Oct 9, 2020

Speech Lessons Can Help During a Pandemic

Don’t neglect elocution when it’s needed more than ever

By Ed Goldman

Imagine yourself as an Old West Bank teller. Someone wearing a mask comes in, points a six-shooter at you and says, “Grimmy muffala nummy!” 

You can’t understand what the guy is saying but his gun implies he hasn’t stopped by for the free toaster your bank promises to new customers. You wisely begin to hand over sacks of money.

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What’s wrong with this picture?

(a) Toasters weren’t invented until 1893, by which time the Old West had pretty much become the Dead West. 

(b) In addition, toasters were invented in Scotland, not the Old West, possibly to apologize to the world for inventing golf 400 years before that.

(c) Quite obviously, the poor bank robber could only depend on weaponry to indicate what he wanted. And why was that? 

The mask, friends! The robber was actually saying, “Give me all of the money,” not “Grimmy muffala nummy!” But the mask effectively impaired his enunciation, which, for all we know might otherwise have been as clear and precise as Pat Sajak’s.

This scenario is now being reenacted daily (if less melodramatically) in countless stores, restaurants and yes, banks throughout our country. Why? Because it’s often hard to understand what someone wearing a mask is saying:

YOU: “I’ll have the Caesar salad with extra anchovies, and your marvelous gazpacho.”

YOUR MASKED WAITPERSON: “Grommit! Caesar’s Palace with extracted canopies, and our barbell bus grass nacho!” 

If this sort of thing happens to you frequently, you need to urge people you know in the service sector to enroll in my new online webinar, ”Masking for a Friend: Clear Diction and Lisp Mitigation.” 

You can tweet us at Corned-Beef Hash-Tag. You can Friend us at ShutYerFacebook. You may message us at MissingLinkedin. And if things don’t work out, feel free to sue us at The Law Offices of Knott Backaz Yett or our affiliate, Weir Knott Enright Nau.

Enunciate This!

Your “Masking for a Friend” facilitator looks a lot like the guy in this completely unretouched photo, who doesn’t look at all like me no matter how much you insist or even if you pull down his mask and you also recognize my voice. His voice. (Note to my I.T. consultant, Otto Correct: Please delete “my voice.” I would but I couldn’t find any surgical gloves and am currently wearing oven Romneys. Oven Mitts. Please fix that, too. And please also fix my neighbor’s pet, Dog Juan De Mark-o, while you’re at it. His late-night dates in the alley behind my house are keeping me awake.)

To get back: Enrollees will be taught how to improve their enunciation to the point that the next time they ask the boss for a raise, he or she won’t reply, “You already have one: Caucasian.” 

Similarly, you won’t be handed a bag filled with nothing you ordered at a fast-food drive-through because the employee, as masked as you are, didn’t understand what you were requesting—and when she repeated it, you couldn’t understand her, either. The fact that this was the case even before masks were required doesn’t pertain. In fact, let’s call it “the irrelevant in the room!” (Yes, we laugh a lot here at “Masking for a Friend.” I’ve been told that some of our students’ sides actually ache after one of our classes, though I attribute that mainly to the fast food they ate through their masks during the session.)

You may recognize one of our teaching techniques, which we freely adapted from “My Fair Lady.” If you recall the famous scene, Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) pops marbles into the mouth of Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn—until she has to sing, at which point her voice becomes Marnie Nixon’s. This same fate befalls Natalie Wood’s singing voice in “West Side Story.” Frankly, I’d have Ms. Nixon lip-synch my own voice but hers is that of a lyric soprano and mine is a baritone. In addition, she died four years ago and, as such, has yet to return my calls.)

Well, we don’t use marbles. We use marble-rye bread, fresh from the oven. We ask you to slather it with unsalted French butter, take a big bite and then, as you chew, try to recite Moses’s demand of the Pharaoh, Ramses II, “Let my people go,” without it coming out like “Meet my keyhole, Moe.”  

Here’s why this is an especially useful exercise:

  1. Moses is alleged to have had a stutter, which is why he sometimes asked his brother Aron—whom Moses called Aaron, so you can see the problem—to be his spokesman. 
  2. According to the library of medicine at the National Institutes of Health, Moses “probably had a speech defect. ‘I am not a man of words … for I am of slow speech, and of a slow tongue,’ Moses states, and later he pleads ‘… I am of uncircumcised lips, and how shall Pharaoh hearken unto me?’”  

I should note that while we deal with a lot of challenges here at “Masking for a Friend,” we steer clear of uncircumcised lips. However, we do offer free toasters.

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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).