Drama, Part One: The Art of Emphasis

11.10.2021 |

Episode #4 of the course How to write a great speech: Linguistics, drama, and rhetoric by K.C. Finn


The expression “it’s not what you say, but how you say it” is not entirely true, but it does make a good point about speechcraft. It is, of course, very important that the information contained in your speeches is accurate, well-written, and filled with conviction from your personal beliefs, but it’s also painfully true that, if you fail to deliver the speech in a dynamic way, it will lose enormous amounts of its impact.

In Lesson Four, we look at the art of emphasis, in which specific words and phrases are highlighted, and we use our voices for maximum effect. We’ll look at a couple of different ways you can do this, and I’ll provide you with real methods from the world of theatre to train your emphatic voice until you become irresistible to your listeners.


Word Stress

When we place stress on a single word, we use our voice to make a volume, pitch, or length change to that word to show emphasis. And sometimes when we do so, the whole meaning of our sentence can shift.

As an example, let’s look at stressing the word ‘I’ in the following sentence:

• “I’m not headed to Hawaii tomorrow.”

Now, let’s take the same sentence and emphasize ‘tomorrow’ instead:

• “I’m not headed to Hawaii tomorrow.”

In the first example, emphasizing I makes it sounds as though the speaker is jealous that they don’t get to go to Hawaii. In the second sentence, the speaker seems to definitely be going to Hawaii, but on a different day, which is not tomorrow. It’s important to consider where you want the word stress to

Exercise: Take any rough sentence from your speech notes (or jot one down now for practice) and try emphasizing different words each time you say the sentence out loud. Does it change the meaning or make it more/less clear? Underline the most helpful words to emphasize.


Sentence Rhythm

Speech typically has a beat, and most of us probably don’t notice our own rhythm of speaking unless we are well-practiced in public speaking. Reading poetry or listening to people from other cultures can help you notice the differences in the speed, stress, and patterns of speech that other people use, and these can also help you identify where you can interrupt your own pattern for the most effective use of emphasis. Most people tend to put the emphasis on the last word in a sentence, so shifting your key idea to the middle can be a nice way to break it up.

For example: “I had never been on an airplane until I met Marie.”

Versus: “Until I met Marie, I had never been on an airplane.”

Here, Marie becomes more important in the driving action of the sentence and is automatically more memorable and meaningful.

Exercise: Look at your sentences and see if you can identify the natural beat to your writing. You can either change the way you’re speaking to match the rhythm of your words or alter your sentence structure to make for more rhythmic speech. Either way, your cadence, and confidence will both improve!



If you ever experienced endless lectures at school or university from boring teachers who made you want to go to sleep, an analysis of the way they talk would most likely reveal a lack of variance in their speech.

In terms of emphasis, you can catch people off guard by varying both the length of your sentences and the point at which you make an emphasis to be sure that you’re still holding their attention. If you were giving a speech on British History, for example, the following sentences would sound very similar in length and emphasis, and you might lose listeners along the way:

• Members of Parliament met in their usual location on November 5th. They did not know that Guy Fawkes had filled the cellar with gunpowder.

Consider the difference if you vary both the sentence length and the word stress:

• When Members of Parliament met on November 5th, a cellar full of gunpowder awaited them. The culprit? Guy Fawkes, of course!

This structure also puts the final emphasis on Guy Fawkes as a name you’ll want to remember.

Exercise: Look at any rough lines you’ve drafted so far for your speech and consider the length of your sentences. Imagine taking a sword to that speech and chopping parts of it into shorter, sharper sections for better emphasis, and read it again to see how it sounds.

In Lesson Five, we delve deeper into the world of Drama to see how we can make ourselves sound as natural as possible when speaking, to break down the barriers between us and our audience.

For now, take a deep breath and practice your emphasis!



Recommended reading

For more in-depth reading on emphasis and how it can shift meaning and intention, check out this great article.


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