I was browsing through my Reddit account yesterday when I came across this question:
How do you become articulate?
And it brought back memories.
In my undergraduate days, I struggled with being articulate.
I was part of the English dramatics team at my college - but I was consistently denied speaking roles. Rather I was limited to doing only silent “Mime” roles. Reason - I would speak very fast, and whenever I tried to inject any emotion into my dialogues, my pronunciation would sound phoney and unnatural.
Since it was an amateur theatre group - nobody knew including me how to fix my problems. In fact, for a long time, I believed there was no way I would ever improve.
I spent 5 years of my undergraduate degree struggling with this issue of poor articulation. I tried my best to improve - practised alone in the morning, recorded myself and participated in elocution contests. The needle moved but not by a lot.
Then I went for my master's at Imperial College London. I was a non-native speaker and international student. While I was fluent in English, I still struggled to speak when placed in front of strangers or unfamiliar situations - just like the Redditor who asked the above question.
At this point, I feel I should share my answer to this Redditor’s question.
But, in this blog post, I would like to go into more detail about how I improved my articulation.
Also, I will refer to tips and tricks suggested elsewhere on the internet and share my opinion on what works and what doesn’t.
It took me several years to diagnose my exact challenges with poor articulation. And I would like to share my insights. Hopefully, it will help you in saving a few years of your life.
My poor articulation in English was caused by these 3 major factors:
- Incomplete knowledge
- Poor breathing habits
- Being unprepared to speak
Now let me dig into details about each of these factors:
While I studied English in school, I didn’t properly learn it. I internalised most of my conversational English when I was at college by reading books, watching English movies and shows and talking to my friends.
And each of them introduced me to new vocabulary as well as the confidence to use them in the right context.
But, one thing was missing. And that was proper pacing and pronunciation.
You see English is a non-uniform stress language. How you say a word, where you emphasize it in a sentence can change it’s entire meaning.
And the fiction books, TV shows and my friends - none of them were either teaching me about this or correcting me.
To be fair to my friends - most of them (about 90%) had similar issues themselves so they were not in the place to help me here. And the rest 10% who did - were kind of cool kids - the eloquent speakers winning debate contests and whatnot - typically out of my circle.
Also, I believed that I was doing nothing wrong with articulation. I just had a speed issue which I justified by telling myself that it runs in the family. Both my mother and older brother are fast speakers as well.
But, I was wrong. Speed was not my fundamental problem. Poor knowledge of spoken English was.
I only knew the approximate pronunciations of the words. Sometimes I knew the wrong pronunciations.
I knew nothing of word and sentence stress. I would just feel the emotion I wanted to express and hope the right tone and pronunciation would come out.
When you have average knowledge, you often get poor results. And that is what was happening to me.
I failed to crack interviews for prestigious clubs in my college, was denied speaking roles in my theatre group, and was kicked out of the elocution team.
For a sophomore me, all of these were big failures!
And then when I was at Imperial, I bombed my first big presentation. My result was one grade above “F” - with the remark that leniency was being shown to me due to being an international student. That remark hurt a lot.
Since then I have improved. And this is what I did to be better:
- Started focussing on proper pronunciation. You can easily get that by googling the word.
- Pronounce the word slowly several times. While I do so, I record and play it back. I compare it against the correct pronunciation. It is an approximate process as often my mind will trick me into believing I am doing much better or much worse than reality.
- Practice the words several times by using them in several different sentences.
- I would start reading out LOUD grade 4 or grade 5 level English books. My goal was to get good speak correctly 90%+ times. My progress was slow as I had no coach. I was self-assessing.
- I started to focus on sentence stress as well. There are several videos on YouTube about that.
- Every time I speak, I remind myself to focus deliberately on vowels in every word. Enunciating vowels can make an instant difference to the clarity of your speech and the articulation of your ideas.
Poor Breathing Habits
This was the root cause of my poor articulation. And I can assure you it is part of the problem for everyone reading this article.
Do you find it hard to believe - then answer the following questions:
- Do you speak using your diaphragm or your throat?
- Do you know the correct placement of the tongue while speaking?
- Do you know how to produce power using your breath instead of simply screaming?
- Do you know the correct part of the mouth to produce a sound filled with resonance?
- Do you know how your posture affects your breathing and therefore your speaking?
