There’s a reason why the police talk about Papas, Tangos and Foxtrots rather than Ps, Ts and Fs. It’s because it can be quite hard to hear the difference between a P and B, a T and a D, or an F and an S.
In public speaking, the differences between these sounds are crucial. If you are to be understood, the first step is in getting the constituent sounds of language right. I’ve written about diction before, and understanding how sounds are made is one way of making sure your enunciation is accurate and comprehensible.
The shape of your mouth, the position of your tongue and the involvement of your teeth all contribute to the sounds coming out of your mouth. Tongue twisters are hard because they put next to each other sounds which are similar but different. This tests your control of the muscles in and around your mouth.
Lax diction can lead to often hilarious mispronunciations. Allow ‘be’ to become ‘pee’ on stage at your peril! Mastering your mouth is one of the most important things a speaker can do – and the good news is that it’s relatively easy.
Take the plosives, for instance. These are sounds which are produced by a sudden release of air from the lips. Bilabial plosives like ‘b’ or ‘p’ are essentially, then, the same sound – they are produced by releasing air from between the lips. The difference is subtle by important: the ‘b’ is voiced – essentially, the release of air is accompanied by a sort of hum – and the ‘p’ is unvoiced – that is, it is without the hum.
We make these sounds instinctively, but being aware of them enables us to ensure we’re not lazy when speaking in public and fail to make the difference clear enough. ‘T’ and ‘d’ are also plosives, for example, but the air is released from the roof of the mouth (an alveolar plosive). ‘D’ is voiced, and ‘t’ is voiceless.
There are plenty of voice exercises speakers can practice to improve their formation of sounds. Knowing the lingo – that ‘f’ is a labiodental fricative, produced by running air through a point of friction between the teeth and lips – can be useful, but more important is simply having strong muscles and flexing them appropriately.
Speakers read a lot about vocal cords and making sure we don’t strain them. We learn to exercise them and treat them well. Exercising your mouth is just as important. Try saying this with perfect diction, and fast:
The tip of the tongue, the teeth, the lips! The tip of the tongue, the teeth, the lips!
Come back here once you’ve mastered it – and we’ll learn some more.