21 Speaking Skills

Speaking Skills

Emilie Jackson

Learning Objectives

After reading this page, you will be able to:

  • identify elements of an effective speaker;
  • understand expectations for speaking online;
  • use inclusive language.

Why Is This Important?

Speaking is part of everyday college life. Whether interacting with peers, instructors, or other college staff, participating in classes, interacting with peers during a group assignment, or giving a presentation, it is essential that you can clearly communicate your message.


Diverse classmates talking to each other after studies.
Diverse classmates talking to each other on campus. Image source: Pexels

Elements of Effective Speaking

To be an effective speaker, whether you are having a conversation with another person or giving a presentation, there are many elements to consider:

  • pronunciation;
  • enunciation;
  • word stress ;
  • thought groups;
  • pitch and intonation.


Vowels and consonants are at the heart of pronunciation — they are the unavoidable building blocks of oral communication. Being able to accurately pronounce the sounds of a language largely determines the degree of clarity with which a person will be able to communicate.[1]



The most important thing to remember when learning pronunciation is that a great deal of it has to do with habit building.

Watch this video, “15 Minute Morning Pronunciation Practice for English Leaners,” by Accent’s Way English by Hadar. Practice along with the speaker to start building up your articulation skills to make your English pronunciation clearer.

Pronunciation Strategies

When working on your pronunciation, remember that improving your pronunciation is not about eliminating your accent. There is not one “correct” accent in English; there are even different accents in Canada. Improving your pronunciation should be about improving your clarity so that the listener can understand your message.

With this in mind, if you wish to improve your English pronunciation skills, there are a few strategies to help you get started.

  • Search for common pronunciation errors based on your first language: Many YouTube English teachers post videos about common pronunciation challenges for speakers of certain languages. For example, if Mandarin is your first language, check out 5 Common Pronunciation Mistakes Chinese Speakers Make by Accent’s Way English with Hadar.
  • Use a mirror: As you learn to make new sounds, watching your jaw and tongue movements can help you correct mistakes.
  • Record yourself: When you listen to your voice, you may be able to hear mistakes. Try comparing your voice recording to an first-language English speaker.
  • Seek feedback: If your college offers English support for newcomers, you may be able to work on your pronunciation with a tutor. If this service is not available to you, pay attention when speaking everyday English with other speakers. What do they understand? Do any sounds or words cause misunderstandings?

With intentional and frequent practice, you should be able to learn how to produce the sounds. However, while it can be easy to produce a sound in isolation when it’s the primary focus, it’s another story to produce it consistently while devoting mental power toward other elements of speaking.[2] Don’t give up! Improving your pronunciation will take time.


Enunciation refers how you articulate words while speaking. Try to pronounce words as clearly and accurately as you can, enunciating each syllable. Avoid mumbling or slurring words. If you are practicing for a presentation, practice speaking a little more slowly and deliberately. Ask someone you know to give you feedback.[3]

Have you ever spoken to someone who missed what you said because you were mumbling? If so, they’re signalling to you that they aren’t able to understand your message. You may have pronounced the words correctly but poorly enunciated the words, leading to reduced comprehension.

One technique to increase enunciation is the “dash” strategy: e-nun-ci-ate e-very syllabal in your pre-sen-ta-tionThe dashes signify distinct enunciation to create emphasis and expression. However, don’t go too far. The dash strategy is an exaggerated exercise, but it can lead to a choppy-sounding speaking. Instead, use the dash strategy to practice difficult and longer words that need more punctuated emphasis.[4]

Word Stress

Word stress refers to the part of a multi-syllable word that gets emphasis. Word stress can effect the vowel and consonant sounds in a word, but generally, word stress is achieved by pronouncing the syllable longer, with a higher pitch, and louder.


Unfortunately, there is no simple rule for determining where the stress falls in a word. However, there are some common features that affect the stress in a word, such as words with prefixes or suffixes, the origin of a word, or the grammatical function.[5]

Test your knowledge with this exercise.

