Do you struggle with speaking clearly? Do your words come out wrong, jumbled, or do you feel like you can’t think of words when speaking?
If so, you aren’t alone. Many people struggle with mixing up words while speaking or having their words come out wrong, especially when they are under pressure or feel insecure or nervous.
This article will help you learn more about speech problems, including how to overcome speech anxiety, become a better speaker, and communicate more clearly and effectively.
Anxiety: a common cause of speech problems
Speech problems and social anxiety often go hand-in-hand.[1, 2] Being nervous and anxious in social situations can make it hard to communicate in a fluent and clear way. Unfortunately, this can create a vicious cycle, with each mistake making you more nervous and less fluent.
Here are some common speech problems related to anxiety:[3, 4, 5]
- Speaking too fast, rapid speech
- Speaking too slowly
- Using a monotone or flat tone
- Mumbling too much
- Speaking out of turn or going on tangents
- Too many pauses or using “umm” or “uh” a lot
- Not being expressive or using emphasis
- Having a shaky or quivering voice
- Mixing or jumbling up words
- Having your mind go blank in conversations
If you can speak fluidly and without hesitation in conversations with close friends and family but not at work, in groups, on dates, or with strangers, it is more likely that anxiety is the cause.
In these high-pressure interactions, many people experience increased anxiety, which can make it hard to think and speak clearly. According to research, 90% of people will experience social anxiety at some point in their lives, making this an incredibly common issue.
If you struggle with not being able to think or speak clearly, you can use these tips to overcome problems with speech flow, stammering, or stuttering. These strategies can help you reduce your anxiety and improve your speaking skills. With regular practice, it is often possible to become a better speaker and to communicate more fluently and clearly.
1. Relax and let go of tension
When people get nervous, they tense up. Their body, posture, and even their facial expressions become much more rigid and tense. By intentionally relaxing your muscles and finding a comfortable and relaxed posture, you can reduce your anxiety and feel more confident.
Use these skills to work on being less rigid and tense around others:[5, 7]
- Relax your face by yawning, unclenching and opening your jaw, winking your eyes, and even making silly faces. Similar to how stretching improves your strength and flexibility, these exercises can make it easier to be expressive.
- Breathing exercises can also help you relax and let go of tension. One easy technique is the 4-7-8 technique which involves breathing in for 4 seconds, holding for 7 seconds, and breathing out for 8 seconds.
- Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing up one group of muscles and holding it for a few seconds before exhaling and relaxing it. Start with the area of your body where you hold the most tension (i.e., your shoulders, neck, stomach, or chest) and practice clenching and holding this muscle for 5-10 seconds and then releasing it as you exhale.
2. Practice mindfulness
If you struggle with social anxiety, you might often find yourself overthinking every interaction. This heightens your anxiety and makes you more self-conscious, making it harder to communicate openly and freely. You can reverse this nervous habit by getting out of your own head and focusing on something in the present.
This practice is called mindfulness and involves switching your focus away from your thoughts and can be done in a number of ways. In studies, mindfulness exercises have been proven to reduce social anxiety and self-focused attention.
Try using mindfulness by:
- Using your 5 senses to focus on what you can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch
- Focus your full attention on another person and what they are saying
- Single-tasking by giving your full energy and attention to one task at a time
3. Imagine yourself speaking fluently
When you are nervous, you might have a tendency to worry about all of the ways you could embarrass yourself in a conversation. If you can learn to use your imagination in a more positive way, it’s possible to reduce feelings of anxiety. This makes it easier to communicate in a clear and effective way.
The more you imagine and visualize a positive conversation, the more confident you will feel approaching people, making small talk, and having interactions. Imagining overcoming a speech block can also help you feel more confident, even if you do end up stumbling. In studies, positive visualization techniques were proven to help people reduce their speech anxiety.
