You have probably noticed it can be hard to understand what people are saying when they are wearing a mask. You might be asked to repeat yourself more often than you are used to. That’s because a mask muffles your speech, making it quieter and less clear.
Good news! There are some strategies to help!
Why is the mask such a barrier?
Cloth over the mouth absorbs sound waves, so less of those sound waves travel to reach the listener. This makes the speaker seem quieter and harder to hear.
Because elements of the acoustic signal are missing, we might not hear all of the sounds in a word. This makes speech less clear and harder to understand. If we don’t hear the “t” sound at the end of the word “wait”, for example, our brain is scanning its database to determine whether the word is wait, way, wake, waste, waif… you get the idea.
We also get a surprising amount of information from visual cues. You probably aren’t aware of how much lipreading we do subconsciously, and the extent to which subtle facial expressions assist our comprehension.
With a mask covering not only the mouth but most of the muscles governing facial expression, we are left with only the (diminished) acoustic signal of speech to understand each other. Besides just making it hard to hear words, this can affect communication as a whole: what you say might be interpreted differently if people can’t see that you’re smiling, for example.
So do we need to be louder, or clearer?
You may never have considered the difference between loudness (aka volume, intensity) and clarity (aka enunciation, diction). Loudness is about being able to hear the sound, and clarity is about being able to understand the words. So the answer is, both!
How do I talk louder without getting tired?
All things being equal, loudness is dictated by how vigorously we exhale while speaking. The more air you push out to talk, the louder you will be. So the amount of air you usually use might no longer be adequate in the world of masks. You may need to spend more air as you speak.
The volume control button in the human voice is not in the throat, but in the belly. When we inhale, the belly moves outward as organs in the abdomen are displaced. When we exhale, this movement reverses and the belly moves inward.
To take advantage of the body’s natural tendencies, you can assist this exhale by engaging your abs to move your belly inward as you speak. his action speeds up airflow, leading to a larger exhale and louder voice.
For more detailed information about how to access this type of breath support, check out my blog post “Talking from the Diaphragm” is BS.
How do I talk more clearly?
The first and simplest technique is simply to be more aware of speaking clearly. Understanding that ARE-TICK-YOU-LATE-ING more clearly is necessary and helpful (even though it feels artificial and awkward) will automatically help.
Move your mouth
The mouth moves in all kinds of ways when we speak. The jaw opens and closes. The lips round or spread. The tongue is moving all over the place to create speech sounds. Many people are already a little mumbly when they speak, often because they don’t move the mouth muscles enough to be clear. Even for folks who are typically clear, wearing a mask often impedes movement, either physically or psychologically.
Increasing the range of motion of your mouth leads to clearer speech. In short, move your mouth more when you speak.
Finish your words
Most speakers can get a little careless about saying every sound in a word. That’s because we usually don’t need to. Context and familiarity with English allow a listener’s brain to fill in the gaps of missed sounds.
With a mask, we need to help the listener more by saying every sound in a word, even if it feels unnatural. This is especially true for the sounds at the ends of words. It’s common for speakers to fade out at the ends of words or sentences, instead of keeping their energy up and completing the final sounds, or final words, with gusto.
Here’s an audio clip demonstrating a sentence spoken three ways. First is normal, second is normal with a mask, and third is using these techniques with a mask:
When you’re the listener (as opposed to the one talking), it helps to attend more carefully than you normally would. We typically don’t concentrate and on hearing and understanding casual speech.
If the speaker is wearing a mask you have to do a little more active work to understand, and for your brain to piece together the signals into something meaningful. Paying closer attention can help.
Finally, consider your overall environment. Sitting in a quiet room with one other person wearing masks is going to be less challenging than understanding each other in a medical office or even grocery store. Background noise and distractions impact our ability to hear. So using these strategies are all the more important when you’re in a situation where it’s harder for others to hear you.
If you’d like some individual guidance around how to speak louder and/or more clearly, schedule a session today!