Phrasing is a lot like pie….

Phrasing is an essential concept in the tuition of speech and drama skills. It is critical to effective text interpretation, whether you’re performing a poem, a speech, or a monologue. Appropriate phrasing ensures you’re communicating the meaning of the text accurately and effectively by breaking the entire text up into smaller parts (phrases) using appropriate types and lengths of pause.

Teachers explain phrasing to their students in many different ways. There’s even more contention about how to define it. I’ve suggested some definitions below. For my younger students, I precede a rigid definition with a lot of talk about PIE!

INTRODUCING THE ‘PHRASING PIE’

Let’s say you wanted to give your friend (the listener) a delicious pie (piece of text) which you have baked. You really want your friend to enjoy the pie, and you’re SO excited to deliver it to them, but then…


Whoops. You were in such a rush to give your friend some pie that you ended up throwing it in their face! It’s not a very enjoyable experience for them and it confuses your friend. It’s all too much: they’re overwhelmed, they can’t see, and they definitely can’t taste all the flavours and savour every bite.


If you want your friend to enjoy the pie, you need to give them a piece (phrase) at a time. Cut the pie into slices, put the first slice on a plate, and present it with great care and belief in how delicious your pie is!

Yum, much better! Now your friend has received just a single slice of pie so they can savour it. Now they can taste all the flavours, and take the time to enjoy (and understand) your delicious treat. They’ll love it so much, they’ll be ready for another slice soon after they’ve finished the first one. You have to give them a moment to finish chewing first, though (pause).
Eventually, your friend will have eaten the whole pie, enjoying every bite along the way.

SOME DEFINITIONS OF PHRASING

“Phrasing is the grouping together of words and phrases in order to create sense and interest in speech.” ~ Royal Irish Academy of Music

“Chunking [phrasing] is the process of packaging information into meaningful thought groups separated by pauses, like how punctuation is used in written language.” ~ Doctors Speak Up

“Grouping words together as in normal speech, pausing appropriately between phrases, clauses, and sentences.” ~ Reading Recovery Council of North America

“Phrasing refers to the way in which we cluster words together for meaning or to enhance the sense of a poem, piece of prose or drama selection. A phrase is a group of words linked together but not necessarily making sense on their own. The key to the appropriate phrasing of a poem, prose or drama selection is preparation.
• Read the selection several times. Ask yourself: what does it mean?
• Observe the punctuation which will often indicate how the author felt the piece should be phrased. Use the punctuation as a guide, but it is not always necessary to phrase according to the punctuation.
• Identify phrases that make sense on their own and ones that need to be linked to other phrases for the meaning to be clear.
• See where you should take a breath so that you don’t run out of breath when speaking.
• Practice and rehearse the piece, using varied phrase lengths to hold your audience’s interest. Remember that the purpose of phrasing is to help to interpret the selection for your audience.” ~ Irish Board of Speech & Drama

“Just breathe from your diaphragm!”

When working with presenters and performers, I place significant emphasis on the importance of freeing the breath. I’m passionate about debunking the diaphragmatic breathing ‘myth’, as so often I hear this concept explained and taught insufficiently or inaccurately.

I was reading through one of the Toastmasters International educational series about ‘Controlling Your Fear’. One of the pieces of advice within the manual is to:

“Breathe from the diaphragm… To learn to breathe correctly, lie on your back with a book on your stomach. Take a deep breath. The book rises as your diaphragm expands. As you exhale, the book should go back down.”

MYTH 1: Breathing FROM the diaphragm.

It is not physically possible to breathe ‘from’ anywhere else BUT your diaphragm! The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle which creates a vacuum effect when contracted, and this is what draws air into the lungs. If you weren’t ‘breathing from/using/with your diaphragm’, you wouldn’t be breathing at all! People think this is a mysterious, inactive muscle exclusively reserved for ‘deep’ breathing.

MYTH 2: The diaphragm does not EXPAND, it contracts.

Many have encountered exercises like the aforementioned ‘book on belly’ technique (where they work to feel the book rise and fall as they breathe in and out) thinking it’s their diaphragm directly causing the movement. This is physiologically inaccurate: the contraction of the diaphragm during inhalation causes the abdominal wall to bulge or ‘expand’, which results in the ‘belly breath’ people feel.

While I have used the book technique for some students to help them ‘feel’ the difference between a ‘deep’ breath and a ‘shallow’ breath, it follows significant preparation and explanation to ensure its use is meaningful. If this warm-up is used incorrectly, students unconsciously begin to use their abdominal muscles to make the book rise and fall instead of feeling it move as a byproduct of unrestricted diaphragmatic contraction and relaxation.

There are much easier and more efficient ways to access this deep, ‘diaphragmatic breath’ (so book a session with me to find out more!)

MYTH 3: Breathing CORRECTLY.

I am resolute in my decision to actively avoid using words like ‘right’, ‘wrong’, ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ when working with speakers. There is no such thing as correct breathing – there is, however, the most APPROPRIATE breathing technique for the task at hand. A trumpet player will employ a different breathing technique to a speaker, just as an Olympic runner breathes in a different way to a yoga teacher.

For speakers, we want to access our natural breath and maximise its flexibility. This requires a true sense of physical release and relaxation, as well as consistent practice as our body will take time to adapt to anything new.

Getting in touch with your breath support muscles and allowing them to operate freely and flexibly works wonders for your voice, body and mind.

Babies have the best voices

Have you ever looked at a newborn and wondered how such a big voice emerges from such a small body? Their bodies may be small, but their voices are LOUD and clear!

We are so lucky to be gifted with a unique voice which allows us to communicate. Unfortunately, years of habits, tensions, and traumas restrict, oppress, and restrain our innate instrument.

We tell our little ones to stop shouting in public, to sit quietly at the table, and to not be a nuisance. We grow up learning that shouting at the top of our lungs just because we feel like it is not socially acceptable. As we mature, life experiences often add layers of restriction to our natural voices. If the 6 year old is told they cannot sing, they will grow up believing it. If the 13 year old is ridiculed for her ‘nasally’ voice, she will stop using it. For many of us, within just a few years our voice loses its freedom and flexibility. The voice we are left with is often far removed from the one we’re born with.

Good voice training involves release, freedom, and simplicity. In fact, much of my teaching day involves ‘undoing’ layers of tension and restriction so that speakers can release their authentic, natural voice. It’s a long journey, and often an emotional one, as the voice is inextricably linked to a person’s feelings and personality. We can learn to love our voices if we set them free.