Clarity Begins with Simple Steps

Posted on Thursday, January 07, 2016

Musicians practice scales. Prima ballerinas work at pliés, over and over. Discovering and rediscovering the basics is never a waste of time. When trying to improve your accent and speech, it can be tempting to try to move forward too fast. If you focus on practicing the basics, you’ll make better progress.

Grammar First

Sentence structure — putting verbs, nouns, and adjectives in the right place — is crucial to help your listener understand you. If you scramble your message, your listener will fall behind, trying to review, reorder, and understand your words. Soon they’ll be lost. Take time to frame your thoughts. Never stop working to improve yourgrammar. Grammar is the basic toolkit that helps you to express yourself clearly.

Slow Down

In a fast-paced, time-challenged, goal-oriented world, it can be hard to slow down. We are set to high speed much of the time, and the faster we go, the more it seems we have to do.  Most of the people I work with are very comfortable with grammar, they are smart, they think quickly and talk fast. Much can be lost, however — especially on the phone. Remember that your goal is to communicate. Slowing  down gives you time to breathe, and more clearly define sound shapes. 

Focus on Vowels

What’s the difference between the words bead and bid ? A very slight movement on the front of the tongue. Vowels create the fluidity of words, they ride the air and help shape the meaning. Shaping the stressed vowel of the stressed word in a thought also makes us slow down and be more expressive. Slow down, take time to breathe, and let the vowels sing a little longer.  

Energize Speech Sounds

When speech is under-energized, it loses definition. Consonants in the middle or end of words are the first to disappear. Without firm, clear consonants, you can create a mumbling “word soup,” and your listeners will have trouble understanding where the words begin and end. This is especially challenging for people whose first language uses few final consonants.

The strong pronunciation might feel overdone to you at first. Go with it for a while, and ask for feedback often, especially during conference calls. Because “Time is Money” in the U.S., people often won’t tell you they didn’t understand — they’ll simply ask someone else to clarify, or let it go. Practicing complete word production saves time and energy, and helps ensure that you communicate effectively.

Now, Relax

Most people, to their credit, are conscientious. They try very hard. They put a lot of pressure on the lips, jaw, tongue, and throat in an effort to force the sounds out in just the right way.  Imagine the musician with his hands tied, or the ballet dancer wrapped in heavy weights. Clear speech requires precision and practice, but also lightness and fluidity. Practicing that balance between relaxation and tension is essential.   

Think of it like this: You can push a car uphill to reach your destination — but it’s easier to put gas in the tank (breathe in), step on the gas pedal (use your belly muscles), and maintain an even distribution of fuel to your next stop (stay supported through the end of the phrase). It sounds simple, but the nuances of doing this aren’t easy. Guidance and feedback can help you reach the goal.

Like everything else, it all comes back to managing time and energy. Taking time to breathe, support, and define sounds may seem easy enough. But mastering these simple steps makes all the difference when it comes to really being heard.