If you want your voice to be not only heard but also understood, proper articulation is paramount. Articulation skills are especially important for actors and performers, who make a living off the ability to convey ideas and emotions through the power of speech. To achieve your articulation A-game, you should give yourself time to prepare what you’re going to say; speak with the right speed, pauses, pitch, and volume; feel confident in your oration; and do exercises to keep your articulators in great shape.
Articulation is the formation of clear, comprehensible sounds in your speech. Speaking entails a complex process of translating thoughts into verbal utterances using the speech organs: the tongue, lips, jaw, vocal cords, and palate.
How articulate you sound depends on many interworking factors, including:
- Speed: the rate at which you speak
- Pitch: how high or low your voice is
- Resonance: the intensity of your voice
- Volume: the loudness or softness of your voice
- Tone: the emotion behind your words
Good articulation means stronger communication skills and the ability to convey complex ideas to listeners. Actors must be articulate, whether they’re performing voiceover work or projecting onstage. As an actor, your voice is your instrument. The audience needs to be able to understand not only what you’re saying, but also the emotion, intention, and subtext behind your voice.
Frame Stock Footage/Shutterstock
Follow these tips to amp up your articulation abilities:
1. Know what you’re going to say ahead of time
It’s easier to articulate when you feel fully prepared about what you’re going to say. If you’re doing improv or a cold read, take a beat or two in between ideas to prepare for your next sentence. When auditioning, be sure that you’re well acquainted with the material. And if you have a minor flub, don’t let it throw you off—you run a higher risk of tripping up again if you fixate on a small verbal mistake.
2. Listen to yourself speak
The easiest way to pinpoint your most common articulation mistakes is to record yourself speaking in casual conversation. Play it back and really pay attention to the moments where your clarity and intentions get muddled. Are you ever speaking too fast or too slow? Do you raise and lower your pitch, or keep everything at a steady monotone? Are there any particular vowels, consonants, or phrases that you mumble or blur together?
3. Open your mouth wide while speaking
One of the most simple physical hurdles to good articulation is not opening your mouth wide enough to let sounds pass through clearly. If you struggle, try saying a sentence slowly and deliberately, exaggerating each syllable with a wide mouth. You’ll notice the difference it makes in your projection and clarity.
4. Don't speak too quickly or too slowly
While rapid-fire speech may work for the characters in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (and, well, any Amy Sherman-Palladino production), speaking too quickly usually makes it difficult for your audience to follow what you’re saying. Alternatively, speaking at too glacial a pace might make it seem like you don’t fully know what you’re talking about—think of Forrest Gump’s slow-moving drawl. Generally, try to keep your speech rate within the average speaking rate of 120–150 words per minute for conversational speaking—although keep in mind that different roles require different vocal speeds. Vocal speed should also reflect the emotive quality of a performance. You’ll likely want to speak quickly in impassioned scenes and slowly for more serious ones.
5. Pause for effect
Take little breaks when you speak to help establish and properly articulate your next thought. As demonstrated by great orators such as Christopher Walken and Barack Obama, a well-placed pause can also be used to great dramatic effect. Pauses can also help you eliminate filler words such as “like” and “um,” which are undesirable in speech unless you’re auditioning for a role as a valley girl or disenfranchised youth.
6. Change up your pitch
It’s impossible to get different moods and tones across to the listener without modulating your tone. Avoid the dreaded monotone by varying your pitch as you speak.
7. Remember to breathe
It’s easy to lose track of your articulation if you’re running out of breath when you speak. Take time to practice breathing exercises, which should help you more simply draw breath from your diaphragm.
8. Project your voice when needed
The volume with which you should speak is entirely situation-dependent. If you’re performing onstage without a mic, you’ll need to project your voice so audience members can hear you all the way in the farthest row; but if you’re recording an ASMR video, you’ll want to keep your volume low so as to not interrupt the frisson. Keep in mind that it’s usually better to be slightly too loud than slightly too quiet.
9. Confidence is key
Great articulators exude confidence in their speech. If you’re still feeling less than dubious about your articulation, technology is here to save the day. Speech apps such as Articulation Station, Conversation Therapy, Speech Trainer, Metronome Beats, and Ummo can help train you to speak up, slow down, and, like, eliminate filler words.
10. Warmup and exercise
Take time every so often to stretch and massage your jaw muscles, as tightness can lock down your speech. Also, run through simple diction and articulation exercises to improve over time.
Not only is your tongue primarily responsible for the intelligibility of your text, it’s also strongly associated with your feeling of belonging in the world. The part of your brain where your personality is stored is called your insula, and the movement map that controls your tongue is right next to the insula. So when you work your tongue out, you’re also connecting more deeply to your sense of purpose and increasing your drive to share your talents with the world.
Go through these six moves before an audition to focus your brain and your voice:
- Tongue on the roof of mouth: Some people develop an incorrect habit of keeping their tongue low in the mouth. When the tongue is at rest, it’s supposed to be suctioned to the roof of your mouth, like an octopus tentacle. The tip of your tongue should be resting about a half-inch behind your upper front teeth. To find the proper position for the tip, say “Nah-nah-nah” and then rest the tip where the “n” is made. The back of the tongue should also be touching the roof of the mouth as much as possible.
- Yawn and swallow with tongue up: Now that you’ve got the tongue up, try to complete three consecutive swallows without letting the tongue move from the roof of the mouth. Once you’ve done that successfully, try to yawn and lower your larynx while keeping the entire tongue (including the back) suctioned to the roof of the mouth.
- Hi-hat: The hi-hat is the pair of cymbals in a drum set that meets to make a dampened “crash.” Do that with your tongue now; it will sound like “ts” in the word “its.” Once you’ve made the “ts,” push the middle front part of your tongue to the roof of the mouth to “damp” the sound. If you’re doing this correctly, you’ll feel your abs contracting, too. Repeat as rapidly as possible for 10–15 seconds.
- Chipmunk: Make a chipmunk sound by suctioning the front body of the tongue backward along the roof of the mouth. When done properly, this will sound like the disapproving “tut-tut-tut” that your grandma might have made when you were misbehaving. Repeat as rapidly as possible for 10–15 seconds.
- Tongue cluck: Create a clucking sound by curling the tip of the tongue backward and flicking it down rapidly to rest briefly on the lower front teeth. It should make a sharp, clean sound that is somewhat similar to the motion for making an “l.” Repeat as rapidly as possible for 10–15 seconds.
- Dry k’s: Finally, repeat a “k” consonant as quickly and rhythmically as possible. The goal here is not to let a lot of air escape. Most Americans have an aspirated “k” that blows a lot of air through the sound. Try to make the “k” as dry as possible, letting the airflow be very small. Repeat as rapidly as possible for 10–15 seconds.