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Learn American Intonation and Public Speaking with Shonda Rhimes

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I hear voices in my head.
I do.
Male voices. Female voices.
Sometimes they all speak to me at once.

Now, before you check me into the nearest mental institution, allow me to explain.
I hear the voices of speakers in my head.
When I first started working on my American Accent in New York City I used to collect recordings of beautiful speeches; movie speeches, famous speeches (“I have a dream”), commencement speeches…
And I would hear them over and over on a scratched, overused and poorly taken care of CD or play them on a mini-cassette tape that I owned.
(yes, it was THAT long ago?)

And then I would play them in my head.
Their voices, the melody of the words going up and down and the internal rhythm of the speech would stay with me for days.
And I’d completely surrender to it, let it come to life in my head every time there was silence around.

And I would just let the words be there,
Simmer and boil
Until the perfect moment would arrive
Where I would just speak those words out
Using their melodies
As if they were my own.
But by that time, they were my own.

This is why I am analyzing speeches for you
word by word, note by note
Because I know
That if you start hearing those voices as I did
Something will happen,
And they will pour out of you as well.

Watch my video: Learn American Intonation and Public Speaking with Shonda Rhimes:


Hey there it’s Hadar and this is the
Accent’s Way.

Today we’re going to talk about how to use your pitch, the level of your voice and your intonation,

to engage people and to keep things interesting.

We are going to do that as we analyze a speech by Shonda Rhimes.

Shonda is the showrunner of big TV shows such as ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and ‘Private Practice’ and ‘Scandal’

and she’s also the author of the Year of Yes’. It’s one of my favorites books

and if you decide to read it I highly recommend the audio version

because the way she reads it is just remarkable and so so funny

and by the way if you want to get a free 30-day trial for audible

which is where you listen to audiobooks

then click on the link below and then you get a free credit which you can use to listen to the ‘Year of Yes’

and practice it with her.

Today we’re going to analyze together the beginning of her TED talk

and there we’ll listen to how she uses her pitch and the level of her voice

to make things really really interesting engaging

and creates the sense of anticipation like you can’t wait to hear what she has to say.

We’re also gonna pay attention to see the difference between

what’s more important and what’s less important and how she does that effortlessly.

So let’s first watch the clip.

So a while ago I tried an experiment.

For one year I would say ‘yes’ to all the things that scared me.

Anything that made me nervous
took me out of my comfort zone

I forced myself to say ‘yes’ to…

And now let’s break it down line by line.

The way I break it down is always I chunk it up.

I divide it into small chunks.

When we look at chunks, those small units in a sentence,

we see that all the words within the chunk are connected.

So we want to connect all of them, stress the more important words and reduce

and pronounce softly the less important words.

So a while ago I tried an experiment

So a while ago so a while ago

So a while ago so a while ago

Now she starts her talk with the word ‘so’.

‘So’ is a filler word, ‘so’ is meant to transition from one subject to another.

It makes it seem as if we were in the middle of a discussion

and we’re just continuing the talk, okay.

It makes it sound more natural.

‘So a while ago’.

Here in this chunk, the word ‘WHILE’ is the stressed word.

So, see how she goes higher in pitch. Let’s listen to it again

‘So a while ago’

‘So a while ago’ and then she drops on ‘ago’.

‘So a while ago I tried an experiment’

‘I tried an experiment’.

‘Tried an experiment’ are the stressed words and ‘an’ is really reduced.

‘I tried an experiment’

and it feels like something else is coming up.

It’s left open at the end and something else is coming up.

‘For one year I would say ‘yes’ to all the things that scared me’.

‘For one year I would say ‘yes’ to all the things that scared me, right.

She starts kind of high ‘so a WHILE ago’

and then she goes a little lower

because that’s serious and that’s profound

‘For one year’

and the way she stresses is not by going high in pitch

but she just says it a little longer with more intention

‘For one YEAR I would say YES (pause) to all the things that SCARED me’.

And we see what the words that matter here:


Just by listening to these three words or looking at these three words

we kind of get what the meaning of the
sentence is, right.

That’s why everything else can be faster,
lower in pitch, less emphasized

‘For one YEAR I would say ‘YES’

‘I w’d, w’d’ reduced, ‘I would say ‘yes’ to all the things that SCARED me.

Make sure you pronounce the TH is here ‘the things’, ‘the things’

connect it together: ‘th’things’

‘tu(w)all th’things’ that scared me.

‘Anything that made me nervous, took me out of my comfort zone.’

