How are they listening to you? Part 3: Meaning of Spoken Word(s)

Engaging an audience is key to effective speaking, but how can a speaker be actively listened to? How are they listening to you? In 'Part 3: Meaning of Spoken Word(s)', I explore the significance of the sound of words and how they are expressed both verbally and non-verbally.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, speaking is as much a physical process as it is mental. We think, we feel, we speak/behave. Therefore, the meaning of the spoken word or sentence to an individual person, as well as the cognitive interrelatedness, is key to how it will be expressed and received by the listener.

The extraordinary wonder that is the lexicon of the English language is that it offers so many words to choose from, all of which have various meanings. Confusingly for some, although words when written might look different, when said aloud they can sound the same (i.e. homophones). Therefore, wherever possible, always be aware of the context and remind yourself who you are addressing. To speak words effectively it is essential to express meanings appropriately, otherwise words like ‘bare’ and ‘bear’ might have embarrassing consequences!

However, despite being aware of word definitions, where a speaking voice lacks musicality or is monotone, how can someone learn how to become more expressive if it doesn’t come naturally? Word meanings can be spoken using specific vocal techniques. According to Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria[1] – the twelve-volume Roman textbook on the theory and practice of rhetoric (‘the art of speaking’) written in c.94 AD:

eloquence varies in tone and rhythm, expressing sublime thoughts with elevation, pleasing thoughts with sweetness, and ordinary with gentle utterance, and in every expression of its art in sympathy with the emotions of which it is the mouth-piece. It is by the raising, lowering or inflexion of the voice that the orator stirs the emotions of his hearers.’

Artistic oratory skills in ancient times were considered as crucial to a person’s education as understanding the importance of science and sport, and although I do not advocate such a rigorous and prescriptive training of the voice as Quintilian, I do encourage learners to develop an appreciation of voice modulation (e.g. changes in intonation and speech rhythms). This skill is often referred to as prosody, which is proven to influence the way our voice is heard – what Emma Rodero refers to as ‘prosocognition’[2].

In Rebecca Hughes’ Teaching and Researching Speaking[3], in my opinion a brilliant research book to help understand how speaking can be taught, she refers to the ‘prosodic aspects of speech’. To understand and appreciate language and speaking, Hughes states that a speaker requires ‘communicative competence’ as well as ‘the mastery of interactional patterns and customs’.

However, how much thought do you give to the prosody of your own voice and how useful is it to learn how to convey ‘the meaning of words’ when speaking?

I’m sure you have heard a person speak passionately about something they feel strongly about; more often there is a variation in their sound. Perhaps, and sometimes without even knowing it, an effective communicator can fluctuate any or some of the following: breath; stress/emphasis of a word or words within a sentence; pause; length of an individual sound; increase or decrease volume and/or pace; raise or lower pitch; and/or tone and intensity.

However, there are times in life when people need to speak about things which they find difficult which brings on anxiety, particularly when speaking in front of someone unfamiliar or in a less familiar environment. Therefore, understanding prosody can be an enormous help, particularly in preparing a speech and/or presentation. Therefore, just as a remote control provides changes to sound on a television, cognitively we can learn how to adapt our authentic sound to suit what we are sharing with the audience. I agree with Julian Treasure, a leading TED speaker[4], that is it extraordinary that not all UK English teachers are able to teach these specific skills in the classroom for the understanding of everyone. More positively, techniques are being taught and developed through practise as part of extra-curriculum speech and drama lessons.

In partnership with voice modulation, it is important for the authentic speaker to remember that word meanings, to be fully understood by an audience, should be reflected by non-verbal signals. (i.e. communication through facial muscles, gestures and body language). For these, I cannot recommend the following enough: Paul Ekman and his ground breaking book Emotions Revealed[5] – through his studies he discovered that a majority of cultures (Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Japan and the United States) understand the same facial expressions, proving emotions are universal; and Amy Cuddy and her TED Talk[6] – when she enthusiastically speaks about her research on the use of body language and how to improve stage presence – if not seen already, viewing is a must!

As I recommend to learners, the age-old adage: ‘It’s not what you say but how you say it’, needs rewording to: ‘It’s what you say and how you say it’. Both ‘what’ and ‘how’ have equal significance when speaking and, most especially during these unsettled times, people need opportunities to consider how they use their voice to speak out effectively.

I recently came across the charismatic work and blog of the Inky Fool, aka Mark Forsyth. To use his growth of flowers’ metaphor[7], a voice can be left alone and develop to be naturally wild, but flowers can also be beautifully cultivated too. I am passionate that all people, particularly the young in schools, should be able to have the freedom to learn about their vocal possibilities. This way, they can decide how well they want to be listened to or not.

What happened during April 2022?

At the start of the month, those of my learners studying towards their LAMDA Examinations went to the new public centre at Birmingham. The venue had recently changed post-Covid and is now at Edgbaston School for Girls, situated near Birmingham’s Botanical Gardens. All learners were examined by Elisabeth Piddock, so I’m looking forward to receiving feedback on the exam performances and, of course, the results at the end of May. Sadly, I was told that the previous LAMDA Public Centre Co-ordinator, Roger Franke, had recently passed away. This was upsetting news as I had always had such great conversations with him in the past when waiting for my learners to reappear from the exam rooms. I’m sure he will be sorely missed, most especially by Claire Fidler who used to assist him too. More positively, Stephen Lane has now taken over and is seemingly doing an excellent job. Parents and learners alike enjoyed the exam day.

Having mentioned Alison Bomber in my last blog, I attended an afternoon’s Shakespeare workshop on 9th April where attendees discovered new and exciting vocal explorations of the Bard’s text – namely Orlando’s speech from As You Like It I.i. Alison’s bon vivre and insightfulness of the language is exemplary and I can’t recommend her workshops enough. It was also fitting to do something dramatic this month as, relying on Ella Jones’ calculations, it would have been the Shakespeare’s 458th birthday on the 23rd!

I had the pleasure to hold a British Voice Association Spoken Word sub-committee meeting with Jane Oakshott and Sue Jones; our proposal to the main committee was made on 28th April. In trying to raise the profile of the spoken voice, I was delighted that our ideas were met with much enthusiasm. Watch this space!

[1] Quintilian The Institutio oratoria of Quintilian (Vol 1) Translated by H E Butler (2020) Alpha Editions ISBN: 9789354035173 Book I x l 24-26 p171


[3] Hughes, R. (2017) Teaching and Researching Speaking 3rd ed. Routledge p4

[4] Treasure, J. (2017) How to be Heard – Secrets for Powerful Speaking and Listening Mango Publishing Group p40

[5] Ekman, P. (2003) Emotions Revealed – Understanding Faces and Feelings London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson p3

[6] Your body language may shape who you are TED Global 2012

[7] Forsyth, M. (2013) The Elements of Eloquence – How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase London: Icon Books p201

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