As a voice coach for international professionals, many of my clients are interested in improving their English pronunciation.
‘Improving’ means different things to different people. The most common goal is clarity – to get our valuable ideas across clearly, first time to any audience.
An intuitive approach to improving pronunciation is to dive right into phonetics: vowel and consonant sounds. This makes sense, and while the difference between seat/sit, mouth/mouse and cat/cut are important (we spend plenty of time on these in sessions), we see better results when we lay foundations first. If we have a strong base of clear speech, it’s much easier to work on the specifics later.
So, here are five pillars that make up these foundations: essential clear speech techniques that I cover in the early stages of training with almost all my one-to-one clients, for those who have English as a first or additional language:
1. Create space in your mouth
When we speak, there’s a lot of activity inside the mouth. The tongue moves around various positions to make vowel and consonant sounds. However, if the space in the mouth is small and tight (often due to jaw tension), the tongue struggles to make one position distinct from another and we sound more ‘muffled’.
TO DO: Imagine there’s a blueberry* sitting on your tongue and you’re talking around it. That should create space and you’ll sound a bit clearer.
*Imaginary blueberries only. DON’T put anything inside your mouth for voice and speech exercises.
2. Move your lips more
If you speak too fast or you think you ‘mumble’, you probably have minimal lip movement. Just like the tongue, the lips play a huge part in shaping and distinguishing vowel and consonant sounds.
TO DO: Speak as if your listeners need to read your lips (and remember, some people genuinely do). No need to exaggerate: 60-70% lip movement effort is fine. Combine this with Tip 1 and your speech should already be clearer.
These are also great ways to slow down without having to remember to slow down!
3. Make extra effort on the key words
The key words are the ones that carry meaning. They’re sometimes called content words. Usually they’re the verbs, nouns and adjectives. Articulate these words clearly. If you rush over the key words, people won’t catch them and that can be frustrating and time-wasting for both parties.
TO DO: Read aloud the sentences above. The words in bold are the key words. Your mouth should be moving with particular effort on these words (Tips 1 and 2 will help here). Then, try the same technique with the introductory lines of your next presentation.
4. Divide your speech into chunks
When we speak / it’s much easier for our listeners to follow us / if we divide our speech into bite-sized chunks. / People need a moment to digest what we say / before we move on to our next idea. / This also makes us sound more confident / and in control. / When our speech is easier to follow / people remember our ideas better.
TO DO: Read aloud the above, pausing slightly each time you see /. The pauses can be short, and the positions of / can change, but you get the idea. Now, try this with the script of the next slide you’re going to present!
5. Use your whole body
Yes, really! Your mouth doesn’t float alone: there’s a whole body attached, which is crucial in supporting the breath and speech process.
TO DO: Sit or stand tall. Make sure your weight is fully and evenly on the floor or chair and gently lengthen your spine. This way, your breath and voice will flow more freely and the pace of your speech will be steadier.
Everyone is different
Some of these tips will ‘speak’ to you more than others. Voice and speech work is all about getting to know our habits and exploring other options – bringing out other ‘parts’ of your unique voice that may have been hiding before.
If you’d like a personalised road map on how you can improve your English pronunciation, or develop any other aspect of your speaking voice so that you get your valuable ideas across first time, with impact, book your free clarity call.