Anything that made me nervous

Anything that made me nervous

‘ANYTHING’, ‘NERVOUS’ these are at the stress words in the middle we go a little faster


‘THat’, ‘THat’.

Stick the tongue up for the TH, the ‘a’ is reduce, ‘that made’

So you connect those two together ‘thtmademe’, ‘thtmademe’, ‘thtmademe’.


‘took me out of my comfort zone’,

‘took me out of my comfort zone’,

‘took’ we have a relaxed ʊ sound not ‘tuk’, ‘tʊk’, ‘tʊk’ me.

‘me’ is lower in pitch because ‘me’ is less

‘out of my’ turns into ‘adda my’, ‘adda my’, ‘adda’.

So you actually drop your jaw for the ‘a’-sound, the T becomes a flap T(D) – adda

the ‘əv’ turns into just a simple ‘a’, ‘adda my’, ‘adda my’, ‘adda my’. So she says it fast.

‘comfort zone’ that’s a set phrase and a set phrase is usually a word with two digits, comprised of two words

and then the first word is more stressed like ‘HIGH school’ or ‘TEAM leader’

or ‘COMFORT zone’.

‘comfort’, ‘COMFORT zone’.

‘took me out of my COMFORT zone’.

Anything that made me nervous

took me out of my comfort zone I forced
myself to say yes to.

I forced myself to say YES to.

I forced myself to say YES to.

Again she’s really low here. ‘Yes’ is slightly higher in pitch.

That’s the main point here okay. That’s the key word.

So she’s gonna go higher and pitch for that

I forced myself to say YES to.

Make sure that when you say the word ‘forced’ it doesn’t sound like ‘first’ because that’s a different word.

To do that you want to make sure that the o-sound is fully pronounced

‘for-, for- and then you bring the tongue up for the R only at the end after you pronounce the o-.

‘I forced myself t’say’, ‘tə’ is reduced.

I forced myself t’say yes (pause) to.

The word ‘to’ is not reduced when it’s at the end. So you pronounce it with a pure u sound.

t’say YES to.

Now notice that because there is a period, that’s the end of the paragraph,

the intonation drops down: I forced myself to say yes to.

Unlike ‘Anything that made me nervous’

when she went up because something else is coming up

but here it’s the end of the paragraph, she closed it and it kind of organizes things in our heads.

You want to think of your speech
as if you’re writing an email right

You wouldn’t just put a bulk of text you
would break it down into different paragraphs

and put a comma in between
ideas and a period at the end

and you do the same thing when you speak only you use intonation for that.

So that rising intonation: ‘Anything that made me nervous’ right, when you lift it up

it’s like a comma and then ‘I force myself to say ‘yes’ to’ period.

I know as a listener that the idea has ended

even though she’s gonna continue with the same argument or the same idea

it’s a new start of a new sentence so I’m preparing for it differently.

I forced myself to say ‘yes’ to. Did I want to speak in public? No, but yes.

Did I want to be on live TV? No, but yes.

Did I want to try acting? No, no, no, but yes, yes, yes.

Now as you can see she asks three questions:

Did I want to speak in public? Did I want to be on live TV? Did I want to try acting?

And the answer is the same for each question:

No, but yes. No, but yes. No, no, no. But yes, yes. yes.

So to make it interesting she asks it
differently every single time.

Because if she were to ask you the same it would be boring.

Did I want to speak in public? Did I want to be on live TV? Did I want to try acting?

Right, that’s boring and it’s not interesting

So she escalates her intention, and the tension, and the pitch.

And that’s how she creates engagement and interest, and anticipation to hear what the answer would be.

So let’s look at it.

Did I want to speak in public? No, but yes.

The first question is kind of casual. She has to start low so she has where to go right, later on.

Did I want to speak in public?

That’s a yes-no question rising-rising
intonation intonation: ‘No’.

Again rising-rising intonation.

I know it’s not over yet, something else is coming up.

‘But yes’.

‘Did I want to be on live TV?’ ‘No, but yes.’

Then the next question there is more attention there. How do we know that?

Because she goes a little higher for a high
‘live TV’

‘Did I wanna be on live TV?’ Closing.

‘Did I wanna be on live TV?’ and then
the answer is the same:

‘No, but yes’.

Right, it’s more heightened: ‘No, but yes.’

Again rising intonation: ‘No, but yes.’ Open – closed.

Did I want to try acting?

And then the last question: ‘Did I want to try acting?’

