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Word Emphasis/Stress Exercise

Brief Description/Purpose

The emphasis placed on words in a sentence can completely change the meaning of the sentence. It's particularly important in jobs in customer service, both in paying attention to the stresses in a sentence when listening, and paying attention to the words one stresses when speaking to a customer to send just the right message.


Whole group exercise

Age Appropriate

Teens, Adults

Ideal Group Size

8-50 people

Time For Exercise

Ten minutes, so you can use this as an energizer or icebreaker at the start of, say, a course on communication


Communication, Customer Service, Conflict, Team building

Detailed Instructions If Needed

Write the following phrase on the flipchart, or display in an overhead type slide:

I didn't say you borrowed my book

  • Ask the group whether the meaning of this if fairly clear.
  • Then, say the sentence by changing your emphasis on the words.
    • For example:
    • I didn't say you borrowed my book (stress on the I)
    • I didn't say you borrowed my book (stress on the didn't)
  • Ask the group what that means now.
  • In turn, go through, emphasizing each word in sequence and asking the group for changes in the meaning.
  • When you've gone through, ask the group what conclusions they can draw from the exercise, and whether the conclusions have any implications for their work.

You can also ask for examples when people have been surprised at the meaning someone took from what they said that was completely different than what was intended.