Help me learn to speak better
February 11, 2007 9:11 PM   Subscribe

How can I most practically improve my speaking voice? In everyday conversation I often mumble, slur words or speak too fast. I am not looking on ways to become a better public speaker, but to improve the articulation and speech patterns of everyday conversation.

I always admired those who had a very patrician sounding voice, but I have no delusion of becoming a Barack Obama.

I do assume that it is possible to have at least a pleasant sounding, articulate voice that I cannot cringe at. I do also assume that it can be corrected with practice and study (as there are a number of expensive, academic looking textbooks on Amazon catering to what appears to be mostly actors). The textbook method seems to academic and rigorous for me, at least without a teacher to make sure I am on track.

Is simply recording my voice on a tape recorder, reading passages, and trying to keep to what I perceive as a good voice the best course of action? I would like to sound as natural as possible of course, and don't want to turn into Dwight from The Office with his over-pronunciation.

I should note that I have a natural Midwestern accent, if one would call it an accent at all.
posted by geoff. to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Try talking to yourself in a mirror and enunciating. You could also tape yourself talking while on the phone (tape your end of the call) and listen back. I am a radio host, and know I used to mumble a ton. It's not bad to slur or speak to fast though! Not everyone needs to be Bob Scheiffer. The thing is, you should ask yourself what it is you need your voice to do for you. If you have a professional voice in professional settings and another relaxed voice for other situations, then you've reached an ideal point. Strive for that.
posted by parmanparman at 9:22 PM on February 11, 2007

I deal with this all the time, since I talk to people for a living, and have some of the same habits (also I'm prone to talkingreallyfast). I do try to pay attention to how I speak and enunciate, but I find that it gets tiresome. Thus, rather than trying to moderate my speech all the time, I just learned to recognize when people were having trouble understanding me. You know what I mean...the raised eyebrows, the change in posture, the slightly disbelieving expression, the sudden onset of active listening. When somebody starts exhibiting these signs, I start paying more attention to how I speak- slowing down, speaking up, and enunciating clearly.

As parmanparman (basically) said, you don't need to sound like an orator all the time- you speak just fine, really! But if you notice that people are having trouble communicating with you, start speaking more deliberately and you'll be gravy.
posted by baphomet at 9:42 PM on February 11, 2007

I applaud your desire to communicate more effectively! I wish more people thought about how amazing our capacity for clear, powerful speech is not only for announcers but can help all of us daily...

Please do NOT tape-record your voice-- it will cause you to be OVERLY conscious about what you (already perceive) as an area on which to focus.

A good place to start?

Bring a newspaper or book into the bathroom with you at home. (Bathrooms are wonderful places to vocalise because their small size and sound-reflective surfaces make you sound your best...)

When you are on the toilet, take a full breath and read one sentence at a time. Pretend you are speaking to an eight-year-old-- not in a "sing-songy" baby-talk way, but taking care to emphasize the KEY WORDS in the sentence.(Key words are usually, but not always, verbs and nouns...)
Take another breath. Repeat-- but this time read TWO sentences aloud. Repeat with THREE sentences.

At some point, maybe mid-sentence on the third or fourth round, you'll notice that you start to rush and mumble and stumble MORE than when you started. WTF?

Because it is all about your BREATHING: if you can't/won't/don't habitually get enough air, your body panics because it is running out of "gas". So your brain compensates by RUSHING.

How to learn not to rush? And to take fuller breaths?

Give yourself permission to breathe. Don't think you've gotta talksofastinahurry because ifyoudon't peoplewill tuneyou OUT.
Quite the contrary.

Learn how to take deep breaths from your diaphragm. (Here is where those acting books will actually come in handy.) Better yet, find a copy of "Speak For Your Self" by Dr. Julia Wing--- the best comprehensive book on sound production I've ever used. Or find a friend who takes or teaches yoga. This is not difficult and will truly help.

Being relaxed, taking a full and sustaining breath before speaking, and key-wording sentences are three of the most effective methods to slow you down, make you clear, and ENJOY your voice, It is more supple and expressive than you know!

Good luck!
posted by Dizzy at 9:49 PM on February 11, 2007 [4 favorites]

Check out your local colleges/universities - there should be a diction class.

A diction class will help you in more ways than you might realize. (It actually really improved my listening and hearing as well as my speaking.)
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 10:17 PM on February 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Consider watching yourself in a mirror while you talk on the phone.
posted by redteam at 10:40 PM on February 11, 2007

When I studied acting they had us taking 5 classes relating to speech and voice. It was a great trip. For that year I was hyper conscious of where and how I was producing the tone and where and how I was forming my vowels and consonants. The next year I let it all go, and when I did pay attention my voice was relaxed and resonant, the vowel sounds were clear and well formed and the consonants were crisp.

I suggest two classes: Singing (for tone) and diction (so you know the sounds you want to make). The diction class is important because we generally have such a poor grasp of the building blocks of our language. When you learn how things are "supposed" to sound then you can dip back into a more natural voice with this underlying clarity.
posted by pointilist at 10:53 PM on February 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Please forgive my pushiness, but I find looking at myself while speaking is useless at best and debilitating at worst-- I become aghast at how weird my mouth moves when producing certain words and sounds.

geoff doesn't need to appear better, he needs to sound clearer.

