How do you sound? (Post 3)

Have you listened to a recording of yourself speaking? Many people – especially but not only younger people – either avoid doing this, or hate the sound of their own recorded voice.

Nowadays, however, it is very likely that we will be heard in a recorded or electronic form by many people – especially during this COVID 19 period of restricted movement and a ban on meeting people in person. So it is time to take control of how you sound when you speak.

There are two main areas of your speech which you might want to consider. One is your accent – how you pronounce words. The other is your interpretation of what you say: do you raise and lower your voice to make some parts of what you say more interesting? Do you speed up or slow down at times? Do you use “fillers” such as “eh?”, “emm”, “like”, “you know”, “sort of thing”, “hmm”, “right” – ?

Generally, variety makes people – our listeners, in this case – more interested. Young people often speak in a monotone (one pitch, one speed, no interpretation) when answering questions asked by adults, but (a) this is a phase which you might leave behind when you leave school [I do hope so!]; and (b) it doesn’t have to be this way! You choose how you speak.

Accent. Each one of us has an accent. Accents are neither “good” nor “bad” but they can have a remarkably strong effect on those who hear them. Especially in the United Kingdom, your accent may lead someone to think better or worse of you. It’s not a rational thing, but it does still occur. Thank goodness, it happens less than it used to do – say, in the first half of the 20th century – but be aware that how you pronounce words can alter the way people think of you.

So: first of all, make a recording of yourself. Using your phone might be the easiest way of doing this, or perhaps you can use a computer’s built-in microphone. I suggest you make at least TWO recordings – one of yourself reading something, and the other of yourself talking as if to a friend about something that really interests you. Try to make your recordings at least one minute long in each case.

Now listen to them.

Accent: do you like the way you pronounce the words when you’re reading aloud? If you do, that’s fine; if you don’t, try to identify what you don’t like about it, and practise changing that. Listen carefully and try to pinpoint exactly what it is that you don’t like. It will usually be a vowel sound – a, e, i, o, u – or a combination of these. Consonants – the rest of the letters in the alphabet – are generally either sounded or not sounded; they are not open to as much variation in accents as the vowel sounds are. One consonant-related point that can arouse really strong feelings in listeners however is the sound of “t” or “tt”. Do you pronounce the “t” in “party”, or the “tt” in “letter”? Some speakers replace those with a slight pause (known as the glottal stop) – saying “par’y” and “le’er”. This drives some listeners mad! Others consider that it shows the speaker is part of a particular group. In fact your accent can often be used to show your loyalty to a particular group: if people have similar ways of pronouncing words, it can be a strong bond between them.

If you don’t like the way you pronounce words but are struggling to change it, think of someone who speaks in a way you admire. Listen carefully to recordings of that person, and try to imitate the way they pronounce their vowel sounds.

Remember, however: the MOST IMPORTANT THING about how you speak is not your accent – it is that you speak CLEARLY. Especially now that English is the language most commonly spoken as a second language, and now that it is so widely used in contexts such as business, academic study, entertainment and social media, we owe it to one another to speak English in a way that as many people as possible can understand – that is, CLEARLY.

Interpretation: I said earlier that young people can go through a phase of replying to adults’ questions in a monotone – that is, with no variety. Giving some interpretation to how you speak means that other people are more likely to listen to you, and more likely to consider what you say.

Firstly, speak as though you’re interested in what you’re saying. After all, if you don’t find it interesting, why should you expect anyone else to find it interesting?

Give your listener clues to the important parts of what you’re saying by – for example – slowing down. You might show excitement by speeding up, or by getting louder – or both! If you want someone to listen really closely, and perhaps to suggest that something is a secret between you, speak more quietly. (You might have to slow down, too.)

Don’t run all your words together when you speak. Use pauses every now and again to allow what you’ve just said to “sink in”. These don’t have to be long pauses, but they will make a difference.

And listen – in your second recording (and also listen to yourself when you’re actually speaking to someone) – for those fillers. What’s the matter with “aye?” or “right?” or “ok?” or “mm-hm?” or “like” or “you know?” – ? Well, nothing, in themselves – but once a listener realises that that is your go-to filler, there is every chance that he or she will miss the meaning of what you’re trying to say, because (s)he’ll be too busy waiting for the next “aye?” or “right?” or “ok?” or … . You get the message!

Now make sure your listeners get your message, too!

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