Want to say it like it is? Speaking in an articulate way is a skill that can be learned with practise. Soaring presentations that thunder with authoritative, game-changing points bring applause and glory. But if your words dry up and you find yourself silently mouthing like a goldfish, you risk walking off stage to the sound of your own footsteps. Here’s how to do it all a bit better next time. 

We all have our off days. After the Gettysburg Address, one of the most influential speeches in US history, Abraham Lincoln was left feeling he “did not score” because there was very little applause.

To be a noted speaker is a nice place to be. When you sound like a leader, people trust you. Being articulate can make all the difference in changing minds, pitching an idea, or closing a deal. For articulate, fluent speech you just need to follow a few simple rules.

What is articulate speech?

Articulate speech is the ability to talk fluently, persuasively, and without hesitation. These three points each have a connection to deeper processes going on in the mind.

Articulate speech can be regarded as being in control of these mental processes, including the ability to stop them being disrupted. Once you’ve nailed it, your words flow with fluency, streaming along in a current of opinion that can carry people with you.

Tips for articulate speech

The mental processes behind articulate speech begin with having something to say. It’s important to know how to say it coherently and persuasively, sticking to the point and successively managing nerves. Articulacy breaks down into three components:

1. Fluency

The biggest barrier to articulacy is not getting to the point. Rather than being too wordy, the most common problem is not enough focus or structure. A stream of consciousness is not the same as articulately making a point – you might be speaking but you’re not saying much.

To say something that makes people take notice, start with a clear idea. In an informal conversation, it helps to make your point quickly. In a presentation or negotiation, it can be better to build your case. Either way, clearly developed ideas inspire a fluent way of speaking that’s full of self-belief, commitment, and the gravitas that urges people to listen.

Sometimes, you might be speaking about ideas that you don’t feel personally motivated by, for example in a work presentation. You can still speak with enthusiasm and fluency by clearly understanding the idea at the heart of your talk.

Decide the conclusion you want people to understand, think too about the emotion involved. Do you want people to feel inspired, persuaded? Or just joyful that you’ve finished? From there, work backwards. How are you going to get to your conclusion? Where are you going to start?

2. Persuasion

Fluent speech is only a part of being articulate. Children can speak fluently about something important to them – a film for example, where they tell you at length about the ending, the car journey there, the man (what man?), the beginning, the ending again, and their homework. But kids lack structure, they aren’t as articulate as adults.

A stream of consciousness shows enthusiasm but isn’t very persuasive, better to bring some structure to your thoughts. Structure can be learned as habit, where you think about a beginning, middle, and end. It also helps to think about the person you’re talking to. This is where children struggle. More mature minds find room for empathy.

Whatever you want to say, it never hurts to begin with some context. “I saw a film”, or “this morning, I want to tell you about X”, for example. From there, you can move on to your main focus – such as evidence for your argument.

Your beginning, middle and end can be as short as you want. Nevertheless, you need each of them. Together they form a coherent argument – which is essential when you need to be persuasive: “I saw a film, it changed my life. You should see it too.”

3. Managing hesitation

Enthusiasm is great for fluency. To be persuasive, you need structure. But both can be disrupted by hesitation. Leaving aside deeper issues best tackled through speech therapy, managing hesitation is an important part of articulacy. Take a moment to breathe, slow down, and take back a little control.

Mangled words can sound like a language you’ve just invented. At least you can unpick them and try again. Silence always feels worse. If anxiety starts to make your mind spin, words can be flung out of reach. It can be hard to know what to say next. Recovery is possible, but better to prepare in a way that might stop problems like this happening in the first place.

Let’s go back a couple of steps. Fluency, the opposite of hesitation, comes from an enthusiastic, fearless commitment to say what you want to say. This is heartfelt self-confidence and it can be replicated even in the most nerve-wracking situations.

