Have you ever heard the saying, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it?” Let’s focus on what this statement means and why it is important in oral communication. When we speak, we use many ways to express ourselves and to get our message across to our listeners. The words we choose, our body language, our gestures, and our facial expressions are all important aspects of communication.
The emphasis we place on the words we choose also influences the meaning of what we say. In American English important words in a sentence are said more slowly, usually with a higher pitch, and sometimes more loudly than unimportant words. The stress we place on these words tells our listener to pay attention to them because they are important. So how we say something matters. Stress or emphasis tells us how the speaker feels, and his/her emotions through the “tone of voice” or “attitude” speaks volumes.
Let’s look at the following simple sentence “I want a new ring” and how we can change its meaning just by emphasizing different words. Note that the stressed words are in bold print.
“I want a new ring.” Emphasizing the word “I” in the sentence puts the focus on the subject. I am the one who wants a new ring. It’s all about me.
“I want a new ring.” Stressing the word “want” puts the focus on the verb. A new ring is what I want, even if I don’t need it.
“I want a new ring.” Stressing the word “a” puts the focus on a single item. Now it means that I want only one single new ring.
“I want a new ring.” Emphasizing the word “new” places the focus on a particular feature of the ring. The ring I want has to be a new one. Nothing else will do.
“I want a new ring.” The important thing now is what I want, the object. The only thing I want is a new ring; nothing else.
Remember, although the words we choose are very important, our meaning is also influenced by several other factors. Today we learned that how we say the words and where we place the stress tells us more than we could possibly express in mere words. It gives us insight into the emotions of the speaker and what he/she considers important. It is our job as listeners to use the cues the speaker provides us to correctly understand the underlying message.