Beaupré is a voice and performance consultant for radio
and television performers. Under the name Broadcast Voice, he
provides private training and workshops for reporters, anchors,
sports and weather casters, and others working in electronic
and broadcast media. He teaches in the Broadcast Communications
program at California State University at Los Angeles, and conducts
workshops and seminars with the Associated Press Radio and Television
Association. He has been a fixture on the convention circuit,
teaching workshops at a wide range of specialty journalism and
broadcast conventions and stations on both coasts of the U.S.
Breath of Fresh Air
September 10th, 2001
While pondering the vagueries of the English language, it
occurred to me that it was peculiar that a language with perhaps
ten to twenty thousand words in the vocabulary, we normally
speak in sentences of five to twenty five or so words. Why
would that be?
It’s not because we can’t be more complex – clearly, print
writers write in sentences considerably more complex and lengthy
than this magical five to twenty five zone. After some thought,
I think I stumbled upon the reason: five to twenty five words
is approximately the length of sound that can be easily supported
by a full breath of air.
This is to say, yes, we often speak in shorter sentences and
even on occasion in phrases longer than twenty five words,
but on the whole, this five to twenty five range seems fairly
easy to sustain with an average large sized breath.
From this idea, a number of principles flow. First, the concept
of a ‘sentence’ is a graphic one. We write sentences, although
we just as often speak in non-sequiturs, incomplete thoughts,
and general ideas that couldn't strictly be called sentences.
So when we use the word "sentence" when speaking about on-delivery,
it comes with the idea that we mean the broader range of expressions
that we speak – sometimes even non verbal vocal sounds that
Second, this means as you go through your copy, and break
it down into workable chunks (see "Marking Copy" in previous
installment of Sounds Good), the typical broadcast copy works
best in units of two or three of these breaths. That is to
say, you can certainly use shorter sentences, to add emphasis,
and even on occasion, use longer sentences to explain a complex
idea, but the length of ‘sentence’ that we can comfortably
cover in spoken speech is in the two to five ‘chunk’ range.
For example, let’s take the sentence "…bank robberies / in
Southern California / have dropped thirty five percent / during
the first quarter of this year…"
The breaks noted are simple rythmic indications of where pauses
in the speech seem to work best. But if we take this idea
of two or three chunks of words working best for our spoken
speech, this sentence would work fine with the breaks noted,
but probably would flow better with the first and second chunks
combined thus: "…bank robberies in Southern California / have
dropped thirty five percent / during the first quarter of
Finally, this idea of breaths supporting strings of sound,
of words and of ideas should be extended to start thinking
of a breath as a unit of measure. One unit of measure supports
"X" number of sound chunks and "X" number of ‘ideas’.
We’ll talk more about this idea of breaths being the key underpining
of spoken thought in future segments. In the meantime, breath