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The Power of Paraverbal Language

Wednesday 31st May 2023 - GMT

“It’s not WHAT you said; it’s HOW you said it!”

Is this a familiar sentence to you? I’d be willing to bet that there’s been a moment in your life when you’ve said this during an argument.

How we say words can have a big impact on the message taken by the person who is listening. We use the sound of our voice to show all sorts of emotions, from excitement to anger, frustration to happiness. The choices we make in how we use those sounds help us to convey those feelings by giving meaning to words.

Using our voice in this way comes naturally to us in our personal lives, yet when we find ourselves in a business setting, perhaps a boardroom or on a video conference, our speech can become bland, monotone or unnecessarily serious, which can quickly cause audiences to disengage.

In order to really compel audiences to listen to us, our words and body language need to be congruent, and the sounds we make need to match this too.

The elements of our voice, such as pitch, tone and speed, are often described as ‘paraverbal language’.


“If we make the wrong vocal choices, we can risk giving the wrong message. When words and tone don’t match, we believe the tone more.”


Why is paraverbal language important?

How we say things shows people how to feel about the information we share with them, and it can be very powerful.

For example, changing the vocal emphasis on different words in a sentence has the power to completely change its meaning. Take this phrase:

“I didn’t say that you were lazy.”

Now imagine the different meanings which a person could infer from the sentence, depending on which word is emphasised when spoken:

I didn’t say that you were lazy.”

“I didn’t say that you were lazy.”

“I didn’t say that you were lazy.”

“I didn’t say that you were lazy.

If we make the wrong vocal choices, we can risk giving the wrong message. When words and tone don’t match, we believe the tone more.

When is paraverbal language important?

All spoken communication involves paraverbal language, but it is particularly important to use it well when other non-verbal cues (e.g. body language) are limited.

For example, when you’re on a phone call or a video conference where people don’t have their cameras on, we have to work harder to ensure our message is understood, as we can’t show people how to feel about information with our body language or facial expressions.

This is when conscious choices about paraverbal language can really help to boost the clarity of your communication.

What is paraverbal language?

There are several elements of paraverbal language that you can use to your advantage when planning any sort of spoken communication or presentation.

1) Pitch  

This describes the notes and range in our voice. Higher-pitched sounds can convey happy feelings but also anxious ones. Lower, deeper sound pitches can give an air of calmness and control but also build drama.

Think about how you want your audience to feel about the information that you’re sharing and what type of pitch would best match that feeling.

2) Pace

The pace – also referred to as cadence or speed – at which we speak can influence the message that people take from our words. If we are excited or angry, our speech becomes more rapid (and high-pitched). If we are bored, our speech becomes slow. When we are defensive, our sounds can become abrupt and sharp.

A faster pace might work if you’re trying to motivate or inspire people to support your idea.

If you’re sharing serious or complex information, speaking more slowly might help your audience to understand.

As well as giving meaning to our words, the speed at which we speak can actually harm our impact when communicating if we can’t control it. When we are nervous, we tend to speed up and speak quickly, making breathing difficult. This can make audiences feel nervous too, so if in doubt, slow down or pause and take a breath before continuing. Speaking too quickly can also mean that someone may miss key points in your message, so learning to control your pace can be beneficial.

3) Energy

If you speak with little energy, you will sound bored no matter how exciting your words are – and your audience will feel bored too!

Whether your message is positive, serious, uplifting or simply an informative update, ensure that you’re powering your voice and projecting your words with energy.

4) Pausing

Well-timed pauses can be used effectively to help guide audiences through your information. Pausing before or after an important point is like shining a big spotlight on that information, causing people to sit up and listen attentively.

Think about the information that you’re sharing and the most important parts of it. Where could you add in a pause? Are there any parts which are complex where people may want to write down information, or need a few seconds to process what you’re saying? Plan pauses and give more control to your words.

Communicating in English as a foreign language

Paraverbal language in English can be particularly tricky for non-native speakers. If your native language has less variation of pitch than English, then you can risk sounding monotone or bored when you speak in English. Some languages use upward inflections of pitch (going from a low pitch to a high pitch) at the end of a sentence – but in English, this can come across as being doubtful or insincere.

To improve your paraverbal communication in English, think about how your own language uses pitch, speed and inflections. Are there differences? Do you need to vary your pitch and speed more when speaking in English in order to be more understandable to other English speakers?

Try tuning in to the sounds in English in different situations and think about how you may be able to emulate that in your own communication.

Preparation is key

If you are preparing a speech or a presentation in advance, once you’ve worked out what you are going to say, take some time to think about how you are going to deliver it. Are there sections that need to be more uplifting and motivational where you can use a higher pitch? Perhaps there’s some really complex information that would benefit from you speaking more slowly? Annotating your script or notes can help remind you and give you the ‘stage direction’ to help you.


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The Power of Paraverbal Language

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