Thought Groups

Thought groups are groups of words that belong together in a sentence.

There is no one rule-governed method for dividing your speaking into thought groups. A fast speaker may only pause once during a sentence, while a slow speaker could pause up to four times in the same sentence. However, when learning thought groups, there are a handful of grammatical structures that are typically used to express a single thought group:

  1. article + adjective + noun (“the large textbook”)
  2. subordinating conjunction + noun + verb (“because the experiment failed”)
  3. preposition + article + noun (“in the graph”)
  4. verb + object (“use a dictionary”)
  5. relative pronoun + noun + verb (“which she solved”)
  6. verb + adverb (“rotated quickly”)
  7. article + noun + verb (“the student agreed”)
  8. verb + direct object + preposition + indirect object (“hand it to him”)

If you consider the role thought groups play, you can see how important they are for effective speaking. Using logical thought groups can help a speaker sound more fluent and will help the listener to better understand your intended message.[6]

Pitch and Intonation

Pitch refers to how high or low a speaker’s voice is. The overall pitch of a person’s voices varies among individuals. We also naturally vary our pitch when speaking. For instance, our pitch gets higher when we ask a question and often when we express excitement. It often gets lower when we give a command or want to convey seriousness.

A voice that does not vary in pitch sounds monotonous, like a musician playing the same note repeatedly. Keep the following tips in mind to manage pitch.

  • Pitch should vary with your content. Evaluate your voice to make sure you are not speaking at the same pitch throughout your presentation.
  • It is fine to raise your pitch slightly at the end of a sentence when you ask a question; however, some speakers do this for every sentence, and as a result, they come across as tentative and unsure. Notice places where your pitch rises and make sure the change is appropriate to the content.
  • Lower your pitch when you want to convey authority. But do not overdo it. Questions should sound different from statements and commands.
  • Chances are, your overall pitch falls within a typical range. However, if your voice is very high or low, consciously try to lower or raise it slightly.[7]
Pitch Range Usage
Extra high Used to express emphasis/contrast focus and strong emotions, such as surprise or enthusiasm
High Used to express focus and/or the end of a thought group |
| Intonation range
| for normal
| conversation
Middle Used as the baseline or “neutral” pitch from which the intonation contour rises and falls
Low Used by default to express the end of a thought group

While pitch refers to the highness and lowness of someone’s voice, intonation refers to the variation of pitch while speaking.

The following list includes common intonational patterns based on written punctuation: 

  • a period at the end of a sentence = falling intonation;
  • a comma at the end of a clause or phrase = steady intonation (or slight rise), indicating the speaker is not finished speaking;
  • exclamation points = extreme pitch changes, often signalling strong emotion.[8]



Watch the video “How to Sound Interesting in English” by Accent’s Way English with Hadar to review pitch and intonation and listen for examples of strong pitch and intonation.

For additional practice, record your voice and listen to your own pitch and intonation. Do you use varied pitch or is your voice monotonous?

Speaking Online

You might take an online class that requires you to participate in a live discussion, give a live presentation, or submit a video of yourself giving a presentation while using one of many online collaboration and meeting platforms. These have become very common in the academic world because groups can meet without having to travel to another location.

First, recognize that this is a different type of venue. You have two main tools: your voice and your visuals. When speaking online, the key word is “energy” — an energetic voice has variety and interest to it. Since we tend to have a lower energy level when we sit, some experts suggest that online speakers should stand to approximate the real speaking experience. In addition, when preparing to give a presentation online or in a recording, record yourself during your practice and then reflect on how your voice sounds. If you voice is flat, work on adding energy to your presentation by including interesting examples, facts, or elaboration details.

