Updated: Sep 23, 2020
Do you want to make people really stop and listen to you? Do you want to stop rambling, speaking quickly and reduce the number of fillers you use like um and ah? Have you ever tried a strategy called chunking?
I often tell my students to try to pause more which can be useful but can sometimes be unnatural. An even more effective technique is to try chunking. An essential part of being well-spoken is to break your speech into short chunks—usually a few words— and pausing briefly after each one. When we organise our thoughts and our ideas, we are less likely to ramble, use filler words and speak too quickly.
As a professional trying to advance your English, you may think you need to focus more on the grammar or vocabulary. However using complicated words and grammar structures can lead to speaking in a highly stressed way where you hesitate more, talk quickly and ramble, and you forget to pause naturally. When you speak too fast, you're making it harder for your audience to understand. You may even notice your audience or the person you're talking to looking confused. In turn, you become more stressed and start to say things even more unclearly, and you have to repeat yourself.
If this is you, I suggest you try chunking.
The goal of chunking is to separate your speech into chunks of a few words and pause slightly after each short phrase. But how can you do that effectively?
1. Try to find good models and practice and mimick the ways they do it. One strategy is to pay close attention to the speaker. Listen not only to what they are saying but also how they are saying it.
For some great examples of chunking, use TED talks like this one by landscape architect Walter Hood.
Notice that as Walter speaks, he pauses slightly between his thoughts and ideas. You might be thinking "Yes, but he is doing a presentation, and he has practised his speech." However, you can adopt this method in unplanned, spontaneous speech also by using signpost language in the same way Walter does :
For example, starting at 40 seconds, he says,
As an educator, designer, I'd like to share with you five simple concepts that I've developed through my work. And I'd like to share with you five projects where we can begin to see where the memory around us, where things have happened, can force us to look at one another in a different way. Lastly ...
Try reading it out loud. Where would you pause?
He chunks it like this:
As an educator / designer, / I'd like to share with you / five simple concepts / that I've developed through my work. / And I'd like to share with you / five projects where we can begin to see where the memory around us / where things have happened / can force us to look at one another in a different way. Lastly ...
The chunks he uses makes a pleasing rhythm. You can see he doesn't always pause at a comma and he used signposting language (shown in bold) to tell the audience what he is saying and what is coming next.
So limit your speaking to short chunks and pause after each one. You don't need to and over-complicate your English.
It can be tough to know exactly how big or small your chunks should be, but the more you listen to other people, the more you'll notice the patterns. If you can start speaking in short sized chunks, you'll be much easier to understand.
Some examples of signpost language (shown in bold) you can use when you need to ask someone a question or tell them something:
Briefly, I need to ask you three things.
I had a few things to ask you / pause / Firstly, what are your thoughts on this?
I think this is important / pause / we need to think about how we approach this.
Can we consider this in more detail ...
What I'm wondering is ...
Try it today and let me know how it helps you.