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If you ask people how they want their speech and voice to be described, they will probably say articulate, resonant, and knowledgeable, clear, persuasive, and confident. These are the characteristics of speakers you admire, and you want to be in that club because you know how very much it matters. As one of my clients said, "Every time you open your mouth, you put your business in the street" (i.e., you put your reputation on the line).
I will tell you a secret: People are not good judges of their own speaking characteristics. They may be aware that there's something about the way they talk that is a problem for them and they make guesses about the specifics. Here's what many clients say when they first come to see me:
"My voice is too high (too gravelly, too nasal, too ...)."
"I mumble/swallow my words, and I don't speak distinctly."
"I am very uncomfortable with small talk, public speaking, and interaction with any authority figures."
"My speech is too soft, and people are always telling me to speak up."
"I sound like a child."
"My voice is too feminine for a man."
"I'm terrified! I have to make a speech (deliver a eulogy, toast at a wedding, etc.)."
"I have an accent, and people keep asking me to repeat myself (or "people in the workplace seem to discriminate against me because of the way I speak")."
In this part of the book, we'll take a look at the assessment process. If you want to take a serious step in your own self-assessment, use the materials in the Appendix to help you get more objective feedback about the impression you make by the way you speak. The first step to improving is figuring out what specifically you'd like to improve so you can address the issue directly.
What Is a "Problem"?
A problem is some aspect of your speech that calls attention to itself or causes you or others to be distracted from your message. Many of the following chapters will describe features of speech that frequently cause problems. You will be told repeatedly to record and listen to yourself for the simple reason that you do not know how you sound; you only know what you intend. Trust me on this. Throughout this book you will find examples of persons who are shocked when they first hear their recorded speech, those who absolutely do not recognize the recorded voice as their own, and even people who cannot understand their own speech when listening to a previously recorded passage.
We have a unique internal relationship with our speech that is nothing like the waves of sound that other people hear as our voice. We hear our own voices right inside our heads, and this makes an enormous difference in the sound we perceive. Also, our brains are so involved in the formulation of meaning and language that we simply do not have the cognitive bandwidth to pay attention to how we sound.
Speaking concerns usually have two components: (1) aspects that represent linguistic learning, habits of speaking, and expression, and are amenable to change through specific identification and practice of new patterns, and (2) psychological aspects (tensions, anxieties, etc.) that can either cause or be the result of the speech pattern in question.
Let me illustrate this situation with Andrew's speech problem. Andrew, a man in his mid-twenties, knew there was something wrong with the way that he said the /s/ sound. When he was in junior high school, others kids would tease and imitate him, making a funny slushy sound for the /s/. ("I shee you're shitting on the sheet!") Oh, how very funny this was. And how humiliating to Andrew! You are probably asking where the school's speech therapist was. Apparently his problem was considered "too minor" for these overworked people.
He was currently a backroom employee in a financial institution, but he really wanted a promotion and an increase in his salary. The position available to him would require face-to-face customer contact and some management communications. You can be sure that Andrew had avoided any public speaking situation up to this point. He decided to give it one last try, and he found me.
When I tell you how easy it was to correct his /s/ problem you will just shake your head in wonderment. Probably in response to a dental problem in the front of his mouth in childhood, Andrew had learned to produce an /s/ sound through the side of his mouth, by his incisor teeth (a lateral lisp). Normally, the /s/ is made right behind your two front teeth with the tongue forming a narrow channel to shoot the air right behind the dental surface. His lateral lisp became habituated, and he used it for the following twenty years. It started as a physical problem to which he adapted through learning, which had huge psychological consequences for his expressive confidence, which in turn had a major impact on his career path.
In one session, I was able to show him how to produce a correct /s/. Of course, it felt totally foreign to him and required much practice, reassurance, and monitoring on the recorder to make him comfortable with the new articulation. Then we had to go through practice situations of increasing speed and complexity to get the new habit secure. Andrew was highly motivated and willing to do the focused practice to internalize the new /s/. Four sessions later, our last, he entered my office, sat down, and announced with a twinkling of his eyes, "I am sssitting on the ssseat!" We enjoyed a great shared laugh, and it was a sweet moment. Andrew got more than just a good /s/. He got the confidence to speak in front of people and to reach out for the promotion. So you can see, emotions and habits are equally involved in the communication process, and both must be addressed to go forward.
What happens in my office?
