March 8, 2012
CRITERION #7: PRONUNCIATION
Mind your P’s and Q’s
Are you lazy? With your lips, that is. When you carry on a conversation with your spouse, your friends, your co-workers, do you sometimes mumble into your beard… or your beer? I do. (“What was that he said… was it beard, or beer?”) Well, as I suggested in the section on Patterns, what works for you in normal conversation may not work for you when you are on-stage. The rules are different.
Possibly you’ve the theatrical term - playing to the back of the room. Often, the play-acting that takes place on the stage is actually quite intimate. It might involve a guarded conversation between two actors… perhaps it’s confidential in tone. However, there are people in the back of the room who will miss what’s being said if the dialogue takes place in the measured tones of everyday conversation. The actor’s technique gives her the tools to handle the situation. She becomes particularly deliberate in her speech. She hammers hers consonants and spits out her expletives; she tries to make the flow of words crisp and clear. The ‘stage whisper’ is a particular skill. Experience has taught the actor that even though this sounds a little unnatural in her ear, it sounds just fine at the back of the room. This train of thought derives from the fact that playing scenes “larger than Life” is one of the core realities of the actor’s craft. Gestures become more pronounced. Pauses become more extreme. The volume knob on the voice-box is turned up a notch or two. And pronunciation is precise.
When you take to the stage, you’re an actor. Believe it. And start to practice the craft. Now, you might argue that the actor in a play usually doesn’t have a microphone, and you do. You’re right. But this is only relevant with respect to volume. You’re right that the sound technician can increase the volume to make you heard. But he can’t fix the way that the words come out of your mouth. In truth, having a microphone can be a bit of a cop-out, as you mumble away up there and the sound guy tears his hair out trying to make you audible. Don’t do it. Let’s be clear.
As a model for clarity - and the balance between volume and pronunciation that’s appropriate - I always tell people to imagine they are telling a story to a group of 8 year-olds. If you’ve ever told a bedtime story, you’ll know that you tend to be a little more precise with your pronunciation; and a little more pushy with points of dramatic emphasis. There’s that particular kind of very pronounced “kidSpeak” we all take on when we talk to kids. In truth, there’s a lot of value in it that can be taken on-stage with you.
Visualize a group of children seated around you in a story circle, and try it now. Notice what you do with your voice.
“Once upon a time, there was an elephant, named Shakespeare. He was the largest elephant in the entire neighbourhood… out there in the grassy, green veldt in deepest, darkest Africa where he and his family lived. His was a world where size mattered. He was the biggest thing around, so the other animals naturally turned to him. For protection. For leadership.
As their leader, Shakespeare was frequently called upon to speak at the annual Animal’s Council. But despite his prodigious and fearsome size (which worked exceedingly well for him out in the wild), when he had to get up in front of an audience, Shakespeare felt very small. And scared.”
Did you notice that your speaking became much more deliberate? Did you perhaps visualize the children looking up at you with wide eyes, and hanging on your every word… even if they didn’t actually understand some of them? That’s good. Think of your audience like that and you’ll deliver a great speech.
So, just because you’ve got a microphone, it doesn’t mean you can lay back on your delivery. Give ‘em a performance, Shakespeare!
However, while we’re on the subject of microphones, it’s worth mentioning a thing or two about correct microphone etiquette. I think you’ll agree that the single most annoying thing to your audience… and the most disconcerting thing to you… is the Popping P. It’s that nasty, explosive sound that assaults the senses when you lean in to the mike and get excited about “how proud you are to be presented with this perfectly superb prize, and how you’d like to praise Paul and Patricia for their professionalism in piloting it through the proper process…” Or words to that effect. Actually, who am I kidding with my little poppified confection? Charles Dickens said it best: “Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism are all very good words for the lips: especially prunes and prism.” (Little Dorrit)
Well, the first piece of advice is don’t lean in to the mike. The whole reason that you have a microphone is so that your voice will be amplified, and unless the sound technician is a complete dolt, it’s been set up so that you can speak normally and be heard. And in normal speech, we don’t lean in to a microphone. However, if you do happen to lean in, because you’re so excited and you need to grab something, know this. It is not essential to speak directly in to a microphone. Professional announcers will speak just slightly off-mike, positioning the path of their voice so that it passes by the microphone by just an inch or two… instead of being aimed directly at it. Obviously, it’s the explosion of air that comes with the letter P that hits the microphone and creates the “pop”. So, if you direct that air away from the microphone’s very sensitive surface, you won’t have the problem. Practice it; because practice makes perfect. And there are a hell of a lot of P’s in the English language. Just look back at the preceding paragraph. Please.
So that’s my diatribe on Pronunciation. Mind your P’s and Q’s.