The spoken full stop

By Alastair Grant

So much of the time good presentations can be spoilt by the way they are delivered, and in particular by the way in which a phrase, key or otherwise, is finished. It‟s a feature of delivery that is not beyond our control but within our grasp. Here are some ideas to help you get this part right. To learn how to stop. Properly.

Most presenters when speaking have a clear idea of how to start a point or theme, but become a bit more „crumbly‟ as they reach the end of it.

The head pitches down, the voice may rise in pitch on the last syllable, which signals uncertainty, disfluent ums and ands fill the air as the person then struggles to keep the show on the road.

Final pause with eye contact

As presenters get to the end of an idea they should engage the audience with their eyes and a period of silence in the final pause. But at that precise moment they are often more fixated on the next idea and so look away, typically at their screen or down at their notes or script.

Using your hands can really help overcome this problem. If you gesture with your hand or hands to emphasise the last few words of a key phrase, then your head and eyes will tend to follow the line of the hands out to your audience rather than down. So have a go at synchronising what you say with your hand gestures.

Try this: make an emphatic statement reinforced by hand gestures but at the end of the phrase drop your head whilst keeping your hands outstretched. It doesn‟t feel natural! It‟s like shaking hands with a friend but not looking at them, instead either looking down, away or at their feet.

Advice: practise making key statements with outstretched hand gestures and so train your brain to engage the audience with your eyes and hands.

Imagine you have caught a fish and wanted to tell the audience its size. You might end with “…it was THIS big”. Now have a look at these two pictures above right. Which do you think would be the best way to say it!

The Third Pause: Here‟s another skills area to develop, the “third pause”.

Those who know us will be aware that there are two main sorts of pause that we recommend you deploy whilst at the same time eyeballing the audience.

The first pause is at the beginning of an idea, and allows you time to consider what you are going to say. The second and final pause is as described above; it‟s at the end of an idea to engage the audience and drive home that point.

But there is a third type of pause, between the other two. It‟s really an anticipation or dramatic pause.

Here, you‟re developing an idea but before you reach the end, you deliberately pause and hold a dramatic silence.

The audience becomes curious and starts to speculate on what you might say next. Comedians are adept at this. A common place to do it is before the last key word of an idea.

For example, near the beginning of her speech on 16th June at the Nobel Awards in Oslo, Aung San Suu Kyi recounted being asked by her 8 year old son why she might one day be invited on BBC Radio 4‟s Desert Island Discs, replied

“perhaps because I’d have won the Nobel prize…for literature”.

The dots represent a dramatic pause for effect, which in this case is anticipation, misdirection and thus humour.

Falling intonation

Many times I hear the dreaded rise in pitch at the end of a phrase. This usually means the speaker is not sure they are at the end of their idea or they are already distracted by what the next idea might be. Or it‟s a bad habit they are not aware of.

A phrase like we have got to get this right if delivered with a rising note will sound unsure. The pitch should deepen at the end of such phrases, not rise.

A good way to practice this effect is to use prosody. The first time I heard this word I had no idea what it meant. Simply put, you replace all the syllables with sounds such as „de‟ or „la‟. So,

“We have got to get this right” becomes de de de de de de dee and not de de de de de de dee?

Kill the ramblers

If presenters are unsure where they are in their content, they often try to buy time for themselves by using filler words such as „

and’ or noises like „umm’ and „err’.

A few of these are perhaps inevitable but too many (research says over 6 per minute) and they start to make you sound unsure.

Again as you get the end of an ideal spot – indeed anywhere really – you can try to remove these disfluent sounds from your repertoire. We have a wonderful technique for this called „Just a Minute‟ named in honour of the radio programme of the same name, about which we have written in previous Journals.

Avoid English Fade

English fade is a phenomenon known widely among phonetics professionals as an affliction that many in the UK have. It is the tendency to reduce our volume as we get towards the end of a point.

It is rare is some languages and unknown in others, due to the structure of sentences. German for example often has the verb at the end, so is a vital component of the phrase, so is spoken clearly.

But here in the UK, the British (it‟s not fair to say it‟s only the English) fade out, the volume drops and we hardly hear the word or words at the end.

The solution to this is in part the taking of a proper breath in the right way – using the diaphragm, in part it is learning to use shorter phrases so that we don‟t run out of air, and in part avoiding the conjoiners (e.g. and, so, but) that cause people to continue to speak when they should have stopped and paused.

In summary:

Use your hands to assist in engaging the audience

Employ the anticipation pause before the final key word

Make your voice drop in pitch but not volume

Kill those ramblers

Avoid English Fade.

Now go and try some of this out!


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