Enunciate, enunciate, enunciate!
5 tips for speaking clearly
by Catherine Welborn, editor
This year The King’s Speech generated much buzz—and with good reason—but I want to discuss an older award-winning film that focused on speech therapy: 1964’s My Fair Lady. The movie is a musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, with Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle, a poor girl with an unfortunate accent, and Rex Harrison as her eccentric speech therapist, Henry Higgins.
Eliza’s speech problem isn’t stuttering, but poor enunciation. Her strong Cockney accent causes her to drop Hs and final consonants, among other things. It’s that speech pattern—not her education or income, argues Henry Higgins—that keeps her trapped in her lower class station.
If you enunciate poorly, listeners may think that you’re nervous or in a hurry. They may even become frustrated as they struggle to follow what you’re saying. Worse, they could tune you out altogether. Improve your enunciation to ensure that your audience concentrates on your message, not on deciphering your words. Follow these five tips:
- Speak slowly. Perhaps you’re trying to cram too much information into your talk, you’re nervous or maybe you’ve just always been a fast talker. Identify your reason for rushing, and make adjustments. If you’re attempting to cover too much, cut your speech to a more manageable length by focusing on your most important points. If you are speaking quickly because of nerves or habit, practice slowing down.
- Exaggerate your mouth’s movements. As you practice, watch yourself in a mirror. You might notice that you barely open your mouth as you speak; that is one cause of poor enunciation. Practice speaking with exaggerated movements of your lips and tongue. Open your mouth extra wide for vowel sounds. “Spit” out consonants like B, D, P and T. When you are comfortable using your whole mouth, tone down that clown-like exaggeration but make sure you open your mouth wide enough to speak without mumbling.
- Twist your tongue. Practice reciting tongue twisters. They take more concentration, so they are a good way to warm up. Focus on enunciation, not speed. Examples: “Stupid superstition,” “Red leather, yellow leather,” “Seventy-seven benevolent elephants” and “Are our oars oak?”
- Videotape a rehearsal. Watch the whole speech, focusing exclusively on your enunciation. Make notes of your errors, such as dropping final consonants, slurring one world into another or mumbling. Write down specific words and phrases that you didn’t enunciate clearly. That way, when you recite your speech again, you know when you’re most likely to slip up and can avoid the issue entirely.
- Practice correctly. We always stress practice as the best way to prepare for public speaking, but practicing alone isn’t enough; you have to practice correctly. If you quickly recite your speech in your spare time, you might improve your memorization, but you won’t improve your enunciation. Instead, make every practice count by recreating the real presentation as much as possible. That way, you’ll polish your memory, and you’ll also improve your enunciation, timing, tone, body language and volume.
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Delivered each month, American Speaker Forum offers you public-speaking advice and tips for wowing your audience during your next presentation. This resource also offers you a way to ask for feedback on your next speaking engagement and to share your own experience with your colleagues.