Speaking is pointless if you’re not understood. But opinions diverge on how best to improve intelligibility – or even how to measure it.
Having worked with adults and children with a range of communication challenges – from speech disorders, language disorders, fluency disorders, voice problems, professional communication needs and accent issues – a few basic themes crop up time and time again when trying to help clients improve their intelligibility.
Now, no one speaks perfectly in all places with all people. I certainly don’t – especially in the mornings. But we can all do things to make it easier for others to understand us – especially if people regularly ask us to repeat ourselves (or, worse, ignore us).
If you are having regular problems being understood by others, here are some no-cost, low-tech, evidence-based ideas to try out before seeking professional help:
1. Focus on saying all your speech sounds – particularly at the end of words
One standard measure of intelligibility is the percentage of sounds you get right. Leaving sounds out – particularly at the end of words and phrases – makes it much harder for listeners to understand what you are saying (Derwing et al., 2014). This is one reason strangers find it hard to understand children with speech disorders and many adults who speak English as a second language. It’s also why speech pathologists often target patterns of missing sounds first, and then “wrong sounds” when treating people with speech disorders and helping people to modify their accents and improve their communication.
2. Learn about and apply the basic rules of speech “prosody”
As we’ve said before, a focus on prosody – things like speech stress, rhythm and intonation – can lead to greater comprehensibility than a focus on speech sounds (Derwing et al., 1998; Seferoglu, 2005). Sentence stress is probably the most important thing to get right for intelligibility. This is simply making important words – especially words that convey new or essential information – longer and louder than the words around them. For example:
- I want to go to the BEACH (not the office).
- They’re coming TOMORROW (not today).
- The BLACK shoes are missing (not the blue ones).
- The black SHOES are missing (not the black socks).
- The black shoes are MISSING (not here).
3. Smooth out the rough edges
Hesitations, awkward pauses and repetitions can all hurt your intelligibility – especially if they make it hard for listeners to tell where different thoughts start and end. Reducing the “ums and ahs”, and pausing between thoughts at grammatically correct times can increase your intelligibility dramatically – even if you make the same number of sound errors (e.g. Kohn et al., 1990; van der Merwe, 2007).
4. Increase your volume
Many speech treatments, notably LSVT LOUD, are based on the simple idea that increased volume will help increase intelligibility. Increasing volume not only makes you louder. It’s also been shown to increase articulatory precision and breath control (e.g. Dromey & Ramig, 1998). This applies both for people with neurological diseases like Parkinson’s Disease as well as to chronic mumblers.
5. Look after your voice
Voice quality and resonance can also affect your intelligibility (e.g. Susman & Tjaden, 2012). It can be almost painful listening to someone with a very rough, strained, breathy or monotone voice. At best, it’s distracting. Here are some tips for protecting your voice.
6. Slow down
Rate control has been described as the most powerful single, behaviourally modifiable variable for improving intelligibility (Yorkson et al., 1992). But it’s easier said than done. For some simple ideas to try to control your speech rate, check out this article.
7. Pretend you are speaking into a microphone
Sounds silly, I know. But there’s evidence to say that some speakers perform better when placed in front of a microphone (e.g. Goberman et al., 2010). It’s called a “performance effect”. (Incidentally, it’s one reason speech pathologists can over-estimate a client’s intelligibility when they conduct formal assessments, usually with the client seated in front of a microphone).
8. Don’t multi-task while speaking
Studies of people speaking while balancing a tray, walking around obstacles, standing on tiptoes or sorting out buttons consistently show that dual or competing tasks negatively affect intelligibility (e.g. Bunton & Keintz, 2008; Dromey et al., 2010). Focus on what you are saying!
9. Pretend you are speaking to the boss
Speakers vary the precision of their articulation on a continuum from highly formal to informal speech depending on who they are talking to and why (e.g. Lindblom, 1996). You don’t talk to your partner in the same way you talk to your boss or the guy at the service station (unless they are the same person). Now, it’s better to turn up to a smart casual dinner party in a suit, than a black-tie event clad in flame-retardant tracksuit pants. The same holds for speech – especially when you are trying to convey important information.
10. Use body language (and everything else at your disposal) to support what you are saying
Speech pathologists sometimes get obsessed by speech sound accuracy, forgetting that much of our communication is conveyed in noisy or distracting environments requiring lots of repetition and the support of non-verbal cues such as gesture and facial expressions. Even the setting can add (or detract) from your intelligibility. In face-to-face and video communications (e.g. Skype) we can use these things to help support what we are saying and to increase our functional communication – even if our speech isn’t clear. It’s much harder on the phone. But, if you’ve ever watched a group of cranky football fans share critiques with each other in a packed, loud pub, you’ll know just how effectively we can communicate our thoughts and feelings without clear speech signals.
Good luck! And, if none of these things works for you – and even if you think your speech is getting worse – don’t panic! Speak to a speech pathologist who can run a full intelligibility assessment on your speech, and then tailor therapy to your specific needs and challenges.
Principal source: Miller, N. (2013). Measuring up to speech intelligibility. International Journal of Communications Disorders, 48(6), 601-612.
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Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.
Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language
Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.