How Natural Speech Cadence Reveals Meaning

Cadence and Info Chunks, Speech and Vocal Delivery, VO Performance Skills

Your brain constructs meaning by grouping words into Data Blocks.
Natural speech cadence reveals the blocks so listeners can easily follow the message development.

What 95% of Talent Get Wrong

Natural Speech cadence is not a skill to be learned—it is a description of how U.S.-accented speakers already speak. But the effort expended to perform the words of a script causes natural cadence to be lost, and so training and practice is required to overcome loss of natural cadence and loss of Data Blocks.

Each new piece of information in a spoken message is conveyed as a new block of sound—a short string of words slightly blended together. All English speech, particularly American diction, is conveyed through as a series of these “Data Blocks“. Most sentences are made up of several short blocks.

  1. Speech and Accent trainers call them Sound Groups; all the words in a group blend together a bit.
  2. Linguists often call these groups Chunks.

Words Do Not Isolate From One Another

Below is a simple script broken into Data Blocks, one per line. The lines of the script are in bold; you can read the script by reading the bold words along the left edge of the page. The intention is not to draw attention to the chunks by techniques; it is to notice what they are so you can speak naturally. (However, being aware of chunks while speaking naturally takes practice and training.)

  1. The facade The topic noun, a physical object, is introduced
  2. contains a water table —a part of the object is defined
  3. made of stone.the composition of the object part is defined
  4. The restthe remainder of something is to be discussed
  5. of the facadeit is the main object under discussion
  6. has gold-beige brick, —part of its composition is defined
  7. which is laidthe layout of the brick is specified
  8. in a diagonal patternits visual pattern is defined
  9. The facadethe main object is under discussion
  10. is simpleit is on the simple end of some scale of complexity
  11. in design, —the complexity refers to design
  12. especially when comparedprevious information is to be compared
  13. with Krupp’s other works.what it’s being compared to

We show each Block on a separate line simply to make it easier to convey when teaching—in work or practice it is not necessary to split Blocks into individual lines.

The Properties of a Block:

  1. Excepting special groupings made via punctuation, 99% of blocks are 2-5 words in length; 1% are 1 or 6 words long; there are never two one-word blocks in sequence unless punctuation makes it so.
  2. Each Sound Group / Data Block introduces more information, whether new or expanding on what has come before;
  3. All Data Blocks end on the lowest pitch of the chunk—the Staircase Down; they start high and end low.

The Staircase: Inflect High to Low

The last syllable in a Data Block is inflected at the lowest pitch of the group. Sometimes, especially in high-authority voiceover, there will be a slight pitch up before the final pitch down, an up-down inflection at the end.

Since the pitch flows down to the final word or syllable, the first key information word in a Data Block is the highest pitch—often hit (slight pitch up on stressed syllable) lightly and slightly faster than the words that follow. Attempting this intentionally will usually produce fake speech—you have to become aware of how this is what you already do, rather than try to intentionally do it.

The Influence of Breathing

The pressure of your respiration naturally relaxes as more and more air leaves your lungs—you slow down your exhalation the closer you get to the end. So near the end of Data Blocks—especially those that end in punctuation—your vocal delivery feels and sounds less “effortful”, and you naturally ease from phonation (making sound) to continuing to breath at the end of an Data Block. Thus vocal delivery eases from higher and faster to lower and slower as a side effect of natural respiration.

Identifying Data Blocks

Work on one sentence at a time, in stages. Do not try to find all blocks on the first pass! And remember that where there is punctuation, it always begins or ends a block. And never make blocks longer than five words at first. Find the key blends  between words first by identifying which pairs of words most tend to blend together in natural speech. Follow these stages:

  1. Circle or highlight or note pairs of words that go most naturally together (NOT all possible word pairs). You need to notice which words group together most obviously, not simply all possible word pairs.
  2. Note any additional pairs of words that would also naturally blend together.
  3. Add the words that are not paired with other words before each pair to that pair—unpaired words group with the pair that follows them.

Most of the time, this will reveal all blocks. Sometimes there is an isolated word or two at the end of a block before punctuation occurs—simply add those words to the block before them. Less frequently, you may combine two word pairs into one four-word Data Block.

Here is an example of grouping the words in the script shown above by first finding word pairs, then splitting them into individual lines (poetry format) to indicate where the Data Blocks are. There is more than one grouping option in a couple of spots, but we’re ignoring that for this simplified example:

Relaxed Effort

Too much effort destroys natural speech and information flow.

Natural speech is the process that begins with breath (Respiration), continues with sound (Phonation), and is modified by Articulation. In bad acting or announcing, using pressure and emphasis to “tell and sell and yell” destroys the influence of Respiration on speech, producing a fake speech/bad acting/reading/announcing style.

New talent often first hear about this as a direction to relax and do less—it doesn’t mean “sound relaxed” as much as to loosen and let go of tension, and stop pushing and pressuring your speech. Sometimes you may be directed to let a little Air Tone in before or after a group of words. This means to gently switch from Respiration to Phonation before Articulating, letting a tiny bit of relaxed sound happen before articulating the first syllable in a Sound Group (or after articulating the last syllable).

This informational journey through the script—the repeated introduction of information in data blocks—is how our brains group the words, leading to speaking each group as a blended unit of sound, with the pitch releasing as respiration begins to ease.

We will add video instructions and examples below in December, 2022.