What you Said & What we Heard

The tip of the tongue the teeth and the lips.

What you said and what we heard were quite different. All speakers receive similar feedback at some time, even when they are sure they said what they meant to say. While some may be quick to blame their style of speaking or even their accent. That feedback may be a clarion moment, advising that it’s time to work on your voice, diction, and vocabulary.

Have you received feedback about your diction in an evaluation recently? For some evaluators, addressing a speaker’s diction is like touching the third rail of public speaking. Well, today, let’s touch that third rail carefully.

On or off the platform, speakers must never forget that what matters most is what your audience heard, not what they said or intended to say. Your diction determines your style of enunciation when we are speaking. Diction exercises and drills can help us develop our stresses, rhythm, pronunciation, and intonation. When practiced regularly, they enhance our ability to deliver our presentations with precision and clarity. Messages heard and clearly understood by audiences are repeated. To be quoted by someone who heard you speak days, months or even years ago is rewarding and validating.

When communicating formally or informally, we stress our content words. Conversely, we unstress function words. Simply put, content words contribute to the meaning of the sentences in which they occur. They typically are verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, some pronouns, numbers, questions, and quantities. When content words are stressed, they are more pronounced, they sound louder and sometimes are held longer in duration to command attention. And when speakers add a moment of silence to follow a sentence with content words, their message is sent. The silence that follows sends the message.

Function words are usually unstressed. They often don’t convey much meaning; however, they are essential to the grammatical structure of sentences. They include articles, prepositions, conjunctions, auxiliary verbs, and some pronouns. They are often pronounced quickly with a lower pitch than content words and are sometimes difficult to hear. They are usually softer, quieter, and are held much shorter in duration than content words. As a result, your function words can sometimes get lost in your communication.

Over time we become identified with our distinctive voice, intonation, and manner of speaking. Your vocabulary is essential when you are delivering your message. The words you choose can easily misrepresent the message you intended to convey. A better selection of words and proper diction can help us communicate more effectively with our audiences. Also, we tend to develop rhythmic patterns when we stress and unstress our words and syllables. We develop accents, especially when pronouncing two-syllable nouns. Ever notice that we stress the first syllable in almost every instance of the English language? And at the same time, many two-syllable verbs have second-syllable stresses.

Note that there is often a shift in stress when there is a noun-verb combination. For example – DEsert/ deSERT – ADDress/addRESS – PREsent/preSENT – The stressing and the un-stressing of content words and syllables create rhythm in our manner of speaking. Over time we develop a distinctive mode of pronunciation commonly used in the environment from which we originated. Where and how we place our syllables, stresses, and pitch often determine that which is called our accent. And believe it or not, we all have one; an accent.

To correct the problems and some of the bad habits we develop in our everyday communication, we must first become aware of how we sound when we speak. Do you know how you sound when you talk? Is your delivery fast or slow? Do you eat some of your words? Do you sound like you asked a question when you make a statement?   Well, I have good news and even better news for you. First, the good news: Those problems can be fixed easily with drills and exercises. And the better news? I know a place where you can find many of those drills and exercises.

Speaking out loud is a free website to which you can subscribe to get you started. It is a website developed by Susan Dugdale, which features articles on the basic principles of effective speech delivery. On her website, you will find several tongue twisters and drills to help you with your diction and pronunciation. On Susan’s website, in addition to a list of 36 of the best tongue twisters, you will find games and drills to develop your speaking skills.  The link to her website is  https://www.write-out-loud.com/dictionexercises.html  

Let’s have some fun with a few of her tongue twisters: Put a few on the back of a business card for easy access to practicing: “The tip of the tongue the teeth and the lips.” Now say that a bit faster.  

And how about your B words? “Betty bought a bit of butter, but she found the butter bitter, So Betty bought a bit of better butter to make the bitter butter better. Again, try saying that a bit faster and faster.

And let’s end with a few F words: Four furious friends fought for the phone. Again, again and again.

Five flippant Frenchmen fly from France for fashions. And a little bit faster, please, fantastic!

Lastly, remember your voice is your instrument. Take care of it. To keep it tuned and ready, stay hydrated, avoid shouting and where possible, use amplification. Do a simple warmup exercise before speaking. “Me Moo Mu My” is one of those simple flexing exercises all speakers can do even silently before stepping onto the speaking platform. Your daily exercise routines will help you stay ready, Improve your diction and clarity. And your message will be heard, understood, and repeated when you remember it is always not what you said; it’s what your audience heard!

Author: HenryOMiller

Henry joined Toastmaster in 1997. He is presently a member of 4 Toastmasters clubs; two in Santa Cruz and two in San Jose. He is a DTM-4. Henry is an executive speech coach, humorist, and speechwriter. He is also a musician and a lyricist​ whose speechwriting approach is similar to his approach to songwriting.

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