Our faces are hidden behind three layers of cotton. Our voices are muffled, and important non-verbal cues are missing. As we try to communicate complicated concepts in the classroom, those barriers to understanding can lead to confusion and frustration—for us and for our listeners.
With a little effort and practice, though, we can be heard and understood every time. Here’s how.
1. Take a breath
Before you speak, focus on your inhale. Feel your diaphragm expand downward and allow your belly to “balloon.” A lot of us think about “taking a deep breath” as raising our shoulders up toward our ears, but here’s a secret: our shoulders don’t make room for our lungs to expand. (Our diaphragm does, though.)
By allowing our bellies to expand and our diaphragm to open downward, we make room for our lungs to fill with air. And that’s exactly what you need to “project” your voice.
Bonus: A lot of us feel like we’re spending our days breathing more shallowly in our masks, even when we’re not talking. But deep breathing is good for us in a lot of ways, including stress relief, so taking a deep, slow inhale might help you settle your anxiety before responding to that cold call.
2. Slow it down
It’s going to feel silly. You’re going to be uncomfortable. And, for most of us, it’s going to take a lot of effort. But it’s important to slow down if you want to be understood when you’re wearing a mask. Because your listeners aren’t able to pick up on the cues they’d usually glean from the shape of your mouth and your expressions, slowing your rate of speech is essential for comprehension.
When you’re at home or having a conversation with friends, practice speaking so slowly you think everyone is rolling their eyes at you (they’re not). Our rate of speech is a habit we dig into every day, so this effort is all about retraining yourself.
If you tend to be a fast talker, this is good practice for job interviews and other public speaking experiences, too: now that we’re all communicating via video conferencing or phone calls, speaking slowly can help your listener keep up with lags in the connection and make up for the lack of sensory cues we miss out on when communication isn’t face-to-face.
3. Open wide and overexaggerate
Not in a hyperbolic storytelling way! Just drop your jaw as you speak, and overdo the shape of your mouth with each sound. The more space you give for your sound to come out (i.e. a wide-open mouth), the more volume you’ll create with less strain on your body.
Part of this task is easier because you’re in a mask—no one is looking at you! So you don’t have to feel like you’re making such silly faces. But it can also be a challenge to open your mouth wide when you’re wearing a mask that’s too small or inflexible, so make sure that your mask fits you well (you should be able to properly yawn in it!).
4. Pronounce every sound
All of the consonants in every word are important. Hit them hard, especially when they fall at the end of a word: for example, don’t let “want” turn into “wahn.”
5. Don’t let your voice drop at the end of a sentence
Americans have a habit of starting our sentences out strong, and then allowing our volume to fade, diction to muddle, and intonation to fall as we reach the end of our thought.
This “drop-off” can be exacerbated by the speaker’s uncertainty, indecision, or low self-confidence—all of which can be part of a law school classroom!
To ensure that you’re understood, focus on speaking every word forward, pushing the sound to your teeth and out into the world!
This is different than “rising inflection,” the Valley Girl syndrome. It’s not about bringing your intonation up at the end of sentences (which makes everything sound like a question?), but maintaining the strength that your voice had at the beginning of your thought.
6. Give room for clarification
Pause between thoughts to create auditory “white space”—don’t rely on people to interrupt you. We’re all fatigued from asking our counterparts to repeat themselves, and we don’t want to be bothersome. By leaving a little space, you give your listeners time to absorb your information and permission to ask for clarification.
It can also help to ask your listeners directly. Here are a few phrases that can help open the door for clarifying questions:
- “What questions do you have about that?”
- “How does that plan sound?”
- “Is there any of that that doesn’t make sense right now?”
- “Is there anything I’m missing?”
Taking a pause between thoughts also gives you a chance to breathe and recover before your next idea—it takes more energy to speak clearly through a mask! Giving yourself that chance to restore your energy and breath before you move on will allow your next sentence to be as clear as the last one.
7. Warm up your voice before class
You might not be super stoked about singing scales in the bathroom before you walk into your lecture hall—and that’s (1) totally reasonable and (2) totally okay. You don’t have to do that.
But because right now we’re all expected to project our voices past the fabric that’s covering our mouths (and noses!), it’s a good idea to give your vocal cords and your breathing apparatuses a quick warm-up before a class or meeting.
Like everything else about our “new normal,” it’s going to take some getting used to. But by focusing on these seven practices, we can increase clarity and decrease frustration with our communication in the classroom and everywhere else, too.
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