At the start, I mentioned that your jaw and tongue are probably the biggest (but often unnoticed) culprits. But doing specific exercises for these muscles is usually boring or vague. Instead, I like to lump those under the banner of “better diction”.
To talk (or sing) more clearly, you need a stronger tongue and a more open mouth. As such, practicing your diction will automatically improve these aspects.
Better articulation is not just for people in the theatre, who want a full room to understand every word. It actually helps enormously with good technique, speaking or singing, whatever style or goal.
What is good articulation?
The short answer? Everything you say can be understood clearly.
But what does that mean?
- Don’t slur your words, blending them together.
- Don’t forget vowels or consonants entirely. (It’s surprising how often people just don’t say the full word.)
- Speak loudly and consistently.
- Use varying tone and intonation.
- Speak in an animated way: most of our understanding of spoken language actually comes from lip reading and studying somebody’s face. If you barely move your jaw or tongue, this becomes impossible to do.
What do we need for this?
- A strong tongue that moves in the right way.
- Strong lips / jaw muscles that move in the right way.
- More conscious effort to say (all) the right things
- A mental shift
Let’s start with the most surprising element on that list.
A mental shift
When I visited my first vocal coach, I thought I was doing great. After ten minutes, though, they said: “Tiamo, could you sing much louder?”
I went as loud as I could. Unbearably loud, to me. They looked at me funny and were like: “I don’t really hear a difference. Like, can you go really loud?”
Some measurements and experiments later, it turns out I spoke and sung at a very soft volume.
It’s not that I couldn’t do it. When pressed, I could open my mouth wide, articulate, and go loud. It’s just that I didn’t do it.
This was most likely an issue of confidence and upbringing. I come from a large family. I couldn’t so much as breathe without somebody close by being annoyed at that sound. At the same time, my health issues made me less and less confident in my physical abilities.
This subconsciously caused me to speak softly and with no effort to be clearly understood. It’s like I just didn’t “want” to speak, so nonchalant.
This mental blockade is usually the biggest one.
How do you get over that?
- Measure your volume, compare with other people’s volume. If you have evidence that you speak/sing very quietly, you know you can go much louder without issue.
- Look at yourself in the mirror. You’ll probably see just how little your mouth/face moves as you speak. Use it to train yourself to make much larger movements, ones that look … quite normal.
- Do these vocal exercises! And do them with weird sounds! It takes away some of the shame or self-awareness. After weeks of making weird sounds, being loud and confident with your voice suddenly seems like a piece of cake.
- Simply find a room, or some other way, that gives you permission to go as loud as you can. Really, the only way to step over a hurdle is just to face it, take a deep breath … and step over it.
This one is about becoming conscious of your habits. Many people have a few consonants they barely pronounce, or a vowel they say in some weird way (in certain circumstances).
In most cases, though, it’s about the sibilant sounds (“s”, “t”, “z”, …).
How do you practice this? Search a list of sentences for improving diction. They will contain many of these “troublesome” sounds. Print it, put it in front of you.
Now try to pronounce the sentences. Go slow. Make sure you really say what is there, instead of what you think is there.
Don’t be afraid to sound stupid. To you, yes, it sounds exaggerated and weird. Because it is new for you. To others? They can finally hear you more clearly :)
When in doubt, go for exaggerated diction. Yes, you run the risk of tension. But if you don’t articulate enough, there is tension the other way: tension keeping your mouth shut, your jaw tense, your tongue in the wrong position. In my experience, most people don’t articulate enough and can safely turn it up a few notches.
Here in the Netherlands, there’s this constant debate about how to pronounce “zeven”, the Dutch word for the number 7. Some people say it more like “zeufun”, while others say “sayfan”. This shows just how many different ways there are to say the same word—and most people don’t even know which one they use, until they suddenly find themselves in this debate.
Exercises for the tongue
Your tongue should rest on your upper teeth. When not speaking, when not using your tongue, its tip should rest against the upper row of teeth.
Why? Because you’re supposed to breath through the nose. Holding your tongue like this helps, because it blocks breathing through your mouth.
This is a relatively active position. Many people who slur their words have a “lazy tongue”: it just falls flat in their mouth.
So the first step is, again, about awareness: once in a while, when at rest, check if your tongue is up there.
When using your tongue, it obviously has to move. When holding a note (when singing), it should rest against your lower teeth—so it does not block the air.
But we don’t like memorizing stuff. We like exercises that train habits so we can forget all that!
This one is simple. Stick your tongue against the roof of your mouth, as well as you can. Keep it there for a bit.
Once you can stick the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth, try to go further. (That is one weird sentence.) Also lift parts that are further back.
When I first visited a vocal coach, I could barely do this. With great effort, only the tip of my tongue could reach the roof. She showed me that, even then, I did not move the rest of the tongue with it.
When I tried glueing a large chunk of my tongue up there, it was the hardest thing I did in a long time :p My tongue just wouldn’t do it. The muscles weren’t there. The coordination wasn’t there.
It took me weeks of tough training before I could actually lift my tongue. It made a huge difference to my speaking and singing voice.
