The year has started off with a bang: an attempted coup in Washington DC, Donald Trump’s second impeachment, and we are barely past the inauguration of the United States’ new President Joe Biden.
As I listened to the announcement of Trump’s second impeachment on the radio recently I was struck, not just by the momentousness of the occasion, but also by the normalisation of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi speaking through a mask. There is a considerable difference to how a person’s voice sounds when they are wearing a mask or not. And even with a microphone the voice is muffled and in some sense diminished.
One of the challenges of the post-pandemic world of work, as we hesitantly begin to return to some sort of normality, is that in most cases we will be returning masked. And talking through a mask is far from easy. Words are muffled, indistinct and often indistinguishable. Some sounds and word endings are lost which can lead to confusion. Numbers, in particular, are hard to hear through a mask. I have had the experience of purchasing medicine at the chemist’s and arriving home to find that I had been given the wrong dose, as clearly the pharmacist could not hear me properly. I am sure many others have had similar experiences.
Until vaccines reach a much wider proportion of the world’s population, wearing masks, social distancing and sanitising our hands continues to be a must. So we must learn to adapt to speaking while wearing a mask. There is surprisingly little literature on the matter, although I believe it is an important one. This article, ‘Three Tricks to Communicate Effectively Even When You’re Wearing a Mask,’ published by Inc. Magazine, is one of the few useful ones I found on this topic.
As a trainer of public speaking in English, I have already had to coach several people, in particular my most hierarchical coachees who returned to the office in many cases before their employees, on how to deliver a talk while wearing a mask. It is not straightforward – you lose a lot of expressivity while wearing a mask.
Here are some suggestions to maximise performance while wearing a mask:
1. Audience: Your audience may be in-person, virtual, or both. You need to consider their needs wherever they are.
2. Smile: Even while wearing a mask, it still shows that we are smiling, from our eyes. Your voice does change and sound more confident when you smile, but obviously the positive impact of a smile is basically lost on your audience.
3. Eye contact: Making good eye contact is pretty much the only way we can express ourselves while wearing a mask. So make sure that you either look into the camera, at least for your key points, or look into your audience’s eyes, if you are delivering an in-person talk. Even actively looking around can increase audience engagement. See Nancy Pelosi in the full speech on Trump’s impeachment.
4. Speak clearly and slowly: Speaking clearly and slowly is always important in a presentation, but while wearing a mask it is fundamental for the audience to understand you. Hold onto the idea of “one breath, one thought,” which I learnt at RADA, and take time for your ideas to sink into your audience’s minds.
5. Hands: As I mainly train Latin Americans, they all ask me how much they should be using their hands when they speak. Most of them are convinced that they should not be using their hands at all. This is a popular myth. While I do not recommend excessive gesticulation, and you should never move your hands above your shoulders, a certain amount of hand movement reinforces meaning and will add emphasis to your words. As you speak be sure to use slow, defined hand movements to emphasise your point and add expression to your voice.
6. Voice: Take care of your voice. Talking through a mask requires a considerable amount of energy and while you may not actually be shouting, you are bound to be ‘throwing’ your voice in much the same way that a singer does. And if you are not trained in doing this, you will tire your vocal chords and even damage them long term. So don’t force your voice and try also to schedule rest periods for your voice if you know you have to speak with a mask on for any length of time.
7. Check-in: To avoid any misunderstanding, check in with your audience where possible and ask them questions.
8. Follow-up: Follow up your talk with written material, whether it is a summary, minutes or a PowerPoint presentation.
While covering your mouth with a mask is not ideal for optimal communication, it is my hope that by following these guidelines you will be able to communicate more effectively while wearing a mask. Until we can return to life without masks, learning these new techniques will improve your speaking skills with masks, and will also make you a more successful communicator when we are all finally unmasked.