The highest note.

No, no, no, but yes, yes, yes.

Now here this is smart cuz instead of saying ‘No!’

because it’s not for her, she was like chill and mellow, so she just says the word a few times

No, no, no, but yes, yes, yes.

Right, ‘No, no, no’ open-open-open but ‘yes, yes, yes’ and then she’s closing it.

And a crazy thing happened

‘And a crazy thing happened.’ She ends it
at the end with a rising-falling intonation.

uh-na, uh-na reduced ‘uh-na crazy thing happened’. These three words are stressed.

‘uh-na crazy thing happened.’ Stick the tongue out for the THing.

The very act of doing the thing that scared me

undid the fear.

The very act (pause) of doing the
thing that scared me undid the fear.

Beautiful sentence!

‘The very ACT’, ‘act’ is stressed. the-the stick the tongue out

‘The very act of doing the thing that scared me’

v’ doing th-thing, v’ doing th-thing,

v’ doing , ‘doing’ is somewhat stressed, ‘of’
is reduced. ‘

v’doing th-thing’ stick the tongue up for the th and connect those two words together.

‘that scared me’, scared really sticks out, that’s another key word here.

of doing the thing that SCARED me

of doing the thing that SCARED me

And then she stresses those two words really nicely: ‘undid the fear.’

‘UNDID the FEAR’. Relaxed E for ‘did’.

Undid the fear.

Now she’s not closing it here yet. You can
hear the tail going up: undid the fear

‘made it not scary’.

made it not scary,

made it not scary.

So she goes really low in pitch, it’s kinda like she’s explaining it, right.

‘Undid the fear.’ What does that mean?
Made it not scary.

So she says that a little faster and lower in pitch.

It’s like she puts it in brackets but it’s important for her to say it

and then she closes it with that period
without rising-falling intonation: made it not scary.

My fear of public speaking, my social anxiety. Poof! Gone.

My fear of public speaking, my social anxiety, right.

Again she’s listing and notice how every time she hits a different note so it doesn’t get boring

My fear of public speaking, my social anxiety, right. ‘Anxiety’ doesn’t sound exactly like ‘speaking’

and for both she goes up in pitch.

Poof. Gone.

And then she closes it. Poof – falling intonation, ‘gone’.

Falling intonation has a lot more certainty and confidence,

rising-rising intonation: ‘wait something else is coming up’, it sounds like a question

not sure, wait a minute, it’s not over yet,

You need to understand that when you speak is sometimes

a lot of people use this rising intonation at the end when they’re not asking questions

when they are done saying the sentence and then it feels like something else is coming up okay

and people don’t know that they’re done.

So you want to be able to understand or recognize the difference

between rising intonation and rising-falling intonation and when you

get to the end of your sentence or when
you’re done make sure to close it

and reach the bottom of your pitch.

It’s amazing, the power of one word.

It’s amazing the power of one word.

So the word ‘AMAZING’ really sticks out here and the way she emphasizes it

is by emphasizing not only the vowel in it but also all the consonants.

‘It’s ammmmmm’ . Her M-mmm- is so long. It’s amazing.

Also the ‘NG’. It’s amazzing. Okay, because this is a strong word and she really wants to emphasize it.

‘The power of one word’

So a lot of reductions here. ‘the-power’v-
reduced the ‘of’.

‘one word’ and ‘word’ is stressed but it’s stressed by prolonging it, maybe putting a little bit of emphasis there

and slightly higher in pitch. ‘the power of one word’.

‘YES’ changed my life, yes CHANGED me.

So two profound sentences, two different sentences and listen to the melody

it is different, it has to be different. So it’s not repetitive.

So it shows the escalation, the growth,

the importance of what comes after.

‘Yes changed my life’, okay.

That’s kind of like the fact. “Yes changed ME’, right.

In addition to that and to be even more specific ‘it changed me’.

So she’s only using the pitch to indicate that

and we get it, we get this just by simply
pronouncing it a little differently or

using a different intonation and
different melody: ‘YES changed my life,

yes changed ME’, okay.

You understand that there is this sense of importance here

‘But there was one particular yes’

‘But-there w’z one, ‘but-there w’z one’ ‘but-there w’z one’

everything’s reduced here, she’s moving on to the next subject in a way ‘but-there w’z one’

‘but-there w’z one’ T-TH place your tongue on the teeth for the T

but ‘there’ then move on to the ‘th’, ‘but there was’ reduced ‘one’

‘particular’ Listen to how she pronounces
the word ‘particular’

particular yes

‘particular yes’. Every consonant is
enunciated because this is the stressed word

So she uses different ways to stress words. It’s not always higher in pitch and long.

