he lips, the teeth, the tip of the tongue."

he lips, the teeth, the tip of the tongue." That's a diction exercise designed to get your sounds to the front of your mouth by working, yes, the lips, the teeth, and the tip of the tongue. So says New York voiceover actor and teacher Maggie Phillips.

Articulation, as diction is more commonly called these days, is the way you shape the sound. It requires you to identify and refine certain muscles and body parts that you may not be aware of when speaking: lips, teeth, throat, hard and soft palates. The point, according to San Francisco actor and teacher Jeffrey Draper, is to help "communicate ideas, thoughts, images, passions clearly" when acting. These days, for better or for worse, it's an infrequently studied aspect of the craft in America. As Scott Kaiser, head of voice and text at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, explains, "Diction books printed before World War II are night-and-day different from today. They have a completely different type of rigor and discipline; they were about practicing your consonants every day, doing tongue twisters—tech manuals for how to use your voice and articulatory muscles. Recent books are like Kristin Linklater's Freeing the Natural Voice. They're about having a voice that sounds natural.

"The big picture has changed," he adds. "A hundred years ago it was 'articulate or die.' But electronic media has completely changed our concept of what diction is."

Based on discussions with these speech pros and a few others, Back Stage compiled a few FAQs—and a variety of answers—about diction.

Harriet Pehde, Elocution Solution, Los Angeles area: I don't think people realize the muscles of the face have to be toned up. They think if they can speak at all, they speak just fine.

Kaiser: Most actors think it's boring. They don't want to be bothered.

Phillips: Diction is overemphasized today. Speech is composed of a number of factors, diction being only one.

Draper: Articulation is thought of as consonants, but vowels are important too. Diction is not limited to the sounds you make. [It's a] tool to [make] the character's objective land and the plot to move forward in a dynamic way.

Bill Dearth, "speech mechanic," Los Angeles: A lot of people think it's about pronouncing the consonants correctly, [but] it's a mixture of proper vowels, consonants, intonations, pitch. They also think that it's quick and easy, that it can happen overnight. Where the proper sounds should be made—that's many people's biggest revelation.

Pehde: The facial muscles. Voice placement. The voice has to be placed in the mask, and then it travels. If it drops and it's in the chest, it doesn't go anywhere.

Draper: Physical tension, misuse of adrenaline. The trick is to use the adrenaline you get but to channel it without gripping yourself.

Draper: Using voiced consonants is really crucial. Some people end with an F when they're supposed to end with a V, or use an S for a Z sound. The "ing" sound—running, walking—you want to make it off the soft palate; if you make it in the middle of your mouth, you get a flat sound.

Dearth: For the most part, there's a tendency to drop consonants at the ends of words—a tendency to not make the entire word or sound clear and totally present.

Pehde: Breath control. If you don't have good breath control, you're not able to phrase things properly, and that can change the meaning of lines. [Also] the sibilant S. It comes out too whistley. If the tongue is placed too far forward, it makes that whistley sound.

Phillips: The simple diction issues are the sibilant S, which is common and can be dealt with through exercises, and placement. And lisping, which is also correctable. The more knowledge you have about your instrument, the more command you have over it. I can create a sibilant S or a lisp [for voiceover work] and also remove them. What I [also] see is a disconnect between body, breath, and voice—actors not connecting fully, not giving over the word with full commitment. It's usually tension that's keeping the word from completely, fully leaving the body. [National Theatre Head of Voice] Patsy [Rodenburg] calls speech one of the most generous acts of giving. If you don't completely invest in giving the word, it's going to be muffled, mumbled, or swallowed.

Cynthia Bassham, voice and speech instructor, University of California, Irvine: The Drew Barrymore syndrome: the voice trails off at the end of the sentence, like an airborne virus. It's about having awareness so you can make [character] choices.

Bassham: Judi Dench. Ian McKellen. Laura Linney uses her mouth, not overdoing it, just as one of the many instruments to create her character.

Kaiser: If [film or TV] directors want someone who speaks well, they'll hire a Brit: Alan Rickman. Patrick Stewart. Americans mutter like Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks. Meryl Streep is an exception.

Dearth: Kevin Kline. Meryl Streep.

Pehde: I think most probably feel they speak adequately and are understood in daily communication, so it's not even a thought to them.

Dearth: Sounding different. It spooks them. They don't recognize themselves.

Kaiser: I work with young actors already in training for years, including diction. What scares them is the outdoor space here [at Oregon Shakespeare Festival]. It requires extraordinary articulation. It's hard for them to play moments that feel "real." Their sense of truth won't allow for it.

Draper: Diction, or any kind of acting technique that's specific, can feel threatening to a heart-based, Stanislavsky- or Meisner-trained actor. Their spontaneity is the basis for their art.

Bassham: I'm still working on my camera technique. I tend to oversend. In order to be relaxed and easy and present, I have to be confident that my mouth is as warmed up as it can possibly be.

Kaiser: There's no standard at all in film and TV. [Diction] is fixed in the booth, or with filters, or not at all. Theatre actors often get into trouble with casting directors for being "too speechy." There's a perception that they're not able to tone it down. What they're doing is articulating clearly, but it sounds phony because of the current standard, which is to mumble. If you speak too clearly, you're cast in evil or pretentious roles: David Ogden Stiers speaks clearly and was cast as a pompous ass in M*A*S*H. [Kelsey Grammer in] Frasier is a good example; he's considered pompous because he speaks clearly and well. Good diction is often a liability in film and TV.

Phillips: I was a classically trained actress, and diction was emphasized. When I moved to TV, film, and voiceover, I had to undo a lot of my diction. I was overarticulate for those mediums. I had to relax my diction to sound more real. The market wants real. [Students] come to me forming consonants in the back of the mouth, and that makes them sound very real. But if they want to expand their range as actors, it's in their interest to explore the entire instrument—not just the lips, the teeth, and the tip of the tongue. The deeper and deeper you explore and discover your instrument, your diction takes care of itself when your [focus] is on clarity of speech, not diction [per se]. Speech is the meeting of body, breath, and word. When those three things come together in a state of relaxation, the diction clarifies. Who you [as your character] are, where you are, who you're speaking to, what you want—these are in any text, whether Shakespeare or a commercial or a promo. It's all about good acting and about integrating the entire instrument: the body, the supported breath, and the word.