Intonation is about colour, melody and flow in speech. In short, it is the thing that breathes life into your communication. Therefore, if we are going to master one communication skill, getting the art of intonation down is right up there in terms of desirables!
Read on to get our longest-serving principal coach Jamie Chapman's take on how to master the art of intonation.... a subject that he is extremely passionate about.
So over to you Jamie, what is Intonation and why is it so important in effective communication?
An accent doesn't simply consist of the technical accuracy of the various vowels and consonants. It's much more than that. As I'm sure you're aware, each accent has its own distinct rhythm, tune and melody, which proposes this idea of whether there is a right way to pronounce words. We call this intonation.
Often, intonation is taught as an 'add-on' to an Accent course - as if it were an additional vowel sound. Not at London Speech Workshop. We know that good intonation is vital. It's worth more than every vowel and consonant sound put together. And yet, in my opinion, it's often taught extremely badly.
Back when I started teaching (in the dim and distant past!) intonation was traditionally taught in a very confusing way. Whole texts were given to clients with arrows pointing upwards for suggested upward inflection of the voice, and arrows pointing downwards for suggested downwards inflection. The whole thing was mind-numbingly, head-spinningly complex. And it completely missed the point, which is this:
Good intonation is simply good communication.
If you understand the basic principles of that - it unlocks the door. If you remember nothing else from reading this blog, I'd like you to remember this:
The task of a good speaker is to do as much of
the listener's work for them as you possibly can.
So how do I improve my intonation?
The first thing to do is to change your whole relationship with the words you speak. So often when I've been teaching Accent Softening, I've noted that clients start with an almost 'wary' relationship with the words that are coming out of their mouths. Almost as if the words they are using are booby-trapped... lying in wait to trip them up and expose errors.
This has to change. Words are your servant - not your master. They have to work for you. But for this to happen, you have to understand how words work.
Essentially, words are just a collection of sounds. And there are two sounds in particular - vowel sounds and consonant sounds. They both do a very specific job of work for you when you speak - and the first stage in developing more effective intonation is to understand exactly what they do.
Why not download our free Ebook here for more tips and tricks on how to use sounds and intonation to speak more clearly at work.
How can I use intonation to express feeling?
Someone very wise once said (and I love this quote!) that a vowel is a space to put your feelings in. It's where you put all the feeling, meaning and colour into a word. Think of someone you know who has a very expressive voice - it's not magic, it's just the way they are using the vowel sounds.
Take David Attenborough for example. He's 94 - and still the best in the business. When he says 'it's an amayyzing species' - he pours all his wonder and amazement into the 'ay' sound. That's why we love listening to him. He makes it so accessible.
It is those vowels that are the secret to having an expressive voice - watch the video below to hear me explain this further!
Consonants are different. Consonants are about precision and clarity. They are about efficiency and respect for the language. One of the most common consonant faults tends to be a habit of not fully pronouncing them at the end of a word. This especially seems to be the case when a word ends with a 't' (eg. 'point').
This is not just being pedantic - it's about value. If we don't fully pronounce our consonants, and take care to put them in place - being sure to fully complete the words we say - it can sound to the listener as if we don't fully value what we're saying. Even worse, it may even sound like we don't fully value the listener themselves.
Essentially, it breaks the first rule: we are making the listener work harder than they need to. Ultimately good intonation makes great communicators and can teach you how to speak so that people will want to listen.
The 3 Secrets to Being an Engaging Speaker
Here at LSW, we have a basic, three step formula for 'doing the work' for your listener.
Step one is emphasis.
This is the idea that when we speak not every word we say is of the same value. Some words are of greater importance to our listener than others. I always say it's a bit like having a highlighter pen in your voice - which highlights all the keywords for your listener. The words that you highlight for the listener tend to be the words that contain information.
Step two is pause.
It's really important to divide up our speech into units of thought - into bite size chunks. We always say this is a bit like feeding a baby. If you were feeding a baby you wouldn't just get a handful of baby food and say 'there's your lunch!' You will spoon feed the baby. That's exactly what you do with your listener. You give them bite size chunks of information, separated by pause.
Step three is what we call 'justifying the pause'.
This is the idea that your voice should never be flat throughout a unit. In order to earn a pause - you have to have some movement in the tune of your voice. It's really useful to imagine reading to a small child. I know from reading to my nephews when they were tiny that you instinctively fight for their attention. A four-year-old has no filter - if they're bored, they just get up and walk away! Consequently, we instinctively start painting pictures with our voices to hold their focus. It's vital, when first softening your accent, to tap into that.
When I first started teaching at LSW (nine years ago now! Eek!) I remember watching Emma Serlin (our founder) teaching - and I especially remember something she said. She explained that part of the process of softening your accent had to be 'falling in love with the English language'. It's about losing your fear of the words and putting them to work for you.
Here at the London Speech Workshop we start with the psychology of intonation. If you get the Why - you will get the How. I've been teaching our Intonation Technique for nine years. It works. And when you see someone first begin to engage with this extraordinary language in a way they never have before - it's beautiful.
So if this sounds like something you can benefit from then check out our 1:1 and online group courses here.
Have a lovely day,