Improve Your Public Speaking Skills, Part Four: Your Speech Precision

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Precise speech includes pronouncing correctly, enunciating distinctly, and avoiding the use of slang and other unacceptable forms of speech. This Part will deal with these three major aspects of speech precision.

Pronouncing Correctly

You must pronounce words correctly both to make your meaning clear to others and because incorrect pronunciation is grating on the ears of educated people. There are many ways to mispronounce words. Some people give them the wrong accents; they saycompar’able instead of com’parable.  Be constantly aware of pronunciations you hear. When a word sounds strange to you or different from the way you pronounce it, make a mental note of it, and look it up as soon as you can. The dictionary is your most useful tool in learning to pronounce correctly. It tells you the pronunciation of any word through a stress mark (‘), which indicates the accented syllable, and diacritical marks, which show whether vowels are long (─) or short (̆).

Remember that some words are pronounced differently depending on their use in the sentence. When contrast is used as a nun, for example, the accent is on the first syllable—con’ trast. When it is used as a verb, however, the accent falls on the second syllable—contrast’.

Enunciating Distinctly

Distinct enunciation means the careful, clear articulation of sounds. Once you are sure of what you plan to say and of how you want to say it, it is important that you enunciate clearly so that your audience does not have to strain to understand you. Distinct speech requires flexible movement of your jaw, lips, and tongue—the organs that give final shape to your syllables.

Vowels. Be aware of vowel sounds. You form vowel sounds by sending an unobstructed flow of air through your mouth. When you change the shape of your mouth by varying the position of your tongue and lips, a different vowel sound emerges. This is important because the vowels change words drastically, and you must have complete control of them to make yourself easily understood. The following words, for example, differ in pronunciation only because of the vowel sounds: tan, ten, tin, tine, ton, tone, tune. Study the key to pronunciation in your dictionary, becoming familiar with the different vowel sounds and how they are marked, so that you can check your pronunciation of a particular sound quickly.

Consonants. The consonant sounds, too, must be articulated distinctly. Many of them combine into formations not always easy to pronounce. Others form the important endings of words. Still others, likem, n, and ng, are pronounced with a nasal sound produced in the nose. You will have to be careful not to allow this nasal sound to break into your pronunciation of any of the other consonants or consonant-combinations. To distinguish among these various sounds, again, use your dictionary. Then, in all of your speaking, force yourself into the habit of enunciating the consonants clearly and sharply.

Syllables. Finally, keep your syllables clear-cut; do not run them together. If you mean, “Let me introduce my friend,” don’t say, “Lemme innerduce my fren.” If you mean, “Did you eat yet?” don’t say, “Jeet jet?” This is not to say that all of your speech must be as crisp and formal as a diction teacher’s. But with practice you can make yourself easily understood. The following exercises will help you avoid slurring, clipping, muffling, or swallowing your words.

Exercise: Enunciate the following words, reading each numbered group as a unit. Pay attention to the clear, correct articulation of the vowels.

1. pat, pate, peat, pit, pot, pout, put, putt

2. hat, hate, heat, height, hot, hut

3. fat, fate, feet, fit, fight, fought, foot

4. wan, wane, wen, wean, win, wine, won

5. ban, bane, Ben, bean, bin, bone, bun

Avoiding Barbarisms, Provincialisms, and Slang

Besides pronouncing correctly and articulating distinctly, you should do your best, when speaking in public, to use good forms. If you do not want to brand yourself as ignorant and uncultured, thereby demeaning the ideas you hope to communicate, you will have to avoid inappropriate usage.

Barbarisms. A barbarism is a form that has been considered substandard for so long and by so many people that it is now avoided by all educated speakers. The italicized words in the following sentences are barbarisms:

George said he seen him yesterday.

The Governor hisself gave Greta her award.

Then I’ll expect you to besomewheres near the flagpole.

He used a pen because his typewriter wasbusted.

This here book is yours.

Provincialisms. A word or phrase peculiar to a restricted area of the country is a provincialism. Certain provincialisms might sound like standard English to you and your neighbors, and yet sound strange and meaningless to residents of another state. The provincialisms in the following examples are italicized:

Jim allowed as how he hadn’t prepared for the exam.

Sue can’t tote all those books home alone.

His mother said he shouldn’t have et so fast.

Don’t leave go of the kite string.

Light-complected people can’t take too much sun.

Slang. Though it may be commonly used, slang is a kind of colloquialism that is not acceptable in the speech of educated people. In many informal situations it is acceptable, and for occasional special effects, it can be appropriate and picturesque. Used too often, however, slang reveals a poor vocabulary and a lazy mind. If you get into the habit of calling everything “neat” or “crazy,” you will not become acquainted with the words that can, in more formal situations, express your meaning appropriately and accurately. The italicized words in the following examples are slang:

I hate to fork over that much money for one ticket.

Isn’t this a peach of a day?

My little brothers are always scrapping.

Chester will be bounced if he’s late once more.

I’d like to take a whack at his job.

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