1. An appointment for an evaluation is made. A few people, like Andrew, know exactly what their problem is, but most people have to make wild guesses and need professional clarification in order to proceed. The evaluation takes about an hour. From your side of the desk, you are having a simple conversation about your inquiry, with some questioning about your background or relevant present-day situation. You soon forget that you have a microphone in your face!
Next, we will listen to that recording together to make a more realistic decision about the impression you make by the way you speak. You will NOT want to do this at first, but I will pretend that I don't know that and go right ahead. You soon get over your apprehension when you see that I am not going to beat up on you but will be trying to help you understand what you are hearing about yourself. Then you will love it. You may well be able to hear that you speak a lot better than you thought you did. In any event, you are confronting your "self" as never before. You will be surprised, and you will feel elated.
Next we discuss our impressions and set goals for your progress. I will give you a general idea as to how our work will proceed and may even get you started on some aspects of our work. You will walk down the hall with resolve and hope in your heart and a lot to think about.
2. The second visit is an important one for me. I will ask you what you got out of the evaluation and will find out what was important for you, what you forgot, and what you learned about yourself. I will also find out about the quality of your practice efforts. I need to learn how you learn. At this point I will be giving you written materials to work with, and we will be recording elements of your homework so you can be sure that you are doing the right thing. There, I said it! HOMEWORK. This is what you do outside my office with what I have taught you inside my office.
If we are working on speech or voice issues, I usually ask that you spend a half hour a day going over our work in short periods of time—five minutes, but a mindful, focused five minutes—repeatedly through the day. I will ask you to telephone me with one of these short practice sessions so I can be sure that you are on track. We will make an appointment for the following week.
3. There will be many illustrations of how people practice in this book and much discussion of practice in different situations. Enough said. Some issues require several months of weekly appointments; it just depends on how much you need to accomplish.
Read on to meet the people like you who have worked on their speech, or go to the Appendix to get started on your own concerns.
Focusing attention on specific issues works! A vague wish about a generalized outcome doesn't. In this section, I will give you steps to resolve specific problems. Select one communication goal that you are the most motivated to achieve. If there are more than one, you can always go back after you've made reasonable progress on your first goal.
Consider the feedback you've gotten from others. How does it match up with your own listening? Many people are quick to defend themselves against critical description by attacking the source. "Oh, he just says I'm too loud because he really doesn't want me in the office anyway!" I have seen people discredit some excellent feedback this way.
On the other hand, now that you've heard a recording of your own voice, some of your biggest problems may seem clear to you. It is not unusual to have a listener in my office who is flabbergasted by his or her own recorded speech. "Good heavens! I can't even understand me! That's what they've been trying to tell me!" I've heard this many times.
Here's an example of a puzzling phrase I heard just last week: "Ana dina wana." In this case, you can probably figure out that the person was saying, "And I didn't want to." That is exactly what the person was thinking, but it was not what came out of his mouth. He was finally able to understand his speech clarity problem.
Many people benefit from a face-to-face interaction in real time with a professional speech expert. For example, if you have difficulty pronouncing certain sounds clearly, you should consult a speech pathologist to guide you. This is not the kind of thing you can figure out yourself. Check your Yellow Pages, the Internet, or go to www.asha.org to find professional help in your area.
That said, many common vocal irregularities can be cleared up with some simple training and effort. Those are the kinds of problems this book covers. As you begin to try out some new patterns of behavior, here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. A new speech pattern will feel strange (wrong, weird, phony, etc.). If it doesn't feel somewhat strange at first, you're probably not doing anything new. Only your habit will feel "right."
2. People will frequently try a new pattern in a stilted, overly correct manner. Be patient. This will smooth out with repetition. You're just trying too hard.
3. There must be systematic repetition to achieve real change. A few swipes at a new behavior won't change you. Here is where many people get frustrated ("I tried it and it didn't work!" Does this sound like some dieters you know?) You need deliberate, mindful repetition to make the new learning easy and smooth for you. Give yourself several weeks to practice several times a day, every day. Take whatever time you need; people change at their own rate. Start any speech change slowly and simply. By "simply" I mean that you should concentrate on the smallest unit—a word perhaps—and not rattle off a whole paragraph for starters. That's too much to pay attention to. Pick up speed only after you are confident that you are doing the correct behavior. Speaking changes are not quick; slow and steady wins the race. Keep your practice periods short—six to twelve minutes of concentrated time. Don't choose times when you will be distracted. Most people think that they are going to practice while driving. No you are not! Speech practice requires mindfulness and concentration on the new pattern. Driving requires attention and the ability to respond rapidly to events. These two activities do not mix.
