How long this takes depends on so many factors. Each person is unique, but there’s one thing that’s true for everyone:
It takes practice.
It takes showing up day after day and putting in the work, just like any other skill.
Have Fun Experimenting with Your Voice and Speaking Skills
Because you don’t know and no one can tell you how long it will take, you want to find a way to make it fun.
In 10 years of teaching, I’ve noticed that the people who actually achieve their goals find a way to enjoy the process.
Think about when you were a kid and you had so much fun learning how to ride a bike, or building something, or playing a game.
You weren’t stressed about finding the “perfect” method. You had fun experimenting and playing around.
The same thing goes for improving how you speak English, whether you’re interested in speaking fluently, having better conversations, or improving how you sound.
For example, I recently received this excellent question, which inspired this video:
“How do you know when you have to stress focus words when you’re speaking spontaneously without any script?”
Once you know which words to stress in a phrase or sentence, how do you start doing it without thinking about it?
How to Put What You’ve Learned Into Practice
There’s a big difference between intellectually knowing the rules and actually using them.
When you first start practicing, you’re not going to be sure if you’re doing it right.
That doesn’t really matter. You need to keep going anyway.
When you start working on stress, you’ll practice with other people’s examples at first.
Then you’ll start doing it on your own, by reading from a transcript of a speech, or a podcast, a blog post, or an article.
You might train your ear to hear how English speakers stress words so that you can imitate their rhythm and melody.
Then you’ll start trying to use stress in your own speech, experimenting with emphasizing key words.
The key word here is experimenting.
Yes, of course it’ll feel awkward at first and you’ll wonder if you’re doing it right.
At this stage, it doesn’t really matter. You can worry about accuracy later on.
Have fun with it, experiment, and see how people respond to you.
When you notice that people understand you better, you’ll feel more confident and more motivated to keep going.
Eventually you’ll start stressing words without thinking about it.
But you have to practice, experiment, and make mistakes to get there.
The more mistakes the better.
Get Started with a Daily Practice
Right now, I’m focused on helping people create a daily practice.
It can be hard to get in the routine of working on your voice and your accent if you’re not sure where to start.
That’s why I’ve created three free email courses to help you get started:
- If you’re not sure how to communicate clearly and confidently, start with this series of videos: Find Your Voice in American English.
- If you’re ready to work on your stress and thought groups, consider joining Stress Simplified.
- If you want to focus on how to use your pitch, change your tone of voice, and improve how you communicate through intonation, the Intonation Clinic is a great place to start.
I don’t want you to believe me when I say that stress and intonation matter.
I want you to experiment and see how people respond to you.
Let the results speak for themselves.
Be consistent and take action every single day to move you one step closer toward your goal.