By thoroughly knowing your material, finding conviction in the key points you want to hit and practising them well, you can build up confidence that will stay with you even if your mind wanders. Like a secure handle to hold when hesitation creeps in, preparation protects both your ideas and your fluency in delivering them.

Challenges to articulate speech – and how to stop them

It’s easy to slip into habits that get in the way of articulacy. Common problems include the following, in no particular order.

Lack of conviction The person you’re speaking to wants to know how seriously they need to listen. This helps them decide how they should respond. To help them work this out, they assess more than what you’re saying.

Your choice of words represents only one of three ways in which you communicate. Other information comes from body language and from presence. Body language – eye contact, and open gestures rather than defensive postures – invites people to listen. Presence – confidence, poise, gravitas, and charisma – can encourage people to take you seriously.

People quickly build a picture of the overall message you’re presenting. Poor body language and weak presence undermine your message no matter how well chosen your words. Being articulate isn’t just about speaking, it’s about talking with conviction. This is because speaking is about being heard.

Staccato speech Staccato speech breaks up into hesitant sentences or phrases. This gives a pattern of speaking that sounds clipped and choppy, almost like a series of short bursts.

Politicians sometimes speak like this. Their words count, they’re on camera, they sometimes slip into a deliberative, halting way of speaking. Staccato speech can also indicate an intelligent though fragmented line of thought, think of the character Ross in Friends.

Try and identify what exactly it is that makes your words sound staccato. Voice exercises and practising fluid sentences make a good start. Try to breathe through a sentence so that you develop an even flow to your words. If you really struggle, you may want to see a speech therapist for voice coaching.

Losing the audience Speech is about communicating; other people are 50% of the equation. Reading your notes aloud in entirety, launching into an emotional stream of consciousness, or racing through your script just to get to the end may lead to you being remembered for all the wrong reasons.

Think of being on a train or a plane. Someone in the crew gives on update – rattling through the information at 100mph. Their delivery clearly indicates they’ve done this a hundred times before, they’re bored, and they aren’t that fussed whether you only pick up one word in 10. Cantering through their script, they’ve left the audience behind and aren’t too bothered about it. 

It’s hard to follow words spoken by someone who’s not really thinking about other people. Think of a mumbling teen who’s not that bothered whether you’re listening or even there at all. If you’re not interested in what you’re saying, no-one else will be.

Brain fog We’ve all been there. One minute, you’re in the middle of saying something, the next you’re…you know…umm.

Try to anticipate brain fog so that you can prepare mental anchors – words or phrases that will help you stay securely anchored to your thoughts. Key points of focus will help you stay on track. Sometimes, in practising a speech, a particular point can be hard to remember. Recognise the stumbling block and find a way to make it easier to recall.

Building structure into the way you speak will help you stay in the moment – whether in a one-off presentation or in routine contributions to meetings.

Presentation training 

At Working Voices, our presentation skills courses will help you develop an articulate way of speaking. Our foundation course helps beginners develop their mindset, body language and skills in building rapport. Our intermediate course includes components on structure and delivery, while the advanced course looks at outcome thinking and ensuring your message is remembered long after you’ve left the room.

These skills are brought together in our keynote speaking training course, which also helps with the core components of using your voice:

  • Speed – speaking a bit more slowly to a group than you would to an individual helps with emphasis and clarity.
  • Pitch – this is associated with body language. High pitch indicates nervousness. Better to keep it natural if you can.
  • Resonance – the intensity of your voice can help determine whether people listen to you or not. Too strong can be off-putting, too soft can fail to win trust.
  • Volume – the most important part of volume is projection, speaking naturally but with emphasis –so everyone can hear without you appearing to be shouting.
  • Tone – this immediately shows people that you and your message are trustworthy, empathetic, and can be believed.

By speaking articulately with confidence, saying what you want to say, you’ll leave your audience wanting more, you’ll be remembered for your professional delivery, and you’ll have nailed a key cornerstone of leadership and communication.

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