Public speaking is a challenge for most people, even the most confident. If you ask most actors, they will tell you that they continue to get butterflies in their stomach before every performance, even after decades of performing. Not only are they faced with the pressure of speaking before a crowd, remembering all their lines, but also the complex task of the actual speaking process. This is not usually something we think about, but when someone is in a situation that adds emotional stress, even the function of speech can be challenged.
If you think about it, speech is a very complex process. There are numerous muscles involved between the oral system, the respiratory system and the vocal system. This is all controlled by the brain, which is also at the same time processing the information we want to say, how to say it, how it should be modified towards the audience we are speaking to, and monitoring the feedback we get from our listeners. If we narrow it down to just the coordination of the musculature of the articulators, it is nearly astounding.
The tongue is made up of a variety of muscle fibers that give it great flexibility and control. The tip of the tongue can seal off the oral cavity and build up pressure for sounds that are referred to as “plosives”, which require a buildup of air pressure in order to produce a sound such as “t”, or “d”. Not only is the tongue tip involved however, but so are the lateral surfaces as they close off areas. The cheek muscles add strength and change their shape to change the resonance in the oral cavity simultaneously. Not to mention that the nasal cavity must be closed and opened in rapid succession for sounds that are made with a nasal quality and those that are not. That is controlled by a small structure called the uvula that we almost never even are aware of. The lips also work rapid fire, changing the shape and flow of air, the friction for some sounds, and the oral seal for plosives such as “m”, “p”. All the sounds used in language are made by a precise and rapid changing of the oral structures, commonly referred to as articulators. Not only are the changes very minute to change from sound to sound, but the changes also occur at a very high rate of speed. If you concentrate on making the individual sounds in a word, slowly, you can then attend to all the little changes. Amazingly, when we are in a conversation, we never even think about all that must be put together to utter an entire sentence.
So, when we consider speech and complex communications, complete with all the thought processes that go on, it is amazing that we are able to clearly speak much less give profound speeches such as Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address.