Public Speaking Tips for Rhythm
Rhythm in speaking can mean different things.
- It could be used to characterise the colour and pattern of one person’s unique tone of voice
- It could also refer to a specific rhythmic tendency inherent in a foreign language or a foreign accent
- It could be associated with a style of speech for a specific context or
- It could refer to specific rhetorical rhythms and patterns that a speaker adopts to highlight a key message.
A friend of mine was once asked to help judge a speech contest in Japan, as he happened to be in the country. He did not speak any Japanese!
If you have been brought up in Europe you will be used to different languages having at least a few words or sounds in common. Japanese sounds very different.
So having thanked the hosts for the invitation, he questioned what use they thought he could be.
They thought it would be nice to be able to point to a respected, experienced guest speaker on the judging panel!
What he quickly discovered was that although he did not understand the individual words, and maybe precisely because he did not understand the individual words, he became highly aware of the internal rhythm and structure within each speaker’s presentation.
Comedians will always stress the importance of timing and usually, it takes a few weeks on tour before some of the jokes find their natural rhythm and start to draw a laugh.
I remember listening to a recording of a very popular comedian delivering their set before they became famous.
You could recognise the voice and even some of the style of delivery that they became so famous and successful for – only – it was not at all funny. They had not yet found their own natural rhythm and timing.
Sports commentators are also interesting, as often you can tell the sport by the tone, style, and pace of the commentary. Golf commentators are usually whispering – partly because they are standing close to the golfers and do not want to put them off, but even so - their pace is solemn, measured, and almost reverential.
Then occasionally they will burst out of their quiet respectful tone as the club thwacks and the ball explodes along the fairway.
Horse racing commentators and motivational speakers have one characteristic in common.
You can switch on the radio or walk into a room somewhere in the middle and know roughly where you are in the presentation purely by their tone of voice. Motivational speakers tend to build up the tension through the presentation, passing on from relaxed stories and examples early on to the big climax with the emphatic big ‘You can do it’ message at the end.
Horse racing commentators start the race by listing the order of all the runners in a low monotone.
They then proceed to raise the pitch of the monotone throughout the race until they reach a hysterical fevered pitch as the winner crosses the line and then you hear the voice quickly falling back from that intensity as they describe the order of the subsequent runners crossing the line.
And finally – have you ever been in the next room when a couple of people are having a row?
You cannot hear the exact words, but you can tell who is attacking, who is placating and you can hear the sound and rhythm intensifying until one of them storms out of the room.
10 tips for using rhythm in speaking
Be aware of your own default rhythm
This is a slightly negative place to begin, but we need to become aware of our own little repetitive habits of delivery. One example is the characteristic tone of a New Zealander, whose voice tends to go up at the end of each sentence so that it sounds like they are asking questions even when they are not!
Sports commentators need to be very careful that they do not constantly use the same tone of voice, turn of phrase, or rhythm when commenting on similar actions during a game.
Southern European voices seem to have an advantage with all their lovely vowels and precisely enunciated
consonants; to counter that they sometimes struggle a little more with the use of pauses and silence.
Northern European and Slavic languages often have a flatter tone fall – however the good news – they are usually very good with silence!
Rhythm is created not just by the stress on words, but also through the silence in between.
So first of all we need to avoid any tendency to either a monotonous tone or a very repetitive rhythm of speaking – which leads on to…
Fillers or ‘verbiage’
Verbiage (like garbage) are words or sounds of no value, that become unconscious parts of how we speak; like ending every sentence with ‘innit!’ If you do that, the chances are that ‘innit’ is going to be said the same way in the same tone of voice every time. It becomes predictable and then it becomes irritating.
I remember interviewing a young woman who ended every sentence with:
‘You know what I mean!’
At first, I did not notice, then I did notice and then it became very annoying!
However, the conscious use of rhythm can be very effective when speaking, as we are about to explore, but beforehand we need to remove the numbing, unconscious repetitive habits we have that are only going to flatten the effect of our words.
Repetition at the end of a sentence (epistrophe)
1 Corinthians 13 tells us:
‘When I was a child,
I talked like a child,
I thought like a child,
I reasoned like a child.’
Unlike ‘You know what I mean!’, which serves no purpose other than filling a silence, the repetition of ‘a child’ reinforces the theme of childhood, building up a tension with its repetition, which is then released with the introduction of the ‘opposite’ concept of:
‘When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.’
(And maybe if the young woman I interviewed had gone on to end her next sentence with:
‘Sometimes even I don’t know what I mean!’ – the contrast in meaning might have had a similar effect.)
Repetition at the beginning of a sentence (anaphora)
As Barak Obama spoke to the Iowa Caucus on his way to being selected as presidential candidate he told them:
‘They said this day would never come.
They said our sights were set too high.
They said this country was too divided,’
Having set up those rhythms he answers them with a series of
‘You have done(s)….’
‘You have done what the cynics said we couldn't do’
A classic ‘them’ and ‘us’, contrasting the negative ‘them’ with the positive ‘us’.
I am just pointing this one out – it may not be right or desirable to mimic – as sometimes we just need to listen and admire!
Barak Obama and Rev Jesse Jackson and back through Martin Luther King Jnr, who sometimes almost sounded as if he sang while he was speaking, each has their shared roots in the style of a black church leader. It is almost incantation, a style of speaking that almost approaches religious ecstasy.
I avoid saying ‘rhyming’ words, as that would be moving too close to verse and verse sounds too thought-out polished and no longer provides the apparent spontaneity of a speech. Rappers come closer, playing on the rhythm and sound of words like: nation, excitation, good vibration, exaltation, and know your station.
You could set off ‘knowing we are right’ with ‘the strength to fight’
You could explain that when your ideas are ‘new’, they will only appeal to the ‘few’.
British rail use the slogan:
Not only do the words alliterate – all starting with the same ‘s’ sound, but each phrase is two syllables long
and there is the further subtle rhythm of ‘it’, ‘it’ becoming ‘ed’ in the third one
Expanding words or phrases
In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Brutus begins his speech with:
'Romans, countrymen, and lovers, hear me for my cause. '
There is nothing that sounds particularly wrong with that until you hear Marc Anthony start with:
‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;’
Friends - 1 syllable
Romans - 2 syllables
Countrymen - 3 syllables
lend me your ears - 4 syllables
Suddenly 'Romans, countrymen, and lovers’ sounds a bit lumpy in comparison.
Robinson’s Barley Water had a slogan
And your children’s children’
(not just increasing the length of each phrase, but also expanding the generations in the meaning)
This is where we repeat the core of a word in it various forms:
'a builder who built a beautiful building';
'a singer who sang a great song.'
There is obviously the element of alliteration, but the reinforcing of the core term will also help drive the message home.
And when Roberta Flack sings:
‘I heard he sang a good song’ – it almost moves to poetry.
And if Teresa May, rather than repeating the terms ‘strong and stable’ all through her election campaign had opted occasionally for the occasional ‘strength and stability’, ‘stronger and more stable’. The same message would be put across without it sounding so obvious. However, politicians mostly don’t want to be subtle and therefore they use the forceful rhythm of…
…which is the rhetorical equivalent of hitting someone over the head with a piece of wood.
Margaret Thatcher on closer European integration: ‘No! No! No!’
Tony Blair on priorities: ‘Education. Education. Education!’
Liz Truss: ’Growth. Growth. Growth!
The speaker’s aim is to embed their message in the listener’s head and rhythm and repetition will tend to make their words easier to digest and more memorable.