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How Not to Stumble from Mumbles

I once knew a man who had such a serious problem with mumbling that everyone called him ‘Mumbles.’ He spoke in his own private language, sounding as if his mouth was filled with a mixture of peanut butter, guacamole, and oatmeal. Sometimes you could understand the beginning of his sentence, but by the time he got to the end it was mystery meat.

Mumbles was a talented carpenter who helped us with the renovation on our house. But because we couldn’t understand much of what he said, we had to use our Architect as an interpreter. How the architect understood Mumbles…I’ll never know. To me, his sentences were impossible to decipher.

Unfortunately, mumbling is a common problem. I have known and worked with people from many industries who have mumbled: accountants, engineers, CEOs, celebrity sports figures, and many more. So yes, even intelligent, powerful, and talented people can sometimes be incoherent. Mumbling is a universal problem that stretches across every strata of society. The good news is that it can be overcome.

Mumbling doesn’t have a single root, but it can be linked to a number of vocal behaviors that seem to collide in a perfect storm…often ending in incoherence. Mumbles seemed to have all the elements that led to incoherent speech: he spoke too fast, he neglected to articulate his “ing” endings, he enunciated poorly, he spoke in a very soft voice, and he used long rambling sentences, causing him to run out of breath.

I’ve learned that you can’t cure a mumbler with just one technique or skill. Like most skills of public speaking, the cure for mumbling is holistic. Because mumbling is connected to many other behaviors, if you identify the less obvious you can often find the techniques that will lead to coherent speaking.

Here are some cures to try:

  • Raise your voice—speak louder than you usually do.
  • Use strategic pauses—pause after every second or third word.
  • Give every word its value—say each word as if it were the most important word in your sentence.
  • Use inflection—emphasize key words with force and power.
  • Enunciate—exaggerate your diction and clearly overstate each syllable of every word.
  • Use short sentences—keep them between 8-13 words.


Once you’ve had a chance to practice these skills you should then evaluate your progress. If you know people who have heard you mumble, ask them to listen for changes and improvements. Leave yourself a voice mail message every day for a week and listen to your progress. Video yourself at the dinner table, in a conversation at work, or with a friend and listen for changes in your voice.

I can only imagine how much business Mumbles lost on a regular basis because prospects and clients couldn’t understand him. So while mumbling can be overcome, it takes some sleuthing to uncover the cause. But once you know what you’re dealing with, you’ll have a real chance to make changes and become a coherent, articulate, and polished speaker.

November 15th, 2010 | Permalink | Trackback | Bookmark and Share

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