A good presentation involves more physicality than you might think. I've written before about feet, hands and eyes – but actually, there’s a physical element even in the way you use muscles to form your words. Or there should be.
But often the impact of what is being said, formally or informally, is lost because the speaker isn’t using those muscles properly. Good articulation (what they used to call ‘Elocution’, or ‘talking proper’) isn’t something I advocate for the sake of getting people to sound posh. I advocate it because it means you’ll be understood a whole lot better. And the beauty of it is that if you really mean what you say, you automatically tend to engage your mouth muscles more energetically than if you don’t. So articulation isn’t necessarily something you have to pay attention to in its own right – though it can help if you do! That’s because people who are really inhabiting their words instinctively make the most, not only of consonants, but also vowels.
It was Barbara Housman, revered voice coach for the Royal Shakespeare Company, who first pointed out to me that the vowel sounds carry the emotion of what we’re saying. (Just listen to Martin Luther King say words like ‘this nation will rise up’ – and of course, 'dream', in his famous speech. He instinctively elongates the vowel sounds so that we are carried along with the words into the idea they express.) Human beings have always used vowels that way.
When a footballer shoots at the goal and it only just misses, the first sound the crowd utters is a vowel – that kind of ‘awurghhhh!’ noise.
When a small child is told they’re not going to get an ice cream after all, the protest they make is an upward inflected ‘oh-wuhhhh’, possibly followed by an open-throated ‘waaaargh!’
When we have a sudden moment of revelation, the first thing we’re likely to say is ‘A-ha!’
Primal stuff. Vowels express our immediate feelings, whatever words we may then use. Barbara says this (and you have to try saying it out loud to catch her drift):
"U i ee oh ee oh i ow-a ow, oh u oo u-a a o ee er ay i."
(But if we only spoke in vowel sounds, no-one would understand what we were saying.)
So we need consonants too – to carry the clarity of the message:
"T b, uh nt t b, tht zz th qstn."
(To be, or not to be, that is the question.)
Try saying that out loud, and the chances are that the quote will become recognizable. But without vowel sounds, no-one would know how you felt about it. So use consonants to convey clarity; vowels to convey feeling. Both.
Try saying “How are you? I’m fine,” keeping all the vowels as clipped as possible.
Now say it again, taking faaaaar mooooore tiiiiiime tooooo eeeeelongate the vowels, as well as using all the notes in your voice, high to low and back again. Hear the difference?
In business, vowel sounds get short shrift. Possibly because there’s a subliminal idea that business has no place for emotion. How could technical language possibly involve feelings? Well – if that’s your point of view, how easily have you been able to use that technical language on its own to persuade your audience?
If you combine short flat vowels with indistinct consonants, you’re even less likely to engage your listeners. Because not only do they feel no emotion through your words, they don’t even know what the words are supposed to be.
Try using your lips, tongue and jaw with a little more muscularity than may feel usual – as if you’re forming the words for someone with a hearing problem, but not wanting to make it too obvious. You will automatically become more present in what you are saying. That’s because your body is having to make a physical commitment to the words. And if you allow your voice to find different pitches through the vowels, the colour and variety will work alongside the mere sense of your words to make us really feel something.
And that’s what will keep us listening to you.