Learn The Clear Path to Confident Public Speaking

Conversation between doctor and patient who are wearing masks

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Speak up when masked!

Many of us are still wearing masks — especially in high-stakes situations, such as doctor’s visits and bank transactions. Without a doubt, they can make conversations more difficult.

I recently accompanied a family member to a medical appointment and was struck by the dynamics of the conversations between the patient, the medical professionals, and the clerical staff, all of whom were wearing masks. Everyone was requesting clarification and speaking louder than normal. These actions were crucial to making sure the information got through.  

After that experience, I thought it was time to highlight how to maximize our Communication H.U.E.™ — our ability to be heard, be understood, and be engaging — even while masked.

Many of the tips I’ll discuss, such as speaking louder or leaning in closer to hear, carry over from our natural instincts or customary cultural practices.

A number of these practices have gone out the window of late, however. We touch and shake hands less frequently, we stand further apart than we used to, and we don’t give or get the same facial cues we once did.

In other words, we’ve been forced to pay attention to (and change) behaviors that were once natural.

How to be more clearly heard

First, we have to make sure our conversation partner can hear our voice.

Wearing a mask effectively doubles the distance between you and your listener. Speaking to someone 6 feet away while wearing a mask is comparable to speaking to that person at a distance of 12 feet with no mask.*

Naturally, it takes more effort to make your voice heard.

Pay attention to these actions next time you’re in a conversation where one or both people are masked.

  1. Face the listener and speak directly toward him or her.
  2. Reduce background noise when you can.
    In an open area, step to a quieter corner or turn away from the noise; in an office space, find a conference room or partially close the office door.
  3. Pay attention to the loudness of your voice throughout the conversation.
    Make a conscious effort to speak a little louder than normal.
  4. To project your voice and make it louder, try these additional tips:

→ Take a full abdominal breath before you speak to generate a strong flow of air. Inhale until you feel the air fill your abdomen. The strong flow of air moves your voice to another person’s ears.

→ Keep breathing as you speak. Sometimes we tense up as we speak, especially when we’re making extra effort to be heard. If you notice you’re holding your breath, relax yourself with several more deep abdominal breaths.

→ Move your voice from the area of your lips to your listener. Look at where you want your words to land, and picture the words traveling there. Just like the flow of air moves your voice to your listener’s ears, mindful attention to the destination of your voice allows you to generate the energy for it to travel there.

How to be better understood

Now that I’ve shared tips to help others hear you when you’re wearing a mask, I’ll move on to techniques to make sure others can understand your words despite your mask.

First, why is it harder to understand someone who’s masked, even if they’re speaking loud enough for you to hear them clearly?

It’s because many of our cues to decipher words come from seeing the speaker’s lips and mouth.

For example, we often differentiate the sounds p as in pair, o as in know, and s as in sun by unconsciously making note of the way the speaker’s mouth moves. (1)

We don’t get those visual cues when the person speaking is masked. As the speaker, we can help other people understand us by taking a few additional measures.

  1. Slow down your speaking.
    Make extra pauses.
  2. Speak in shorter sentences than you typically do.
  3. Speak the entirety of each word.
    Don’t drop the final syllable as you might in casual conversation.
  4. Focus on the syllable that’s stressed.
    In English pronunciation, many words change meaning when different syllables are stressed. Record is a great example; it can be a noun or a verb, depending on which syllable you stress. For example: “I listen to vinyl RE-cords” versus “Re-CORD yourself speaking to practice pronunciation.”

How to be extra engaging when masked

We’re to the final part of the Communication H.U.E.™ — being engaging.

Since hearing and understanding can be more difficult when one or both people are wearing a mask, we can also increase our engagement tactics to improve our listener’s understanding of us.

Basically, take your best non-verbal communication skills — smiling, eye contact, gestures, and vocal energy — and take your actions up a level.

  1. Smile more.
    Even though your smile can’t be seen through your mask, the listener will see the brightness in your eyes and the crinkles that form at their corners. They’ll also hear the smile in your voice.
  2. Hold eye contact a little more than you typically do to encourage more attention from the listener.
  3. Lean in slightly to show you’re interested in the conversation and the other person.
  4. Use more gestures.
    Perhaps mime your actions more than you normally do. (For example: As you say, “I’ll drive us there,” you make a small driving motion with your hands.)
  5. Monitor your tone of voice and generate enthusiasm to demonstrate your enjoyment in the conversation.

Bonus: How to better hear and understand someone who’s wearing a mask

There are times when someone wearing a mask — a doctor or nurse, a bank teller, a client — is sharing critical information with you.

Take these steps to make sure you catch what they’re saying.

  • Give complete attention to the person speaking.
    Look at the person. Put your phone down and don’t multi-task. (For example, don’t try to schedule a future appointment while they’re giving instructions.)
  • Turn your ear toward the speaker, especially when there’s distracting ambient noise.
  • Minimize your distance from the person (while respecting social distancing).
  • Repeat back what the person said.
  • Ask the person to write down the critical information for you.
  • Ask the person to turn toward you if they’re facing a computer screen with their back to you.

Thank you for reading this series on being heard, understood, and engaging while masked.

Contact us if you’d like personalized help for clear, professional communication.

(1) ASHAWire. For Speech Sounds, 6 Feet With a Mask Is Like 12 Feet Without. https://leader.pubs.asha.org/do/10.1044/leader.AEA.25112020.26/full/

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