As public speakers, it helps to think about crafting our spoken word in similar terms to when we are writing. Take as much care when you speak as when you write. Instead of reading over what you wrote, listen as you speak. Here’s what to listen for:
- Typos are analogous to audible speakos – um, like, you know.
Speakers often let what we call “thinking noises” (um, like, you know) slip out just like typos sometimes sneak into our writing. “Speakos” are the audible equivalent of typos in legal writing. They are distracting and undermine your credibility. If only there were an equivalent to spell check for speaking! Instead, ridding your speech of speakos involves breaking a habit – the habit of uttering meaningless words while you take a moment to think. Train yourself to pause in silence, giving both yourself and your listeners time to think. Take a breath to prevent those filler words from escaping your mouth.
- White spaces on the printed page are like the pauses to think while speaking.
In everyday conversation, you gather your thoughts into sentences constructed one chunk at a time. Words are grouped into phrases; phrases are arranged into bigger chunks, or sentences. On the written page, punctuation—commas, periods, question marks, exclamation points, dashes—signals a chunk’s conclusion. When you are making a presentation, you should consciously speak in phrases and use small gaps of silence between them to think. The silence between phrases and sentences becomes audible punctuation, signaling to listeners when the chunks begin and end. Whether these chunks are phrases, sentences, or paragraphs, their meaning becomes unambiguously clear through intermittent moments of silence.
- The rhythm of written sentences is analogous to phrasing while speaking.
We speak in phrases whenever we recite text together as a group. For instance, citizens of the United States are speaking in phrases when they recite the Pledge of Allegiance:
I pledge allegiance
to the flag
of the United States of America,
and to the Republic
for which it stands,
at a time…
The Pledge is a perfect, and familiar, example of speaking in phrases. Use it to set the proper pace at the beginning of every presentation. First, decide what you want to say, and then practice saying it with a deliberate pace modeled on the Pledge of Allegiance’s rhythm. Using that rhythm, tell yourself:
That’s the rhythm
I can use
to control the pace that I’m speaking.
- Written punctuation has an audible equivalent with inflection.
Compare the movement of your voice’s pitch at the end of a sentence to going up or down the steps of a staircase. When your voice descends to a lower pitch, it seems to walk down the steps. That is the audible period. When it ascends to a higher pitch, it walks up the steps, the sound of an exclamation mark. When you ask a question, the pitch slides upward, to a question mark.
Say aloud the three utterances below, using those three different patterns.
In speech, you will find you use the audible period most often, just as you use periods frequently when writing. In a subtle yet significant way, walking down the steps at the end of a sentence conveys confidence and finality. It also buys you some extra time to think about what to say next. Both to your listeners’ ears and to your own, that descending pattern signals a conclusion. The audible exclamation mark, or walking up the steps, is useful when you need to add energy to your delivery. It comes in handy during the middle of your presentation if you sense your listeners’ attention is lagging. Introduce your next topic and walk up the steps as you do so!