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Stressing the importance of stress

by Robin Zebaida

When I arrived at London's Bush House in 1989 to start my training as a newsreader for the BBC World Service, I assumed I knew pretty much everything I needed to know about the role. After all, I had already spent the best part of two years as a newsreader/presenter for Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK). 


In addition to regular news reading and continuity, my experience in Hong Kong included putting together and presenting classical music programmes; CD reviews; manning a phone line during charity fundraising specials; conducting interviews with distinguished foreign artistes and presenting outside broadcasts.


Outside broadcasts (OBs) were concerts relayed live on radio. They carried the additional responsibility of having to be able to improvise knowledgeably and smoothly on the programme content, until the exact moment the music was ready to begin. As such, these were often adrenaline-fuelled events. Luckily in Hong Kong, the work could be shared with my Cantonese co-presenter. So, whenever a coherent thought had come to its logical end, I was able to hand straight over to my colleague.


Needless to say, given the live situation, there were times when these skills could be tested. For example, on one occasion during a performance of the Brahms concerto for violin, cello and orchestra, the cello soloist snapped a string and had to rush off stage to change it. Cue a good 4-5 minutes of live extemporisation before the show was able to go on.


But I digress. The point, I suppose, was that I felt more than qualified to meet whatever challenges the BBC was about to throw at me. Initially, I felt patronised by the attitude of some of my more experienced colleagues who seemed to treat trainees as rank beginners. In fact though, those training sessions formed one of the two most valuable learning experiences I have had since completing full-time education.

Perhaps the most important thing I learnt concerned stress - as in vocal stress. (Needless to say, there was plenty of the other kind of stress in live broadcasting as well.) It is easy when continually reading news broadcasts, up to a handful per shift, to fall into unconscious, repetitive patterns of delivery. For example, I often notice listening to radio presentation in Hong Kong even today an overwhelming tendency to stress, usually by raising the pitch, the final word of a sentence, no matter its relevance. It has become almost an unconscious house style; one I had equally unconsciously picked up and which needed correction.


To understand just how crucial the placing of stress can be, consider the following: "A bomb exploded in the capital of Ruritania earlier today. The RRR claimed THEY were responsible." By stressing RRR and THEY, credibility is given to their claim.


Now repeat the sentence aloud with just one stress in that second sentence on the word "claimed". You can completely undermine, or even contradict, the intended meaning of that sentence without having changed a single word, just by shifting the stress. RRR may have claimed they were responsible, but do you really trust what they say? This is hardly a trifling matter when attempting to relay events of often ground-breaking, international significance to a global audience.


Something to ponder, I hope, when considering how clearly we communicate in our day-to-day lives. It's not just about what we say but about what we stress as well. Exactly how we stress things when we speak will be the subject of a future post.


I hope this piece has been useful and informative. Please look out for our next one.



Robin Zebaida

Voice Over Artist

Executive Voice Coach


Image source: Hong Kong Heritage Museum

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