All of us are judged by the way we talk. The way you talk says a lot about you, if ever someone stopped to listen. Sure—most of the time, people don't care. People just talk the way they talk. But every so often, there's an occasion where people do read between the lines and hang on your every word:
I want to talk to you about our future together.
I’m John Doe, and you should invest in my project or company.
No, Officer, I do not consent to a search.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s fine to play fast and loose with language— especially if you’re funny. But a crucial one percent of the time, your choice of tone, delivery, and diction will decide the moment. Your future sometimes hinges on how well you talk in these testing moments; your voice and words determine whether or not you get promoted, whether or not certain relationships endure, whether or not you get hired or get investment or go viral. Maybe even whether or not you get arrested.
At moments like these, you’ll be glad you taught yourself some solid speaking habits. This week, we’ll show you how you can use three simple speaking drills to unlearn some bad habits and teach yourself clarity and confidence for the right moments.
These tips are derived largely from drills used by competitive debaters. Unlike the debaters, you won't usually have an "opponent" where you find yourself—but like them you will always have an audience, and you will have the burden of being right, or at least convincing people to side with you. Most of the time, too, you'll be forced to contend with other people's thoughts and reactions, which you can't predict or control. Therefore, it's important to teach yourself how to improvise comfortably—not just how to memorize or deliver speeches—and that's the main focus of these tips.
Project One—Eliminate Crutch Words
Let’s start by fighting off one of our most common ailments: crutch words. They’re called “crutch words” because they're words you lean on to compensate for a weakness. They're convenient to the mind; they make certain situations easier. For example, most of us have been using “umm” or its variations ever since we were little; it's a more comfortable way to hold a pause while we think. In many cases, as with this example, crutch words are borne of our discomfort with pauses and silence; in other cases, crutch words pad our speaking so it sounds more confident or "correct."
Remember that crutch words are not limited to a few common examples like "umm" and "like." They're influenced not just by personality, but by a person's social circle and work life. Sometimes they're single words, but they can be phrases or even whole sentences ("y'know what I mean?"). Listen to someone talk off the cuff for a few minutes and you can probably identify the crutches unique to them.
Here’s the drill for you. Pick a subject you know well. Write down 5-10 open-ended questions that someone could ask you about that subject; make them questions that require your opinion, reasoning, or critical thinking. Then, borrow an attentive friend or two and have them ask you the questions in the order they choose, along with any follow-ups they have. Here’s where it gets tricky. Tell your friend(s) that they’re supposed to listen for crutches—not just the common ones, but any words or phrases that you wind up using over and over. Every time you fall on a crutch, your friend will stop you, and you will begin the whole line of questioning over again, not just the one answer you messed up. You’re not done until you get through every question on the list, consecutively, without using a crutch in any of your answers. Be warned: five minutes’ worth of answers could take an hour to finish, and it will be more challenging than you think. (That’s how you know it’s helping.)
What you’ll learn—aside from how you really talk—is how to deal with moments when you’d usually look for a crutch. When you get corrected for using “umm,” you’ll become more conscious of the silence that replaces it. This silence gives you poise; your audience can see that you’re using the moment to find the right words, and this makes you more believable. Good talk isn’t just about controlling the words; it’s about controlling the spaces between them.
Project Two—Enunciation Station
The next matter to address is the "shape” of your voice: enunciation, or forming the sounds of words clearly and correctly. When people don’t enunciate at all, we say they mumble; plenty of people enunciate halfway, but we don’t have a term for that. If someone enunciates only halfway, the audience might hear eighty or ninety percent instead of the full hundred; worse, they might get the sense that the speaker doesn't care enough about the words to choose them carefully. Those who don’t enunciate lose attention and credibility.
This next drill is a bit simpler, and you can do it by yourself. Choose a piece of writing—preferably your own, but it doesn’t have to be. Take a standard-sized pencil and hold it in your teeth so it sits just behind your canines. Then, while holding the pencil in place with your teeth, read the piece aloud as clearly as you can. What the pencil does is force your lips apart while you talk; since your lips have to touch to form most hard sounds, you’re forced to work to keep from sounding like you’re in a dentist’s chair. Words like “pop”—whose sounds are made by decisive lips—have more pop when enunciated sharply, and this technique shows you how to make that work within your own way of talking.
This technique also forces you to slow down. What you might notice, therefore, is that enunciation is as much a matter of timing and pace as it is the motion of your lips. With the pencil removed, you can resume your usual speeds, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself talking slower and choosing sharper words over time.
Project Three—Tuning for Volume
Finally, let’s talk about the “size” of your voice: volume. To make it easy to describe different volumes, let’s use the same six-level scale that musicians do. For those of you needing a refresher, the quiet volumes are pianissimo (PP) at the quietest, then piano (P), then mezzopiano (MP). The louder volumes, then, are mezzoforte (MF), forte (F), and fortissimo (FF) at the loudest. Let’s say PP is a whisper, P is a private conversation, and MP is a casual conversation; MF is an enthusiastic conversation, F is an address to a big room, and FF is shouting or nearly there. The “right volume” depends entirely upon context, so there’s no drill for learning how to get it right every time. However, there is one for making yourself more aware of your own range of volume.
Once again, you’ll need a writing sample; this time, pick a speech you consider inspiring. (If you don’t have any in mind, MLK’s “I Have a Dream” and Stephen Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” could work well.) Then, on the printed page or in a word processor, notate the volume you should use and where it should change; like a composer, make sure that every section has a volume assigned to it. We recommend using different-colored pens or highlight to make it easier to see. Then, read it aloud a few times, consciously following along with the volumes you’ve set; your goal is to make each volume level sound qualitatively different from the others, and to have as smooth of transitions as possible between volumes.
This is really two exercises in one. The second part, where you actually read it aloud, is where you train your ears and mouth to work together. But the first part—making the volume notations on the page—is where you train your brain to think tonally. Volume and tone walk hand in hand; if you say your words at the right volume, the right tone is likely to follow. Being conscious of the speech’s meaning and patterns will make you more aware of how to raise or lower your voice purposefully. It’s a difference that your audience will both hear and feel.
These drills are good prep if you have a speech or presentation, but you can do them at any time to help yourself sharpen. These are mental gymnastics where your tongue also has to play its part perfectly—call it a multi-part workout of a different sort, important for any more intensive prep on your speaking skills. But the most important advice, which we've saved for last, gives all of this verbal training its meaning: always speak with conviction. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Know why you're there. It's this conviction that, in some of our best speeches, we see exemplified—and that we always look forward to seeing again.
Thanks for reading Ampersand, the Code&Quill blog. (Last week, we wrote about introverts and extroverts working together, so click here to take a look if you missed it.) If you’d like highlights from the blog, plus brand-new info about upcoming products and promotions, feel free to join our email newsletter here.