Emphasis, Volume, and Pauses

Learning Objectives

  • Identify effective uses of emphasis in your speech.
  • Explain how to achieve the ideal volume when speaking.
  • Identify appropriate uses of pauses in your speech.


One of the other things our voices do naturally is emphasize certain words in a sentence. This emphasis tells the listener what’s important in the sentence and brings clarity of meaning. For example, in the old tongue twister “Sally sells seashells by the seashore,” the speaker decides what is most important for the audience by bolding it with their voice. This type of inflection could be to get louder or go up to a higher pitch on certain words, which creates variety and calls attention to the important words of a sentence. Again, if a voice is lacking such variety, the speaker may sound monotone. Using our example, let’s say the speaker decided to emphasize who was selling the seashells. The vocal interpretation would look like:

SALLY sells seashells by the seashore. (This inflection assumes the audience knows Sally and will go look for her.)

Another choice might be to emphasize where she’s selling the seashells so the audience knows her location. That sentence might look like:

Sally sells seashells by the SEASHORE.

Practice saying these sentences using the emphasis techniques above. Generally, there are at least two important words per sentence. You can underline or bold the words you want to emphasize in each sentence on your speech outline.


Woman talking into a megaphoneHave you ever been talking and seen the person you were talking to cup their ear and ask, “what?” to whatever you were saying? Most likely, this action means they couldn’t hear you. In addition to being fast talkers, some of us are also quiet speakers. This quietness happens for many reasons, from shyness to hearing loss, but is usually something that can be adjusted. To find your optimum volume, it is usually best to get into the room where you’ll be speaking and ask a friend to sit in the back row and see if they can hear you. The other way you can know if people can hear you is by reading the body language of the audience. When listeners can’t hear a speaker, they often lean forward and turn their ear toward the speaker.  If you see that, take note and just raise your voice volume until you see them settle back down into their seat.

If being loud enough is difficult for you, go back to working on the breathing we discussed before. When you are breathing correctly from the diaphragm, the sound quality is projected naturally from the stomach area and can easily travel out of the mouth to the back of the room. As you speak, think about your voice being a ball that hits the back wall behind the audience and aim for it.

Volume can also be varied to give some energy and excitement to the speech. Just like we did with mixing the rate of speech, you can also pick words or phrases to be louder or softer when you speak. Raising your voice can perk up an audience. Going softer can also make them lean in to hear what you are saying. Be careful when using a soft voice to not be so soft you can’t be heard. If you use proper, and even a bit overly done, diction when being softer, the audience will still hear you. As noted before, mark down on your notecards or speech outline where you will get louder or softer.

Combining all these vocal practices will make you sound like a polished speaker!

Power of the Pause

One final note about pausing versus the vocalization of pauses such as ah, ums, like, etc. Instead of using the filler words ah and um, try to take a breath and pause instead. Speakers sometimes feel the pressure to fill dead air with sound. Resist this urge. In fact, while you may be looking through your notecards for something you wanted to mention, a pause gives the audience time to catch up and absorb what you’ve just said. Our nervousness often makes us want to fill the space so the audience doesn’t get bored. There’s no need to do so. Ahs and ums can also make a speaker sound unprofessional and lacking in confidence, so do the best you can to eliminate them from your speech.

To Watch: Reggie Watts

In the spoken part of this PopTech talk, improvisational performer and musician Reggie Watts manipulates various aspects of vocal delivery—pitch, rate, emphasis, volume, and pauses—to make total nonsense sound like the kind of speech you’d hear at a conference like PopTech or TED.

You can view the transcript for “Reggie Watts: A send-off in style” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

At 12:28, for instance, Watts does a remarkable imitation of TED or PopTech style speeches. The words are ridiculous, but the loaded pauses and changes in pace and pitch make this nonsense sound profound: “Now we all know that poverty is super easy to fix. And using modular dynamicism we can recreate, unfold, resequence, understand, and reshape the way we think of thought itself. By constantly monitoring thought itself it will not only lead you nowhere, it will give you a headache. So try not to do that. Instead, try to do something that’s way outside of the box—like someplace that if you were to see how far away from the box you were, you wouldn’t even be able to tell what that box was anymore compared to the landscape that you’re comparing it against. Getting outside of the box is more than just getting out of a box and walking away. As children know, sometimes boxes are very difficult to get out of.”

Try It