- Do you know which body muscles are used besides the vocal cords for speaking?
If you are startled by any of these questions and feel the urge to google to know their answers - you too have poor breathing habits. Because you can’t do something right unless you know what is the right way.
And if you don’t know the answer to any of the above questions, then also fear not. Nobody knows these answers by themselves. These topics are rarely taught in school.
I didn’t learn about them until I first joined the drama group at my college and then later took singing lessons.
Pro Tip: If you want to become a better speaker, take singing lessons. They will do wonders for your voice quality and enunciation. Also, they are much easier and cheaper to find compared to public speaking coaches.
How to fix your breathing is a vast topic - something that I cannot cover in this article or maybe even in this blog. But, I will share links to articles and videos that will do a good job of explaining those concepts to you.
But, here I will share some quick pointers that I use to get my breathing on the right track:
- Stand with my back and spine straight. When I hunch I can’t use the full capacity of my lungs.
- When I take in air, I take a deep breath before speaking. Deep breath means my stomach will expand forward and sideways because the diaphragm is pushing onto them.
- I release my breath slowly. I take my time to enunciate each word. I deliberately inject the emotion while producing the sound to make my voice more pleasant to hear.
- I ensure that I produce sound in the upper part of my jaw so that it comes out with full resonance.
- I do vocal warm-up exercises, especially tongue twisters.
- I take care of my vocal health. Keep myself hydrated. If the vocal muscles are weak and sore, no amount of deep breathing will fix it.
Being unprepared to speak
Out of everything I tried, being prepared has made the most impact in improving my articulation.
This is also the most underrated aspect of public speaking.
Maybe because there is a big myth among novice speakers that great public speakers can speak on any topic at any time.
But that’s not true at all.
No speaker - none at all - can speak eloquently at all times. And definitely on every topic.
You can take any famous speaker - Martin Luther King Jr., Winston Churchill, Barack Obama, Narendra Modi, Anthony Robbins, Robin Sharma etc.
and you will notice they all speak about a subset of topics. Topics they are familiar with, topics they know a lot about, and topics they already have strong opinions on.
Even speakers such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Jordan Peterson who seem to opine on nearly every topic do so after considerable preparation.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson once said - that every story he tells in an interview is first written down by him in his collection - that’s preparation.
Ideas suddenly don’t fall into the minds of great speakers and they suddenly don’t start stringing words together.
No, it is a deliberate, consistent effort. Just because it is invisible does not mean it doesn’t exist.
Similarly, if you ever feel like you can talk to your friends with ease but struggle to speak to strangers, or can’t deliver presentations in the office. The reason is you are unprepared.
And being unprepared doesn’t only mean knowing the content.
It also means knowing your audience as well. Understand what are their knowledge gaps. What are their existing perspective? What language ticks or picks them etc.?
When you are prepared, you will automatically feel confident. Very few people consistently articulate their thoughts with clarity under pressure.
When you are unprepared, you consistently feel judged. You are too sensitive about what you say, and how you say it and ignorant of your body language.
Ever since I started to prepare myself for the common scenarios where I had to speak, I became much better at articulating myself.
You might think that this is not possible after all there are infinite situations you can be put into, but there are trends and patterns if you pay attention. For example, here are mine:
- Introducing myself in a formal workplace situation like a business meeting.
- Introducing myself in a casual, non-formal situation like a party.
- Explaining the work I do for a living
- Highlighting my biggest passions and how I pursue them
- What are the most difficult challenges I have overcome in my life?
- Q&A on an important work presentation
- My thoughts on any popular government policy or scheme.
- What are my thoughts on a popular piece of fiction - book, movies etc..
Now let me give you a list of activities that did help me become articulate vs. those that didn’t.
- Gaining academic knowledge of spoken English - proper pronunciation, sentence stress etc.
- Joining a Toastmasters club
- Taking singing lessons
- Regularly doing vocal warm-ups especially via tongue twisters
- Writing my thoughts and opinions about common questions I face in a journal
- Breathing exercises
- Reading out loud grade 4-6 English text with deliberate enunciation.
- Simply improving my vocabulary
- Keep watching YouTube videos
- Trying to speak impromptu all by myself
- Trying to control my filler words
- Trying to control my pace
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