I had lunch recently with an old friend, who happens to be approaching 90. We were discussing the changes in our lives, and she told me she has largely given up watching television. It's not because she isn’t interested, she said, but because she has a hearing condition (which unfortunately cannot be corrected with a hearing aid) that makes it difficult for her to understand the speech of anyone who appears on the screen. The one exception, she said, is CBS News anchor Scott Pelley.
“Scott Pelley has flawless diction,” she said. “The rest of them just sound like static.”
Later, I did a little searching on the web and in the U.S., about 37.5 million people over the age of 18 report some difficulty in hearing. That is about 15 percent of the adult population. But hearing problems increase with age, and among those who are 65 to 74, one quarter (25%) report, not just hearing loss, but disabling hearing loss. Among those 75 or older, the rate of disabling hearing loss is 50 percent — one in two.
When you consider how rapidly the population is aging (according to the Census Bureau, by 2029 more than 20 percent of the population will be over the age of 65), it is clear that in the foreseeable future, any random audience is likely to include from one person to a handful with serious hearing problems. This has implications for those of us who engage in public speaking.
My friend mentioned diction, and “diction” has two meanings in English. The first meaning refers to word choice and the second refers to elocution. I think my friend was emphasizing the second meaning. In the nineteenth century, elocution was a very popular part of education. Judging by the number of adults who now say nook-u-lar for “nuclear,” infa-structure for “infrastructure,” or lyberry for “library,” (not to mention hundreds of other mispronunciations) I suspect it’s not taught at all any more.
Traditionally, elocution comprises articulation, inflection, accent, voice, and gesture. In our program, we spend quite a bit of time helping students master voice and gesture. But I can see that in the future, we are going to need to get into articulation, inflection, and accent. Correcting these areas in the past has often come dangerously close to ethnic prejudice, so taking them on will require a great deal of care.
In the meantime, however, can see to the other definition of diction: word choice. In the modern era of texting smart phones and on-the-fly spelling correction, most of us are familiar with the ability of our technology to anticipate what we are trying to say. Human beings have a similar capability. People in the audience anticipate what you’re going to say from context and fill it in while they are listening to you. When you choose inappropriate words, it defeats the anticipation and interferes with an audience’s ability to draw meaning from what you are saying. To people with hearing loss, inappropriate word choice can be interpreted, in my friend’s characterization, as “static.”
As our audiences age, we are all going to need to exercise great care in pronouncing our words and in choosing the appropriate words to pronounce. In other words, we’re all going to have to be more like Scott Pelley.