I was enjoying a self-righteously healthy salad in a café in town the other day, minding my own business, craning to hear other people's conversation. Two young women with one guy were chatting:
"So, he's like, you know, 'No way!' So, I goes, 'Way!' And he's like, 'What?' So I goes, 'What what?' So he goes, 'What you on about?' So I'm like, 'What are you like!'"
The other girl and boy were nodding sagely to all this between distracted texting.
Before I start to sound like someone's aged grandparent wheeled out from Cobweb City to cast aspersions on the waywardness of 'young people', I'd like to make it clear (without recourse to mumbling and using words of more than one syl-la-ble) that, of course, language morphs over time. 'Goes' and 'like' replace 'said' (or 'thought/felt'), and the average person has probably never used more than three or four hundred words in the course of an average day's vocabulary anyway. But what we have here is a kind of linguistic globalization (got to love those syllables).
Speak clearly and don't be oppressed by 'Valley Speak'
Californian 'Valley Speak' has spread through the entire English-speaking world. Middle-aged Englishmen are speaking like Valley girls on prom night. Sentences that really shouldn't be questions are rattled out internationally as if they were questions? Whoops, sorry. Should that question mark have been there?
Okay, so far, so unfashionable. And when people speak in the ways illustrated above, you kind of know what they mean even if you suspect the subtleties of life might be hard pushed to be expressed in such a form. But then, oh my, the boy began to speak.
I say "speak" perhaps a tad generously. His lower jaw moved at the speed of a tortoise pumped to the shell with sedatives. Even the other two - versed as they were in monosyllabic pronouncements - had trouble deciphering his uttering.
Not mocking the afflicted
I'm sure I'm not mocking the afflicted here. I really don't think he was anything less than able-bodied and -minded because when asked "What?" by the storytelling girl, he repeated himself impatiently with clear pronunciation. But he chewed his words and didn't always remember to spit them out; mumbling, as he was, like a lazy panda overfed on bamboo shoots. "Job interviews must be Hell," I thought, "...for the interviewers."
We can all speak more clearly
It's possible to be clear, concise, entertaining, and audible whilst still resorting to 'Valley Speak' sometimes. People should be masters of the option. I reckon this chap could speak clearly if pushed, but the danger was that if he became too over-practiced at sounding less educated than I suspect he was, the wind might change and he'd be genuinely less able to articulate. This could hold him back in all kinds of areas in his life.
Being able to articulate clearly helps us structure our thoughts, lead others, construct stories (perhaps more artfully than the one illustrated by the girl in the café), and deal in subtle ideas. I think we can all learn to communicate better. Here are some ideas that should help everyone, like, speak more clearly?
1) Listen to those who do speak clearly
Years ago, I worked on a building site for a few months. The other labourers were great guys, but not as articulate as they could have been. Bit by bit, without noticing it myself, I began to communicate like them. One day someone said to me: "Mark, do you realize how much you are cursing in normal conversation?" It had crept up on me.
The point is that communication styles are infectious. Because every other word was a swear word (not just when you hammered your own finger, but in everyday parlance), I'd started peppering all my speech with expletives. Not great when, say, discussing the weather with the elderly Mrs Miggens from across the way.
Listen to super-articulate clear-speaking types and, you know what? You'll unconsciously pick up some of their eloquence. If I'm about to give a public speech or appear on radio (if that's not a contradiction), I'll listen to the smooth-talking, well-rounded presenters and guests on BBC Radio Four. After listening to those people for half an hour, you can't help but sound more verbally polished yourself.
2) Read more than social networking sites
We are what we read - to some extent. If your reading material just consists of daily doses of Facebook, Twitter, and all the others yet to be invented, then you are just exposing yourself to a very limited vocabulary. If I sound elitist here, I am being. All excellence is, by definition, above the norm and therefore 'elitist'. Read proper books and well-written articles. Read classics of literature. Learn to love your language and master it.
3) Start using alternative words
If your language is too simple, it can be much less clear as to what you actually mean. For example, if you always tend to use 'goes' or 'went' for 'said', then we won't be told how something was said. 'Goes' doesn't convey whether something was demanded, implored, insinuated, whispered, or shouted. Communication should paint pictures in the minds of the people listening to it.
Get into the habit of using alternative words sometimes and gradually start dropping them into your conversation so as to add more colour and context. It's not that next time you see your friends you need to sound like you've consumed a dictionary, but just get a little creative. The café girl's story to her friends might have sounded like this if she'd used more vocab:
"So next he shouted, 'No way!' So I whispered, because there were loads of people around, 'Way!' But he clearly didn't get it and just asked, 'What?' So I responded, 'What what?' But he stupidly asked me again, 'What you on about?' So I just, you know, contemptuously replied, 'What are you like!'"
Okay, it's still not Chekov. But the point is, we get more of an idea of what was actually happening when we learn that there was shouting, whispering, that he asked something "stupidly", that the girl replied "contemptuously". Clear communication is partly about supplying context and getting your listener to visualize what you're talking about. So start to widen your vocabulary.
4) Speak audibly but don't shout
It sounds obvious but people can enjoy listening to you when
They are not having to tip forward and direct their ear close to your mouth just to hear you.
They are not deafened by your booming voice.
Volume (lack of or too much) can distract from the essence of what you are actually trying to communicate. Don't talk to one person right next to you as if you were talking to a group of people spread out and don't talk to a group as if they were one person right next to you.
5) Avoid rail-roading your speech
Don't railroad your speech. Words were really designed to come out only one at a time. Rushing your words slows everything down in the long run as people need you to repeat.
Learning to speak more slowly will also lend your speaking real authority; you'll notice higher-status people tend not to rush but to deliver their words evenly. When words bump into each other, the result is mumbling. Practice stating each word crisply to make your clarity sharper and more comfortable to listen to.
6) Pitch it just right
If you're too high-pitched, you may be mistaken for a dog whistle by all the local mutts but be difficult to listen to for other humans. Actually, slowing down a bit when you speak will naturally lower the pitch of your voice. You can also lower your tone by speaking as you breathe out, not as you breathe in.
Of course we all have naturally different pitches to our voices, but if you suspect you get a little too squeaky for other people's comfort, make conscious efforts to deepen your tonality a little.
7) Clear thoughts lead to clear speech
Of course we all need to relax and be spontaneous, and sometimes it's great to just chat with friends and speak before we even really know exactly what it is we want to say. But when we want to be particularly clear - perhaps when we have something important to say or during a job interview or when presenting to a group - then it's always best to clarify your thoughts before committing them to speech. Sometimes when people talk, you get the feeling even they don't really know what they're really trying to say.
Wait until you know what you think about something, then speak. Of course, speaking can help clarify your thoughts, especially when you ask questions, but your questions should be crystal clear.
Engage brain before opening mouth, as they say.
Misunderstandings, arguments, and social upset can all be eased when more people speak more clearly. And there's room for improvement for all of us.