Sometimes the consonants are long, sometimes the consonants are strong

sometimes the word is really high
in pitch, sometimes it’s just louder.

So you have all these means to emphasize
the words that convey your main message.

Par-ti-cu-lar. Like she slows down on it.

Yes, but there was one par-ti-cu-lar yes that affected my life in the most profound way.

that affected my life in the most profound way

‘that affected my life’ – fast and then slow.

See how she constantly shifts between fast, less important ‘that affected my life’

‘in the most profound way’

‘that affected my life in the most profound way’

‘in a way I never imagined’

And again she goes down, she explains it: ‘in a way I never imagined’.

So she goes a little faster lower in pitch/ It’s like she puts it in brackets.

In the most profound way. In a way I never imagined.

Repetition for emphasis. So she does it – using different words – but she makes sure not to use the same melody.

Because listen to this: ‘in the most profound way, in the way I never imagined.’

It feels like I’ve just said the same thing, right. But if I say something like this:

‘in the most profound way, in a way I never imagined’.

It triggers my brain to think about it as different as if it’s two different things which they aren’t

but it helps me understand it even better.

‘And it started with a question from my toddler’

‘And it started with a question for my toddler’.


these are the three stressed words.

“Uh-nit started’ see how she reduces the beginning ‘uh-nit’, ‘ Uh-nit’ , ‘uh-nit.

‘started’ is the stressed word. ‘With a question’, ‘witha’, whiha’, whiha’ reduced, ‘question’ is stressed,

fr’-my, fr-my, fr-my – reduced, fast, effortless ‘TODdler’, okay.

‘TODdler’ and then it feels like there is a tail that is continuing something else is coming up

and indeed then she starts telling a story

but if you want to watch the story you need to watch the TED talk.

Of course, I’ll post a link to it right in the description below.

Okay, as you can see, you have all these ways to convey your message and to stay interesting.

How you pronounce the words, how long you stretch them,

How you pronounce the consonants and the vowels in the words,

The pitch that you’re using and when you’re explaining something

it’s so important to keep your intonation varied so it’s not monotone

because when you use the same patterns whether you’re a non-native speaker or a native speaker

it becomes repetitive and people kind of
feel that they know what you’re about to say

cuz everything sounds the same. Also,
when you change the intonation people

if they zone out now they come back to you okay

because they feel that every time there is something different.

So when it’s repetitive PEOPLE may lose you, YOU may lose people.

So it’s really important to understand those nuances

and sometimes intonation, pitch, variation is more important than accurate pronunciation of sounds.

Because people will understand the substitution that you’re making with the R

or maybe with the TH

but if everything is repetitive and you are not using the melody and the pitch

to distinguish between the more important and the less important

if you’re not going faster and slower for whenever it’s more important and less important

then the message is not going to be clearly delivered.

And the only, the best way to do that is by first observing how people speak.

You pick someone that you like and you listen to how they speak and you analyze it.

And you break it down like we just did here okay.

And then when you start hearing it
you can start making it.

If you want to practice the speech you can download the script I’ve prepared it for you.

It’s on my website, I’ll post a link to it below. So you can go and grab it

and repeat it and do it over and over again and think of all those nuances

that we talked about here,

Now I’d love to hear from you.

So in the comments below let me know what was new for you today

when it comes to intonation or pitch or rhythm: everything that we talked about.

And what is the one thing that you’re going to take and practice and apply it in your day-to-day speech, okay?

So these two things. Let me know in the comments below.

Remember that if you really want to change you have to take action

you have to understand something but then to do something about it right away, okay.

So don’t wait with it. Go practice right now.

Again you can grab the script and practice with a script but you can do it with any other script that is out there.

If you want to grab my script of the Shonda Rhimes TED talk click on the link below or up here.

If you like this speech analysis and you like this video be sure to check out my playlist of American intonation

where I analyze many different speeches and I talk about intonation and rhythm
and stress.

And that’s it. Practice! The more you practice the better you get!

Have a beautiful week and I’ll see you next week in the next video,


The InFluency Podcast
The InFluency Podcast
128. How Can Intonation Help You Become A Better Speaker

Get a 30-day Audible free trial and get Shonda’s book ‘YEAR OF YES’ for FREE.

Watch Shonda’s TED talk:

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