Americans Can Instantly Improve Their Speaking Skills
Let me confess
that I am an American and l used to speak very badly. Now
I speak very well, at least that is what everyone tells me.
The fact is, my change from being a poor speaker to being
a good speaker happened virtually overnight. Here's the
I was a student
at UCLA in the 1960s. After graduating, I spent two years as a Peace
Corps volunteer in Tanzania, East Africa. When I got there, of course
everything was quite different from anything I had previously experienced.
For one thing, I was posted to a tiny bush village next to what
was supposed to be a major north-south road. Anything beyond 20
cars per day passing by was considered to be heavy traffic; in Los
Angeles, less than 20 cars per minute was considered to be abnormally
Perhaps the biggest
surprise occurred when I turned on my shortwave radio. I quickly
found the frequencies for both the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)
and the Voice of America. The difference was astounding. Listening
to the BBC, I heard cashiers, janitors, parking attendants, etc.,
speaking as if they had graduated from prestigious universities.
By contrast, listening to Voice of American, I heard people at the
top of the educational and social ladder speaking as if they had
never even graduated from primary school. This was no chance occurrence;
it happened every time I turned on the radio. "How is it
that high-level Americans seem to speak less well than low level
Brits?" I kept asking myself. And found no answer.
After a few
weeks I came to a startling conclusion. The apparent superiority
of the Brits had nothing to do with either intelligence or
education. It was in fact physical. If you pay attention,
you will notice that the British, particularly the English,
tend to form their words on their lips, while Americans form
them in the throat. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable
among males, whose deep, gravely voice is considered to be
masculine, virile and seductive.
I believe that forming words in the throat puts abnormal strain
on the larynx, which is why Americans so often tend to stumble
over their words. They frequently interrupt their speech by
interjecting "ah" or other irritating hesitations.
This is not because they don't know what to say next. It's
because they are giving their vocal cords a momentary chance
To put the idea to
the test, I consciously began forming my words on my lips rather
than in the throat. My own irritating hesitations (I was notorious
for this) vanished almost overnight. Suddenly I could put together
a sentence that flowed fluently from one end to the other. In fact,
I could put together whole series of sentences that flowed fluently
from one end to the other with hardly hesitation in sight.
Having tested this
discovery over several weeks, I decided to purposely redesign my
articulation. It wasn't easy. I had to consciously think about how
I was forming my words virtually every minute of the day. However,
after a couple of weeks it began feeling more and more natural,
until finally it was.
All this happened 40 years ago. During the intervening four decades,
I have gained somewhat of a reputation as an entertaining and provocative
public speaker, not only in English but also in French (I live in
Belgium). In short, redesigning my voice has worked extremely well
for me. I don't know it if would work for anyone else, but I see
no reason why not.
But a word of warning. If you do decide to make the change, you
are likely to develop a pseudo "Oxbridge" English accent.
This is quite normal; forming words on the lips naturally gives
rise to this type of accent. However, out of context it can be rather
embarrassing. Since I was living with a lot of British expatriates
in Tanzania, my new way of speaking didn't seem particularly odd.
However, the minute I returned to Los Angeles, people began commenting
on it, including my mother. "Where did you pick up that snooty
accent? Get rid of it." So I did. It is not all that difficult
to find a middle ground between the two accents. You will still
sound like an American, but without constantly tripping over you
tongue. Why not give it a try? The results might amaze you.
Writer: Philip Yaffe is a former reporter/feature
writer with The Wall Street Journal and a marketing communication
consultant. He currently teaches a course in good writing and good
speaking in Brussels, Belgium. His recently published book In the
“I” of the Storm: the Simple Secrets of Writing & Speaking (Almost)
like a Professional is available from Story Publishers in Ghent,
Belgium (storypublishers.be) and Amazon (amazon.com). For further
information, contact: Philip Yaffe
Brussels, Belgium Tel: +32 (0)2 660 0405 Email: [email protected],[email protected]