As for using visuals in an online presentation, although the primary focus of your audience will be the slides (rather than your presence), avoid overloading the slides with information. Keep your visuals simple. One rule you can apply is the 10-20-30 rule: no more than 10 slides, no more than 20 words on the slides, and no font smaller than 30 point. Using 30-point font will will ensure the audience can read your content without taking over the whole slide with your words. Planning activities, such as polls, if the software supports it, can also be helpful.[9]

Read more about using presentation aids to support your presentation skills on the next page: Presentation Skills.

People interacting on a video call.
People interacting on a video call. Image source: Pexels

Multiple Perspectives

When speaking, whether in a discussion or during a presentation, face-to-face or online, word choice is essential to communicating your message. There are times when, if not considered carefully, your word choices may cause harm to an individual or group. Consider the appropriateness of your word choice and always use gender-inclusive language.


Appropriateness relates to several categories involving how individuals and groups should be referred to and addressed based on inclusiveness and context. The term “politically correct” has been overused to describe the growing sensitivity to how the power of language can marginalize or exclude individuals and groups. While there are silly extremes such as the term “vertically challenged” for “short,” these humorous examples overlook the need to be inclusive about language. Overall, people and groups should be respected and referred to in the way they choose to be. Using inclusive language while speaking will help ensure you aren’t alienating or diminishing any listeners.

Gender-Inclusive Language

One common form of non-inclusive language is language that privileges one of the sexes over others. There are three common problem areas that speakers run into while speaking: using “he” as generic; using “man” to mean all humans; and referring to jobs as gender specific.

  • Consider the statement, “Every morning when a firefighter puts on his uniform, he risks his life to protect his fellow citizens.” Obviously, firefighters of all genders, including male, female and non-binary, risk their lives when they put on their uniforms. A better way to word the sentence would be, “Every morning when a firefighter puts on their uniform, they risk their lives to protect their fellow citizens.” Notice that in the improved sentence, we used neutral pronouns (“they” and “their”) to avoid the generic “he.”
  • Likewise, speakers of English have traditionally used terms like “man” and “mankind” when referring to people in general. Instead of using the word “mankind,” refer to the “human race.”
  • The last common area where speakers struggle with gender and language has to do with job titles. It is not unusual for people to assume, for example, that doctors are male and nurses are female. As a result, they may say “she is a woman doctor” or “he is a male nurse” when mentioning someone’s occupation, perhaps not realizing that the statements “she is a doctor” and “he is a nurse” already informs the listener as to the gender of the person holding that job.[10]

Key Takeaway

Strong speaking skills are essential to college life. Being a strong speaker includes developing the elements of effective speaking, demonstrating those skills in person and online, and using inclusive language.

  1. Oral Communication for Non-Native Speakers of English by Timothy Kochem; Monica Ghosh; Lily Compton; and Elena Cotos, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. https://iastate.pressbooks.pub/oralcommunication/chapter/chapter-1/
  2. https://iastate.pressbooks.pub/oralcommunication/chapter/chapter-1/
  3. Writing for Success by Writing for Success by University of Minnesota, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. https://open.lib.umn.edu/writingforsuccess/chapter/14-3-giving-a-presentation/
  4. Effective Professional Communication: A Rhetorical Approach by Rebekah Bennetch; Corey Owen; and Zachary Keesey, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. https://openpress.usask.ca/rcm200/chapter/verbal-delivery/
  5. https://iastate.pressbooks.pub/oralcommunication/chapter/overview/
  6. https://iastate.pressbooks.pub/oralcommunication/chapter/overview-4/
  7. https://open.lib.umn.edu/writingforsuccess/chapter/14-3-giving-a-presentation/
  8. https://iastate.pressbooks.pub/oralcommunication/chapter/teachers-corner-4/
  9. Exploring Public Speaking: 4th Edition by Barbara Tucker; Kristin Barton; Amy Bruger; Jerry Drye; and Cathy Hunsicker, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. https://oer.galileo.usg.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=communication-textbooks
  10. https://oer.galileo.usg.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=communication-textbooks