I think fbkitten's suggestion is excellent, too. Area community colleges charge very little and can be really helpful.
posted by Dizzy at 10:59 PM on February 11, 2007

Fair enough, Dizzy. I respect your advice.

I get on myself about my voice, too, sometimes. I found that to even begin to see or hear what was going on, that is, to get anywhere, I found that looking at myself in the mirror was very interesting.

Changing my tone and paying attention to my breathing made more sense once I had the visual feedback of myself in the mirror doing those things. Plus, being on the phone was a good opportunity to be alone and speak without having something to read.

Of course, if it's too distracting or discouraging, forget it :)
posted by redteam at 11:13 PM on February 11, 2007

No need to defer because you nailed it--- I'm the vainest guy in the world, and when I look in the mirror I start posing and stop talking!)
posted by Dizzy at 11:18 PM on February 11, 2007

It comes with practice. The problem is that it's very difficult to focus on your voice unless you've a reason to. I was able to manage it by working in radio for years. You'll improve by pretending to work in radio.

The first step is to find your natural register. Don't try to make your voice deeper or more resonant - it'll be a disaster. Instead, find your voice and stick with it.

I was taught to do this by humming. Hum at a pitch that sounds good and feels natural. It will probably be a bit lower than your usual speaking voice, but not by much. You'll feel a vibration at the back of your throat and behind your nose.

The trick is to maintain that vibration while speaking. Try transitioning from humming to speaking and see what happens.

Losing the ums and uhs presents more of a challenge. Just try to be conscious of your speaking and pause rather than attempting to fill the time with meaningless sounds. This alone will do wonders for your speaking skills (and make you seem a lot more thoughtful and intelligent).

The key concept in all of this is that you should be working on your natural voice. If you try to change your natural register, it will sound awkward and artificial. Instead, you want to make the very best of what you've got.

If you're serious about this, check out the book Dizzy recommended and see what else is available at the library. From there, it's just a matter of practice. I often give little speeches and have conversations with myself when no one is paying attention. It's not just because I'm nuts!

On preview: As suggested, this is a mildly vain exercise. I'm about as vain as they come (that song is totally about me). But this is a more intellectual sort of vanity than body building or creative facial hair. So let us all practice our diction in the shower!
posted by aladfar at 11:30 PM on February 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

Try this: Avoid speaking like an American and try to copy a foreign accent. Your speech will automatically improve because you need to work to properly say the words. Try a British posh accent.
posted by markovich at 12:35 AM on February 12, 2007

While it is a little off track, and I may rightfully be accused of being a broken record, you can improve your speaking abilities substantially via Toastmasters.

While their program concentrates primarily on public speaking, you will get valuable feedback on what you sound like to OTHER PEOPLE, as well as focus and structure to the process of speaking.

aladfar's observation regarding your 'natural voice' is worth restating. You have defined resonances, specific cavity sizes, and a lifetime of habits that are dictating your voice's sounds. Only a portion of that is subject to non-surgical modification.

You can maximize what you do have, however, and a good vocal coach can help you find out where you are placing your voice. Everyday speech is a special case, because it is usually extremely casual and we allow ourselves to be lazy. When we try NOT to be lazy, sometimes our speech sounds affected and artificial.

Two useful suggestions would be to find someone who sounds like you would like to sound, and to buy/employ a tape recorder to see what YOU sound like to yourself.

The first will give you a target to aim at. The second, a feedback mechanism to see how you are doing.

It's awfully hard to hear the first 100 times, but it sure it useful. You can change very little without a feedback mechanism, and a recording is more faithful to what you sound like to others than are your own ears.
posted by FauxScot at 5:42 AM on February 12, 2007

Part of it may be psychological where you don't feel confident to speak with authority. Boosting your confidence will help you to speak above a mumble and you can't boost confidence by sitting and practicing alone with a tape recorder. You will have to interact with others in some sort of group speaking session. Follow Dizzy's advice about the mechanics but you'll also have to put your feet in the fire to get the real benefits.
posted by JJ86 at 5:52 AM on February 12, 2007

If you want "crisper" diction, you might do well to focus on strengthening the muscles in your lips & tongue. Tongue-twisters are good for this - do a few minutes every day. You'll get better at tongue-twisters, too. It makes a difference for me.
posted by amtho at 10:12 AM on February 12, 2007

By the way, if you join a local Toastmasters club, you'll be able to get plenty of practice. Their publications (educational pamphlets, magazines) are quite good and some address this topic specifically. Plus, they're pretty inexpensive!
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 10:02 PM on February 12, 2007

For simple enunciation and clarity of speech, try some drills that are popular in the high school debate ranks. In particular, the two drills that improved the way I sounded were the pen drill and the 'a' drill. For the pen drill, place a pen into your mouth as if you were a dog carrying a bone. Thereafter, read aloud passages from anything. It sounds ridiculous but it will force you to focus on pronouncing words in their entirety, lest your speech be completely slurred by the pen. The 'a' drill is a not as messy-slobber. Again, you'll be reading aloud but this time you'll add the letter 'a' at the end of every word. So: The-a crows-a seemed-a to-a be-a calling-a his-a name-a, thought-a Caw-a. This'll keep you from slurring words together.

These drills really work wonders.
posted by panoptican at 7:35 AM on February 14, 2007 [3 favorites]

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