4. Carryover into real communication requires effort. It is one thing to repeat a phrase perfectly during your practice period and quite another to do it while engaged in real communication. Conversations tend to bring out the old behavior.
Develop short and deliberate conversations that are designed to let you practice a particular pattern in a pretend casual communication with neutral ears (people you don't know—the lady at the counter in the deli, the clerk at the shoe store, customer support on the phone, etc.), so the pressure of relationship management doesn't distract you from putting your attention on your improvement goal. For example, perhaps you are working on the voiced /th/ (the, they, father). You are going to ask a shoe salesperson, "Does that shoe come in other colors?" Practice this several times before actually addressing the question to the clerk.
This practice using real people is actually crucial in your development. If you can't apply new techniques to strangers, you won't do so with colleagues and associates.
Were I actually working with you, I might take you on a walk around the block, dropping into various stores to find a way to practice with a stranger. Why don't you just carry this book and pretend I am with you?
The rate of your speech most likely feels just right to you. It fits your temperament and tends to reflect your sense of urgency. But a too rapid pace of speech production can result in many shortcuts in articulation, forcing other people to work to understand you. Do you suspect that your speaking rate is a problem or an irritant for people? Let's take the first step toward finding out!
The reading material below has easy, uncomplicated, and unemotional language. You are going to be reading this passage out loud. Practice this passage at your usual rate of speaking—this will take some doing. Get some feedback from a friend to see if you are successful at this. The very act of reading out loud tends to slow people down, so if you are too fast reading this material, you're too fast in conversation.
Now record the passage. You are going to listen to this tape and make two determinations:
1. How does it sound? Better yet, have someone else (your external ears) listen and tell you how it sounds. This other person is especially important because you are likely to "hear" what you intended to say, not what you actually said.
2. How much time did it take you? The passage below has about 160 words and ideally should take about one minute to produce. Anything between 155 and 175 wpm (words per minute) would be an excellent rate for normal conversation. This can serve as your target reading rate.
If you dashed this passage off in something like thirty seconds, you are speaking way too fast for ordinary ears. You need to speak slower. The more technical your material, the more you need to monitor your rate to allow your listeners adequate time to process your message, about 120 to 140 wpm. "More technical" is a relative judgment, of course. If it is new to them, slow it down. If it is old or predictable material, you can speed up. The more people to whom you are speaking (or the larger the room is in which you are speaking), the slower your speech should be. You need to adapt to the room acoustics and the age of your audience. Many older people have age-related hearing problems that require more processing time. The more distractions and noise that are present in the room, the more difficulty people will have in hearing what you have to say. Pay attention to the speech rates of other people—including radio and TV announcers—to bring it into your consciousness. Perhaps you are associating with many people (especially your family) who speak rapidly as part of a cultural style. This will have a strong influence on your own speech rate.
If you have found that you routinely speak too fast (through feedback or actual word count), you need a strategy to break your habit. Think of it as developing a separate way of speaking, like speaking another language or playing a part in a play. Consider this slower rate as another dialect available to you in addition to your habitual style. We know how to develop these new speaking habits.
Read the practice passage until you can hold it to one minute. Record it. Listen to it several times to get familiar with the feel and the sound of this pace: the breathing rhythm and the timing of the articulation. Spend some time on this step so you can really learn how it feels in your body.
Find other reading material that is an easy narrative or description, perhaps a newspaper article, and try to read it at the 160 wpm rate. Keep checking your wpm and your timing. Warning: you may start just fine but lose your focus and speed up as you get involved with your material. Watch for this. Effective practice must be mindful and deliberate, with your goal ever in your mind. This is especially true when dealing with rate control.
Listen to this tape several times to build familiarity and comfort with the rate. Find different material and repeat the record/listen procedure.
Imitate your recorded speech without reading. Think of something easy to talk about and say it out loud. You might start with a passage that you have memorized in the past, say the Gettysburg Address, to practice your rate control.
Leave a recorded message for yourself on your own phone so you can listen to it later to hear if you actually use the slower speaking rate.
Call your external ears and try to maintain the 160 wpm rate. Record, listen. Record, listen. Record, listen. You need to do enough of this purposeful practice to make this rate comfortable for you. Your success depends primarily on your willingness to practice deliberately.
Excerpted from IT'S THE WAY YOU SAY IT by CAROL A. FLEMING Copyright © 2013 by Carol A. Fleming, PhD. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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