A vocal coach might test this like a doctor would. They ask you to open your mouth, then stick some wooden rod in your mouth to hold down your tongue, then ask you to push it up as hard as you can. Add a mirror to the situation, and you can see just how useless your tongue is.
As I said, mine just wouldn’t go up. She even thought that part of my tongue might be unnaturally short, or infected, or something like that. But that wasn’t the case. I could go up there, I just hadn’t in a long time.
Once you can move your tongue up and down—with some semblance of control—you can start clacking. Because it’s literally that movement. It’s like the sound of a clucking chicken.
- Push your tongue against your upper teeth, against the roof of your mouth. (One coach said to “suck the tongue against the roof”, but I was never sure what she meant with that precisely.)
- Then, as fast as you can, push it down.
- You should hear a “click” or “cluck” sound
In the ideal world, you should be able to do this with just your tongue. Without your jaw moving, without any other movement.
Again, I could not do this. I practiced for months while moving all sorts of things. This is fine, although you should slowly get more control and be able to clack without moving your jaw.
These sounds are quick to make. I simply did 50 of them a day, whenever I could do a few.
I must add, as always, that I am seriously chronically ill. So many of my issues are caused or worsened by physical problems out of my control. Still, this means I have more experience with overcoming any issue than most, so I want to keep mentioning these things.
I had trouble swallowing. Like, I would often choke on a glass of water, or I just could not swallow a piece of food. But after doing this exercise? The ten minutes after that, swallowing was a breeze.
This is another reminder: do these exercises to train habits, but forget about them when actually performing. When singing, don’t think “oh my tongue needs to be this way” or “oh my jaw needs to relax”. You do the exercise, and this will cause relaxation for the next 30-60 minutes.
Alright! We have tongue control! This should magically allow you to do … drumroll … tongue rolls!
Pronounce the letter “-r”. But make it a rolling “-r”. Like the pirate “Arrrrr”, but much worse and more aggressive.
Maybe listen to some audio clips of a rolling “-r”, I can’t explain this with text.
This sound asks a lot from your tongue. It literally has to flop up and down, quickly but in control.
I couldn’t do this, my whole life, until I trained my tongue (with the exercises above).
Once I could do this, I started pronouncing the “-r” more and more this way. (It helps that I am Dutch, which is a language made from many “harsh” sounds.)
So that’s the exercise. When speaking or singing, roll your “-r”. This will force your tongue to stay engaged, making your diction more clear around that consonant.
Exercises for your jaw
This is why I wanted to do both jaw and tongue in the same chapter: many exercises do both. A tense tongue means a tense jaw, because it can’t fully open. A strong and relaxed tongue, means your jaw can do its work as well.
I mentioned this with the “tongue clacking” exercise. How, at first, you might only be able to do it while moving your jaw forcefully out of the way. But over time, you should be able to just clack your tongue, and keep your jaw loose.
These strengthen your facial muscles around your lips and jaw. These are often weak for people with bad diction.
Like me. I don’t remember the numbers exactly, but the first vocal coach that measured this was like: “well, should be almost 6 times stronger than this” Took me a few months to bridge that gap.
First, prepare a simple object from cheap material you probably have lying around.
- Grab a button and some tiny piece of string.
- Pull the string through the button and make a knot.
- Essentially, you’ve now created a button at which you can pull.
This is the exercise:
- Place the button behind your lips, but in front of your teeth.
- Close your mouth. Press your lips together as tight as you can.
- Now try to pull the button out of your mouth!
Ideally, you should hold this for 5–10 seconds. The button might slip out a few times. You might need to test out how strongly you need to pull.
Over time, you can pull harder and hold longer. Yes, you can train your face to be stronger this way :p
This one is equally simple and uses material you probably have: a single cork.
Place it between your teeth. It’s best if as little as possible is inside your mouth. But if that means it falls out, don’t be afraid to tighten the cork more (between your teeth).
Now … speak or sing anything!
Keep the cork where it is. (Don’t use your hands.)
Ideally, the cork shouldn’t even move, and your tongue shouldn’t even touch it. For most people, though, this is the end goal and not something they can just do.
At first, you will sound drunk. That’s fine. Quite funny, actually. It often takes a minute or so before you’re “used” to the cork. After that, your jaw relaxes more, and you are able to articulate better.
Do this often, and you shall see improvement.
- You keep your jaw more open while speaking.
- Your tongue is more active, without flying all over the place
- You can articulate even with a cork in your mouth, which means you can surely do it without
That was another test somebody did with me. They placed dots of some traceable fluid on my tongue, then asked me to swallow. When I opened my mouth, they shone a light to see where the fluid went.
Guess what? It basically covered the entire inside of my mouth :p My tongue didn’t just move straight, it flailed and barely made a proper swallowing motion. Another thing severely worsened by my health issue, but trainable.
Want to support me?
Buy one of my projects. You get something nice, I get something nice.
Donate through a popular platform using the link below.
Simply giving feedback or spreading the word is also worth a lot.