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By Sam Chwat
Talking the Talk
What and how you speak often says volumes about who you are, as the "voice teacher to the stars" reveals in this essay.
Sam Chwat directs New York Speech Improvement Services, the nation's largest company of speech therapists specializing in accent elimination, Standard American English and professional speech and voice improvement for performers and public speakers. Over the past two decades, his clients have included Robert DeNiro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Julia Roberts, Andie MacDowell, Joey MacIntire, Jon Bon Jovi, Tony Danza, Olympia Dukakis, Paulina Porizkova, Isabella Rossellini, Linda Evangelista, Iman, Elle MacPherson, Naomi Campbell, Aaliyah, Shakira, as well as the title-holders Miss Universe, Miss World, Miss New York, Miss Sweden, Miss Pennsylvania and Miss California. His New York City office sees about 150 clients weekly for speech and voice improvement, and he is the author of The SpeakUp! Self-Study Audio Cassette series in Accent Elimination.
She was absolutely beautiful, breathtakingly stunning her hair shone, her skin glowed, her teeth were glistening white and she was perfect for the role. That is, until she opened her mouth. At that point, years of acting lessons, careful nutrition, and informed decisions were shot down by a single line, sentence, phrase or vowel. It was her speech that sank a thousand dreams.
Popular belief holds that your speech is a measure of your intelligence. How well you speak has always been an indication of your sophistication and education. Scientifically, of course, speech has little or no correlation to how smart you are. Although your education may inform your vocabulary and grammar, your speech the vowels and consonants comprising your spoken message -- is a social indicator of your background, home town, heritage, and whatever else can color a viewer's perception of you.
A lisp, a twang, halting speech, dropped word endings, a nasal voice, a flat monotone, rapid-fire rates that turn the simplest line into a tongue twister, might be normal and unremarkable in your home town. However, through a microphone broadcast across a large audience, or piped into televisions across the country, your speech may jar the viewer or distract from what you say. And once your listener focuses more on how you speak instead of on what you say or how you look, you've lost control of your image.
In listening to a celebrity clientele that is international and wide-ranging, I've heard it all. Julia Roberts and Andie MacDowell shed their Southern accents before their movie careers began. Kathleen Turner and the Broadway cast of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof learned their Southern accents from me. Robert DeNiro traded his New York accent for an Appalachian one in Cape Fear and for a Northwestern one in This Boy's Life. Willem Dafoe used my Transylvanian accent for his Oscar-nominated performance in Shadow of the Vampire. Marsha Gaye Harden added a Brooklyn accent for her Oscar-winning role in Pollack. The supermodels Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Vendela, Claudia Schiffer, Elle MacPherson, Tyson Beckford, and Markus Schenkenberg all have been through speech training to adjust vocal quality, correct accents, or learn different ways of speaking for commercials, feature films, and for career transitions.
Is your speech telling on you? I've always found that "deconstructing" or analyzing speech and voice behaviors into patterns makes the behaviors manageable, modifiable, and controllable. Let's look at how you can discover your own speech behaviors and what you can do about them.
Voice can be analyzed according to Pitch, Quality, Fluency and Rhythm.
Pitch. Pitch should vary pleasantly from low to high and back again. Your pitch should not be so high as to shatter crystal or have dogs pawing at your door. It should not be so low as to suggest you are depressed or bored with your listener. And there should be variability in your pitch -- an interesting drift from low pitches to high pitches. If your vocal pitch is restricted to a narrow part of your range, you will sound flat and monotonous.
Vocal Quality. Is there a sandpaper raspiness to your voice that makes you sound ill? This raspy quality, called "vocal fry," actually distracts listeners from the content of your speech because it makes you sound ill or uninterested. Does your voice boom stridently? Are there many pitch breaks that might remind a casting director of a cowbell? Or is your voice so weakly supported that you are occasionally difficult to understand? Is your voice chronically hoarse? If it is, you might look at the affect smoking has had on your voice, or at least examine your need to shout through conversations in clubs, at bars, in large offices, and in other noisy locations. Work locations are well-known to have lasting effects on the health of the voice.
Fluency. The best speakers are those who use their voices in a connected, mellifluous flow, rather than in a repeated stop/start pattern through a sentence. Is your vocal flow melodic and unbroken, or is it marked by unexpected start/stop breaks and fragments, making you sound nervous, insecure, or impatient?
Rhythm. Are all of your sentences questions? Can you identify with this pattern: "So I called up Liz? And she said she wasn't busy? So we went to the mall? And I saw some shoes there I really wanted? And I bought them?"
"Upspeak," as this pattern is called, sounds childish at best, and at worst, makes you sound unsure of everything you say. Even the girls from Clueless went on to more mature, flatter, and secure-sounding intonations. Unless they are casting the life story of Alicia Silverstone, keep the upspeak down.
We have 44 speech sounds (symbolized by 26 letters in the alphabet) in Standard American English. In each region, some sounds are pronounced differently, creating unique accents for different locations. Make an audiotape of your voice, then replay it, looking for these common errors:
Watch your "s's." Is your "s" more like an "sh" than an "s"? Does it whistle shrilly? In the balance of the phrase, can your "s" be heard at all, or does it "thound" or "tound" more like a "th" or a "t"? Note also that thousands of words for example: is, was, has, always, goes, please, his, hers, because should be pronounced with the "z" sound. Pronouncing all your "z" words with an "s" sound will give you a hissing affect as in "iss," "wass," "hass," "alwayss," "goess," or "pleass."
Droppin' the "g" sound from your ings? This, in particular, will make you sound "country" or unsophisticated, according to popular social standards.
"That happy man's back with a sad ham sandwich." The vowel "a" symbolized in those words should be pronounced the same way each time. If your "a" vowel sounds nasal during those words, or if your vowel is more "ay-ih" than a single vowel sound, a visit to the accent coach may be in order.
Look at your "r's." Are they foRced, haRd, as they aRe in Texas, or do they disappeAH as they did in the film Gone With the Wind fo' ScAHlett?
Check your T's. At word endings, the "t" is frequently stopped (and not popped) as in these words: righT, noT, yeT, and buT. And in Standard American English, the "t" in the middle of a word -- think of these words: water, butter, bitter, batter, better is pronounced with a "d." Pronouncing these words and similar ones with a full "t" will sound as if you are pretending to be from England (where great attention is paid to "t").
WHAT TO DO
In a democracy, different behaviors are legally protected, to some degree. But it is an interesting fact that, while it is a crime to withhold employment because of your race, color, national origin, gender, age and religion, I can legally deny you a job based on your accent, which is not a protected behavior. And socially, we all make assumptions based on how a person speaks. In fact, how a person expresses herself can as easily prejudice her image and lower her standing in a competition as it can disqualify her from joining a soap opera family where none of the other actors has an accent.
Instructional books and tapes help, and such study aids are available through speech services offices or at large bookstores. The best-qualified instructors tend to be in large, urban settings and have these credentials: 1. They are state-licensed speech therapists and not between-job actors. 2. They speak in clear, Standard American English and can serve as good role models for their students. The instructor should not have a regional accent. 3. The instructor uses conversation-based instruction during the class and for homework, and does not rely on poetry or other solitary speech assignments.
If your ambitions in life extend beyond your hometown, sound to the world as the world expects you to sound. And in a world where verbal performance is equated with sophistication and intelligence, consider that changing what you sound like will make you more than just another pretty face.
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