Diction in public speaking can be seen as a dirty word. “Diction” often conjures visions of finishing skills for young “ladies” in a P.G. Wodehouse novel, or of BBC news announcers between the World Wars. It sounds fusty, old-fashioned, even a little snobbish.
On the contrary, however, diction is one of the greatest allies a speaker can have – even in the twenty-first century.
It’s impossible to avoid the fact that we still place a premium on standardised pronunciation. Though regional accents are now far more acceptable than they once were – and rightly so – it’s still true that audiences will warm to a speaker who enunciates “I don’t know” more than they will one who drawls, “Dunno”.
Partly this is to do with expectation – we have long learned to value what we are told as “proper” or “correct”. I think, however, that in this day and age diction in public speaking is much more about being understood by the widest range of people possible. It’s no longer so much about signifying our authority to speak than it is about earning it.
What do I mean by that? Well, as a speaker you will likely be in front of a diverse audience – certainly one made up of several regional accents, and perhaps also of people for whom English is not a first language. Good diction is about separating and expressing our words with clarity, so that they can be understood by everyone.
In an everyday scenario, we speak in greater physical proximity to each other. A slurred word here or there might be understood by someone who knows us well, or shares our accent, or can simply guess what we mean by conversational context or body language. A lot of these “shared spaces” are eliminated in the realm of public speaking. That leaves us only with diction to guarantee we are understood.
There are all sorts of techniques to improve diction – better breathing, practicing tongue twisters, and understanding how humans create the sounds that make up language.
What is the difference between a “p” sound and a “b”, or a “d” and a “t”? This may seem an odd question, but the perils of diction lie in how similar these sounds really are. Diction is about not exaggerating the difference between a “t” and a “d”; but it is about making sure the difference is there.
Geddit? Or rather: “get it”? To put it another way: subtle changes in the sounds you make can change the sense of what you say; one has got to do something, not god to do it, after all!
Tongue twisters work because they make us think about where to place the various elements of our mouth that make sound: the tip of our tongue, our teeth, our lips. “Betty bought a bit of butter” will soon devolve into a meaningless mess without the clarity that comes from good diction.
And that’s why the importance of diction isn’t fiction – or a focus on it old-fashioned. Repeat after me: get a bit of diction in your style. After all, the alternative is just “geddabiddadigzion”. And who will understand us then?