The intonation of public speaking

21st March 2019 | Daily Life, Musings | 0 comments

I seem to have turned into the kind of person who stops what they’re doing in the afternoon in order to tune into live Parliamentary debates about Brexit. Last week I spent several afternoons listening to politicians giving speeches, scripted and unscripted.

Being a trained musician is interesting on these occasions. I’m so used to listening for tone, nuance and inflection that I can’t help being aware of those things in public speakers. I’m used to discussing how to make something sound as though you mean it, how to match musical content to expression. And conversely: pointing out what seems forced or artificial even though it is expertly done.

From my small experience of radio presenting, I know what it’s like to be guided through a script recording by a producer with ideas about how to make it ‘come alive’. I’ve had producers mark up my script with symbols of where I should raise the pitch of my voice excitedly, lower it to indicate seriousness, or count a couple of silent beats to let the words sink in. Those who know me well tell me the result isn’t always pleasing.

Some of the most important political speeches of recent weeks have been read from scripts (possibly provided by speechwriters). You can hear that the speaker has been coached in pausing here, stressing this word, looking the audience in the eye and slowing  the pace on key phrases. They may be following Rules of Effective Communication, but alas, it doesn’t always equate to sounding sincere.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are those theatrical creatures who pride themselves on their oratory. They super-charge every rise and fall of the voice, often in a way which doesn’t exactly match the content of what they’re saying. This too can leave the listener feeling manipulated.

On the whole, people with something to say and the wish to say it are naturally gripping to listen to. One sees this over and over again on the news when people talk about events they have been caught up in. They give no thought to how they’re going to speak, but their experience is so vivid, and their wish to tell their story so honest, that whatever words they find are compelling.


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