How to sound crisp, polished, and professional.

Lisa B. Marshall
5-minute read



If Peter Professional practiced a pony of problematic plosives, how many problematic plosives did Peter Professional practice? Of course, that’s my twist on the traditional “Peter Piper” tongue twister. Coming up, we’ll talk about how you can sound more professional by improving your diction.

Several months ago, a listener, Denise, wrote me the following:

One characteristic I would like to improve is my diction. My pastor and other speakers I've observed have wonderful, crisp pronunciation and I am striving to develop this. Any tips for improving diction and sounding more polished?

Thanks, Denise, for the question. If you’re wondering why I waited so long to answer your question it’s because I’ve been working on the very same issue for a very long time. I was reluctant to respond, thinking I’m certainly not a role model in this area. But then I thought, well, I do certainly have a lot of experience trying to improve my diction. In this episode I’ll share with you what I’ve been doing to clean up my speech. 

What Is Diction?

Many, many years ago, the very first time someone mentioned that perhaps I needed to improve my diction, I decided to look it up. I had always equated enunciation with diction, but I wasn’t sure what the difference was. Enunciation is the act of speaking. Good enunciation is articulating clearly and concisely. The opposite of good enunciation is mumbling, slurring, or bad enunciation. It turns out that diction technically is a broader term that includes enunciation and word choice, but practically speaking diction refers to speaking more clearly and that’s what we’ll cover today.

Assimilation: Persistence Is Futile

To correct this, you’ll first need to become aware of how you sound. Sometimes the fix is just a matter of slowing down, while other times you’ll need to undo a bad habit.

For me the biggest problem was the blending of sounds together. I now know that technically this is referred to as “assimilation” (or “overassimilation”). At times, we all do this; it is a normal part of conversational speech. Just last week, Paola, a non-native speaker who lives in our home, asked me, “What does ‘gahead’ mean? It’s not in the dictionary.” I explained to her that what she was actually hearing was “go ahead.” She asked, “Really? “Gahead” is ‘go ahead’? “Are you sure?”

Here are a few more that she’s noticed:

“I dunno,” of course, should be “I don’t know.”

“Probly” should be “probably.”

“Havta” should be “have to.”

“Woulda/coulda/shoulda” should be “would have”/“could have”/“should have.”

“Uzshly” should be “usually.”

“Gonna” should be “going to.” (One that I still have problems with.)

“Wanna” should be “want to.”

“Cancha” should be “can’t you.”

Oh, and just to be clear, she didn’t learn these from me! I even asked her, just to be sure. Interestingly, she said she heard most of them on television. Of course, she’s more sensitive since she’s learning English. Most native speakers are unaware that this is how they sound in natural conversation. The actors are just mimicking real life.

To correct this, you’ll first need to become aware of how you sound. I recommend recording yourself during regular household conversations. If you have more than three or four jumbled words in a five-minute conversation, you’ve got a problem.

Sometimes the fix is just a matter of slowing down, while other times you’ll need to undo a bad habit. Listen to your recording, write a list of your problem phrases, and then practice saying them correctly. Try to focus on the phrases you use the most.

Practice Plosives

For many North Americans, plosive sounds like /d/, /t/, /b/, and /p/ are another common enunciation problem. You need to be sure you say them so that they end with a small burst of air and there is a very brief stop in the flow of speech. Most people do OK when plosives start a word like “cheese” or “please.” The problem comes when those sounds are in the middle or at the end of the word.

In a recent episode I was guilty of swallowing the /t/ sound in the middle of a word. I was saying “senence” instead of “sentence.” When you have several plosives in one word, usually the biggest problem is with the sounds at the end. For example, try this sentence:

Project Gutenberg is the producer of the first and biggest collection of online books.”

Try it yourself. Hold your hand in front of your mouth. In the show notes I highlighted them for you. And you should feel a slight burst of air for each one. But be careful not to overdo it, like this…

Project Gutenberg is the producer of the first and biggest collection of online books.

There’s definitely a continuum of acceptable articulation, even among broadcasters. Some prefer tight, crisp speech, while others prefer a more relaxed approach with some blending of sounds. You don’t want to draw attention. You just want to say it correctly; otherwise, you’ll sound pedantic. (And, yes, I picked that word because it has three plosives. I wanted to show off.)

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Practicing tongue twisters is another good way to improve. For plosives these are two I really like: “Good blood, bad blood. Good blood, bad blood,” and “A big black bug bit a big black bear and made the big black bear bleed blood.” For sibilants (which are s’s and f’s), you can try this one: “Susan Simpson strolled sedately, stifling sobs, suppressing sighs.” See the show notes for a link to a database of tongue twisters and discover your own favorite.

Another way to practice is to repeat the speech of someone who has good enunciation. Did you know that Monica Reinagel, The Nutrition Diva, is also an accomplished opera singer? We benefit not only from her nutrition information but also from her years of professional voice training. To help me practice, I also listen to Scott Smith’s “Motivation to Move” podcast, as well as several NPR shows.

I like to directly repeat whatever the host is saying. I don’t repeat after the host finishes; I repeat directly on top of him or her. Here’s an example of what I do using a recent NPR news podcast:

President Obama traveled to Denver’s museum of Nature and Science to sign the stimulus measure. He recalled that it was in Denver last summer that he accepted his party’s nomination for the white house promising to give every American a chance to improve his life. 

That’s enough to show you what I mean. This helps me not only with enunciation but also with accent and intonation. I make a game of it. I’ve been doing it for years. It’s something you can do in the car as you listen to podcasts or the radio. In fact, you can try the technique right now. Give it a try.

So, Denise, there you have it: some tips to help you sound like your pastor. I hope you’ll try some of these techniques. Don’t forget to call the show phone line in a few months to let us hear your improved clear speech and precise articulation.

This is Lisa B. Marshall. Passionate about communication; your success is my business.

If you have a question, send email to publicspeaker@quickanddirtytips.com. For information about keynote speeches or workshops, visit lisabmarshall.com.


A database of tongue twisters

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About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.