- Identify techniques to use effective articulation.
- Identify effective rates of speaking.
Once you’ve mastered controlling your breath as you speak, next let’s look at how you speak. If you have ever had someone ask you to repeat a word, you may suffer from poor diction. Articulation, or diction, is what helps the listener not just hear the spoken word but also understand it.
Articulation is how clearly the speaker pronounces words. When some sounds are slurred together or dropped out of a word, the word may not be understood by the audience. To use proper articulation, a speaker must use their articulators: tongue, teeth, and lips. When a speaker uses improper diction, the hearer cannot make out the word spoken and often requests a repeat of what was said. In public speaking, a hearer cannot request a repeat and therefore poor articulation can make a listener tune out. It is important to say all parts of the word in order to speak clearly. This often requires slowing down your speaking pace, more on that topic to follow, and using your lips, teeth, and tongue to their full capacity.
Tongue twisters are a great way to force the speaker to slow down and pronounce each part of the word. Try saying, “Seven silly swans swam silently seaward” three times quickly. If that was easy for you, s’s may be your forte! Each individual speaker will struggle with certain sounds specific to them, or have developed a regionalism that makes them pronounce a word the way they’ve always heard it that doesn’t work in other parts of the country. A technique to making sure your speech isn’t affected by problem words is to note which sounds are struggles and circling the parts of the word on the speech outline. This serves as a reminder to take extra care when speaking that word out loud. Identifying these barriers to communication will improve the understanding of the audience and give polish to your speech.
In addition to speaking clearly, finding vocal variety in your speaking voice will help the audience stay awake. A voice that lacks variety can be described as monotone. In comedies, teachers are often portrayed as having a monotone voice, as in this famous scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:
You can view the transcript for “Bueller Bueller Bueller” here (opens in new window).
When the audience hears a monotone voice, they don’t stay engaged.
Much like a keyboard, your voice has many notes to it called pitches. Your voice can speak on higher notes and lower notes much like when someone sings. To explore the notes in your voice, try this exercise. Stand up on your toes and lift your hands in the air. Say ah at the highest point of your voice, which makes sound come out, and drop your wrists, elbows, and head over as you slide down to your lowest note. Reverse it and come back up trying to go higher and lower each time. Having discovered how much pitch variety you have to work with, you can now put arrows into your speech outline reminding you to raise the pitch or lower it on some words or phrases to be more effective.
Next to being loud enough, the most commonly identified speech problem is speaking too quickly. Raise your hand if you’ve ever been told you’re a fast talker. Controlling the rate at which one speaks is often one of the most challenging things a speaker has to do. When nerves kick in, it can be really hard to pull back on the speed that you’re talking at as sometimes you just want to finish and get out of the spotlight. Speaking too quickly can also make your audience tune out from listening to the speech. You’ve put all this time into the speech, so let’s make sure the audience hears it. According to The National Center for Voice and Speech, the average speaking rate for English speakers in the U.S. is around 150 words per minute. In a public speaking situation, you’ll want to speak slower than average, around 125–150 words per minute.
One of the ways to control your rate of speech is to make sure you are taking enough breaths. As we discussed before, if you lose control of your breathing, the rate of speech also gets out of control. One of the ways to make sure you breathe enough is to place a mark next to the word in a sentence on your outline to remind yourself to breathe there. A backwards slash (/) is a good signal to use. In order to see if the breaths selected work, read it out loud. If you find yourself gasping for air at the end of that sentence, there should be another breath added. Punctuations are the clues for where to breathe in a sentence too, so let those be your guide.
Recording yourself is one way to get a sense of how quickly you’re going. Play the recording back and listen to see if you can hear and understand every word. If not, write notes on your notecards that say SLOW DOWN or BREATHE to remind yourself to do so. Once you’ve mastered a controlled rate of speech, then you are able to play with speeding up and slowing down certain sections. Finding this variety of speed will further engage your audience. Think about telling the climax of a story. Sometimes you pause at certain moments to build suspense. That’s what you want to do in public speaking too. Sometimes you speed up to tell a story with momentum so the audience goes along for the ride too. Finding variety in your rate can be thrilling and the icing to a great speech.
To watch: Rébecca Kleinberger, “Why you don’t like the sound of your own voice”
In this talk, MIT voice expert and researcher Rébecca Kleinberger talks about the three voices humans have: the outward voice, the inward voice, and the inner voice. Kleinberger’s account here helps to explain why our own voice—which we hear all the time—sounds so unfamiliar to us when we hear it in a recording. It also speaks to the need to practice listening to your voice in recordings.
What to watch for:
Kleinberger’s speech is fascinating, and offers a great deal of insight into the way we perceive (or fail to perceive) our own voices. Interestingly, although she speaks at length about why we don’t recognize our voice, Kleinberger doesn’t really answer the question of why we don’t like our voices. At the end of the speech, some listeners may still be wondering why they don’t like the voice they hear in recordings of themselves, and what they could do about it. This should serve as a reminder that if you have a catchy title with a question in it, you have to make sure you answer the question in your speech!