What is Intelligibility?

Birmingham Rep TheatreWhen an actor works in a large space, there are at least two major concerns: can we hear her, and can we understand her. Being audible is one thing. Being intelligible is quite another. Today actors are called upon to marry the believability required by our audiences, trained by their TVs and the film world to expect very high values of “truthiness”, with speech skills that are beyond the everyday in order to be understood. This balance of intelligibility and believability is one of the more demanding tasks undertaken by actors working in a range of environments, from the most intimate to the largest venues, and finding a way to embody and “envoice” this scale differentiates the truly skilled actor from the merely talented.

What do we mean by intelligibility?

What do we hear in the speech of actors that makes it possible for the audience member in the back of the theatre hear the expression of their thoughts and feelings through the words they speak? Again, intelligibility is a matter of balance, of appropriate choices to serve the demands of

  • the environment
  • the specifics of the task at hand
  • the style of the play and
  • the given circumstances of the character.

When asked to describe what that means, frequently my students immediately talk about diction, which is something that people may or may not be familiar with. Diction used to mean what you spoke, the words or phrases you used; then it came to mean how you spoke, the style or manner in which one spoke. Frequently we hear the phrase good diction used, which implies speech choices used to make yourself more intelligible, or fit in within a certain style of speech, often associated with an elite group or class. Occasionally people will use the term clarity, another vague term that implies that “clear speech” (more vagueness) is more intelligible.

When I talk about intelligibility, I talk about choices actors make that enable them to find the energy required for the sounds of their utterances reach their audience. Consonants in particular are of interest because they can enhance the audience’s ability to make out words from the flow of speech. Some consonants are harder to hear than others: [f v], in words like life or love, are well known as the least audible sounds in English, especially when they come at the ends of words, while [ʃ] (the “sh” sound) is the loudest, as its broad spectrum of white noise is easily heard over other sounds. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an actor in want of intelligibility must be desirous of greater energy of their plosive consonants, [ p t k ]. Spitting out your stop-plosives, especially at the ends of words, is a trick that almost every actor I’ve worked with before understands as a reasonably effective way of energizing their speech. However, we can’t just spit out every stop-plosive. We have to use some discretion. Final plosives that butt up against initial ones are usually not released unless we intend to emphasize the first word in the phrase. So the phrase I got to pick Ken generally gets pronounced with the first [k] sound unreleased. However, if we want to emphasize a more unusual phrase like I got to lick Ken, we might just want to separate those words ever so slightly and release the final [k] in lick. This causes a double k release — which can be very effective, if it’s played and valued. But to insist that every pair of twinned (aka geminate) consonants must be articulated just creates over-articulation, which goes beyond our need and actually decreases intelligibility.

Dials on a Mixing BoardThese examples serve to underline this idea:  effective speaking for challenging environments is the output of a sophisticated system with many layers that one must learn to adjust appropriately to achieve balance. To me, this feels like I have a huge audio mixing board in my mind and in my mouth, which I tweak constantly in order to find the right level for the situation at hand. Learning to identify all the dials on the board, and what they can do take a lot of playing with my speech, and I frequently find myself discovering another subtle adjustment that I can and need to adjust. In the coming weeks, I hope to outline a variety of strategies for experimenting with your speech in order to find that kind of balance and the sensitivity required to make adjustments on the fly.

Eric Armstrong is the voiceguy. Eric is a dialect, voice, speech and text coach based in Toronto, Canada, where he normally teaches full-time at York University’s Dept. of Theatre. Eric has been teaching voice for the actor full-time since 1994, and has taught in Canada and the US, at the University of Windsor, Brandeis University, Roosevelt University, Canada's National Voice Intensive and York University. He has worked for nationally and internationally recognized companies such as Crow’s Theatre, Volcano, SoulPepper, & Canadian Stage in Toronto, and The Court Theatre and Steppenwolf in Chicago. Eric holds a BFA from Concordia University (Montreal) in Theatre Performance, and an MFA from York University (Toronto) in Acting. His mentors were David Smukler (York, Canada’s National Voice Intensive) and Andrew Wade (Royal Shakespeare Company). He has also studied at the Drama Studio, London, and Il Stage Internazzionale di Commedia dell’Arte in Reggio Emilia, Italy. He’s a long time member of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association, where he has served on the board, as a conference planner, photo editor for the Voice and Speech Review, Founding Director of Technology and Internet Services, and has written numerous peer-reviewed articles, essays and reviews for the VASTA Newsletter, the VASTA Voice, and The Voice and Speech Review.

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3 comments on “What is Intelligibility?
  1. Pedro Alvarez says:

    How about ‘click’ like release for final stops as taught by some voice teachers? They say it helps the vocal technique.

  2. Erika Bailey says:

    I shared this with my MFA students and they found it very ‘clarifying’!

  3. Thanks Erika! Glad you passed it along. If they (or you) have any requests, I’d be happy to consider them!