Pamela responds to questions from Northwestern University

Earlier in the year, Pamela spoke at Northwestern University. Since her presentation, she has been emailed several questions – here are her responses. Thank you for asking! And remember if you have any more questions for Pamela, feel free to email her at or subscribe to the blog for posts on public speaking and how it impacts day-to-day life!

QuestionI went to the presentation you gave at Northwestern University several months ago. You talked about “touching people with your voice”, and I asked you more about it after the presentation. When I talked to you, you immediately identified that I need to speak with my diaphragm. Do you have any advice on how to do this?

Answer: The key to speaking from your diaphragm is deep breathing exercises. Try this:

  • Sit in a comfortable position at your desk or lie on your back.
  • Close your eyes and start to notice your natural breath, not changing anything at first.  Begin a slow count to four as you inhale, then also count to four as you exhale. The exercise is to match the length of your inhale and exhale. You may experiment with changing the number you count to, just make sure your inhale and exhale stay the same length. Continue breathing this way for several minutes.
  • In regards to “touching people with your voice” try this: How loud is loud enough? If you speak too loudly or too softly, this exercise will help you modulate your volume. It allows you to connect your visual sense with your vocal sense so you can choose an appropriate volume for each situation.Focus your attention on an object near you and say the word “touch” slowly and precisely. Imagine your voice going out and touching that object. Then look at a more distant object and say the word “touch” louder. Again imagine your voice actually touching that object. Let your eyes find other items in the room to “touch.” Find out how far away you can touch an object with your voice. With practice, you will be able to sense when the volume of your voice is falling short of or overshooting another person.

Question: You talked about tongue twisters during the presentation. What are some good ones? Lots of times I have trouble pronouncing words correctly and sometimes I stutter plus I’m shy by nature, and because of this I often hesitate to talk, which puts me more out of practice. I feel this is crippling and will affect me in my future career and other aspects of life.

I asked you this question after the presentation also and you said it is not necessary because there is nothing wrong with the way I talk, but do you have any advice on how to break out of this pattern?

Answer: Thanks so much for your email! For Tongue Twisters I like this one:

I am not a pheasant plucker, I am a pheasant plucker’s son.

And I am only plucking pheasants, until the pheasant plucker comes.

I am a mother pheasant plucker, I pluck mother pheasants.

I am the most pleasant mother pheasant plucker that ever plucked a mother pheasant.”

“A box of biscuits, a batch of mixed biscuits.”

A skunk sat on a stump and thunk the stump stunk, but the stump thunk the skunk stunk.”

And of course, the classic:

“Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
Did Peter Piper pick a peck of pickled peppers?
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?”

“Red lorry, yellow lorry, red lorry, yellow lorry.”

“Unique New York.”

Betty Botter had some butter,

“But,” she said, “this butter’s bitter.

If I bake this bitter butter,
it would make my batter bitter.
But a bit of better butter—

that would make my batter better.”

So she bought a bit of butter,

better than her bitter butter,
and she baked it in her batter,
and the batter was not bitter.
So ’twas better Betty Botter
bought a bit of better butter.”

Answer: In terms of how to break out of your language patterns, try this:

Pronouncing words in English can be frustrating and difficult when English is not your first language. You may find your mouth can’t make the right shape and people have trouble understanding what you are saying. This is a common problem because the muscles in your lips and tongue are not accustomed to making the shapes that are found in English.

The shape your mouth, the position of your lips and teeth in your native language is very different from the way your mouth needs work when speaking English. Your muscles don’t know how to move. The key is to train your muscle to move in this new way. It is called muscle memory.  Muscle memory is a type of movement with which the muscles become familiar over time. For example, newborns don’t have the muscle memory for movements like walking or crawling. The only way for the muscles to become accustomed to these movements is for the baby to learn how to do these activities and practice the movements repeatedly and with a great deal of trial and error. Gradually as the baby becomes a skilled walker or crawler, she falls less, is able to balance, and finally is able to incorporate other activities into her life such as running.

It is the same for speaking English; you must train your mouth, lips, teeth and tongue to form the correct sounds. It will take time but with practice your speech muscles will know what to do automatically when you speak in English.

Here are things you can do to create muscle memory for speaking English:

  • Record your voice and listen for pronunciation mistakes:

While nearly everyone hates to hear their voice on tape, it is necessary to hear what your speech sounds like before you can change it. You will also hear your pronunciation errors and become conscious of these errors.

  • Pronounce the consonants and end of words:

Pay special attention to T’s, S’s, Th’s, and ‘ed’ endings. For example: T – Cost, Lost , S – Chess, Dress, Th – That, Three, Ed –Decided, Attended.

  • Slow down your speech:

When you speak quickly with the incorrect rhythm and intonation, English speakers have a hard time understanding you. So until you learn the correct word stress, intonation and rhythm, it is best to speak slowly and be understood. People care more about what you are saying than they do about the pace.

  • Look at the mouth shapes and movements of native speakers and attempt to imitate them:

A good time to practice this is when you are watching TV. Observe the way native speakers place their mouth and try to make the same shapes. Repeat what they say and try to maintain the same rhythm, intonation and word stress.

  • Make a list of the words that are difficult for you to pronounce:

Have a native speaker record the words that are difficult for you to pronounce and listen to these words and practice saying them.

  • Read a loud in English 15 minutes a day:

Reading aloud will increase your vocabulary and strengthen the muscles needed to make the correct English sounds. Studies have shown it takes approximately three months of daily practice to strengthen and develop the muscles need to speak a new language.

  • Listen to books on tape:

Visit your local library or buy books on tape. Combine this with the book in written form. This will increase your vocabulary and you can listen and read at the same time. You will learn how to correctly pronounce words and irregular verbs. You can also record yourself reading the same passage as the speaker from the book and compare.

  • Practice with tongue twisters:

Tongue twisters are another great way to strengthen the mouth and tongue muscles you use when speaking English.

  • Be patient:

Change takes time.  Your speech will change – but not overnight. This is often the problem; people want instant results. It takes time, commitment and practice. Don’t be discouraged, your hard work will payoff.

Thanks for all of your questions! Please feel free to ask me more, anytime!

About releaseyourvoices

Release Your Voice with Pamela Hart: Public Speaking training based in Vancouver BC. We offer training seminars, oral presentation skills, corporate communication, private lessons or group training
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