Reading Remote Audiences: Prosody

Reading Remote Audiences: Prosody explains what prosody is and how we can use basic analysis of it to better understand and communicate with our audiences. A perfect example of prosody in comedy is the kit from Will Ferrel. 

What is Prosody 

You might not have heard of prosody outside of a vague undergraduate memory, but you experience and interpret it daily. Prosody is the phonetic term referring to meter, timbre, rhythm, pitch, tempo, and loudness of speech. It is outside of phonetic and vowel pronunciation and is how we communicate syllables and larger units of speech. Prosody reflects the emotional state of the speaker and how they deliver the forms of speech they choose. It is the backbone of sarcasm, irony, emphasis, contrast, focus, and without prosody, poetry would be impossible. 

Why is Prosody Important for Reading Remote Audiences? 

When we are delivering remote presentations or demos, we are operating at a measurable disadvantage. 70% of communication is non verbal. (If you read our last series entry we discuss non verbal communication for remote audiences click here) So, we are left with 30% verbal communication and prosody plays a critical role. 

4 Types of Prosody 

There are four metrical patterns of prosody. In literature and poetry, prosody accentuates and stresses certain words for a desired effect. The four types of prosody can give sets of words different meanings and functions. They are also the backbone for each languages communication. 

  1. Syllabic Prosody: This counts the fixed number of syllables, accent tone and quality are secondary. Think Haiku, based exclusively on syllables 
  2. Accentual Prosody: Accentual measures the accents or stresses in a line of language. See the below EE Cummings excerpt- bolded are the accented parts of the line. 

“what if a much of a which of a wind

gives the truth to summer’s lie;

bloodies with dizzying leaves the sun

and yanks immortal stars awry?

Blow king to beggar and queen to seem

(blow friend to fiend: blow space to time)

—when skies are hanged and oceans drowned,

the single secret will still be man…”

  1. Accentual/Syllabic Prosody: This counts accents AND syllables. Iambic Pentameter (what Shakespeare wrote in, the most common English meter) 
  2. Quantitative Prosody: This is the measure is the amount of time it takes to pronounce language over syllables. Think the Aeneid or ancient Roman or Greek texts. 

Do Remote Presentations Produce Aprosody? 

Aprosody is the absence of the ability to distinguish prosody. It can be a medical condition and also is a state in which people are unable to communicate or understand one another. It results in the inability to produce emotional or affective qualities in one’s speech or to recognize them in others. But does this happen in small part in remote demos? When you are communicating remotely, despite the best sound quality, connection, and software, there is a gap in communication. According to the Buffer 2020 State of Remote Work 20% of respondents named communication to be the biggest challenge of the remote workplace. Prosody plays a role. 

How do I get better at Reading an Audience Using Prosody? 

Remember when robots were considered a distant innovation marking a whole new future where everyone wears silver? Remember how they talk? That is speaking without prosody. Now the next time you are having a remote meeting with your team, start to notice how the syllables and accents are communicating emotions. Here are some not so professional examples, taken from the lexicon of 1980s valley girl. 

  • Seriously? 
  • DUDE 
  • Oh. my. God. 

You know who can communicate with an 80s lexicon? Anyone, if you take the time to research the language, intonations, meter, and timbre. The same is true for your clients and their normative office language. You will likely not master nuances remotely, but if you watch some marketing videos and research, you might pick up on subtle cues of their culture.

Prosody, Identity, and Culture 

Prosody can not only relate emotions, but it denotes age, demographics, culture, and identity. When you are demoing or presenting to a new audience find out their background prior to the call.  If you have an audience that you are unfamiliar with, research common prosody types of their native language in English. You do not need to change the way you present your product completely, but you do need to pay special attention to the way they respond to your presentation. 

In a remote situation it is critical to ask questions and be aware of the pitch, timbre, and tone of your presentation. When we are reading remote audiences, the timbre, pitch, meter, and accents we use will show where we place importance in our presentation. If we are demoing to audiences that do not understand where we are putting emphasis, we are not communicating clearly.

Prosody Pitch Delivery Exercise 

Put prosody to work for you by practicing with non-native speaking or remote audiences prior to presenting to clients. Quiz them after to see what they thought were the most important parts of your presentation. Do they coincide with the value you are trying to convey? If not, let’s chat. We offer coursework on virtual demos, in addition to coaching.

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