Use your imagination to visualize positive outcomes like:
- People giving you a standing ovation after a speech or presentation
- Someone smiling, nodding, and being very interested in what you have to say
- People telling you they enjoyed talking with you
- Making light of a word that comes out wrong or jumbled
4. Warm up to a conversation
Sometimes, the reason you might be stumbling over words or losing track of a conversation is because you are jumping in too quickly. When you dread talking, you might just want to ‘get it over with’, which can cause you to speak before you’ve really thought of what you want to say. When you are rushed and pressured, you might find that your words are more likely to come out wrong or jumbled.
It’s ok to take some time to warm up to a conversation before talking, especially if you are really nervous. Here are some ways to buy yourself time and ‘warm up’ slowly to a conversation:
- Greet people and ask them how they have been
- Ask questions that get other people talking about themselves
- Spend time listening to other people to get a sense of what they are interested in discussing before jumping into a conversation
- When joining a group conversation, take some time listening to understand what they are talking about
5. Practice reading out loud
Fluid speech is usually the result of a lot of practice. While talking to people and having more conversations gives you this practice, you can also practice on your own by reading aloud. If you are a parent, you could make a routine of reading stories to your child. Even if you are alone, you can practice reading out loud to get better at speaking.
Here are some tips on how to improve your speaking through practice:
- Practice using different paces to find a rate that feels comfortable/natural
- Practice pausing and changing your pitch to emphasize certain words
- Project your voice to be loud and clear
- Consider recording yourself to learn more about your speech style and patterns
6. Slow down, breathe, and find your natural voice
Many people begin talking faster and not taking breaths when they are nervous during a speech or even a normal conversation. By slowing down, taking pauses, and remembering to breathe, your words can flow more naturally, and your conversations will feel less forced.
Pausing and going slower also provides other benefits, including:
- Giving you more time to think
- Helping you be more intentional about what you say
- Giving others a chance to digest what you are saying
- Inviting people to respond and make the conversation less one-sided
When you are looking to improve your speaking skills, you want to work on finding and developing an effective speaking voice. An effective speaking voice is one that:
- Reflects your personality
- Is pleasant and warm
- Can capture people’s attention (even without yelling)
- Can reflect many shades of emotion and enthusiasm
- Is easy to hear and understand
7. Have more phone conversations
Phone conversations provide great practice for people who struggle with speech anxiety or even just for people who want to become better at talking to people. If you’re someone who has a hard time reading social cues, phone conversations can be less daunting than in-person conversations, allowing you to just focus on speaking and listening.
If you are in the habit of texting or emailing friends, family, or coworkers, try picking up the phone and calling them instead. Even if you are ordering a pizza, call the store instead of placing an order online. Each phone call allows you to gain valuable practice in having a variety of conversations and helps you get better at speaking in a clear and concise way.
8. Know your message
Knowing what you want to communicate is also the key to communicating in a fluent and clear way. For example, you might want to present an idea or share feedback during a meeting. When you can identify your message ahead of time, you can keep it clearly in your mind, or you could even write it down as a reminder. That way, you are much less likely to leave the meeting without having said what you intended to say.
Even casual conversations often have a message or point. For example, you might pay a friend a visit when they are going through a hard time with the intention of letting them know you are there for them, or you might want to call your grandma just to let her know you were thinking of her.
9. Experiment with emphasis when you speak
When you say a word, you can either keep your tone of voice flat or curve it. Whether your inflection goes up, down, or stays flat, it is important to convey the meaning of your words. Flat inflections are harder to understand (think of those computer voiceovers on Youtube videos). By changing the tone, volume, and inflection of your voice, you place emphasis on certain words, helping to convey your message.
Notice how the emphasis of different words in the following sentence changes the meaning:
- “I didn’t steal cookies from her” (Someone else stole them)
- “I didn’t steal cookies from her” (Absolutely, did not steal the cookies, period.)
- “I didn’t steal cookies from her” (I merely borrowed them…)
- “I didn’t steal cookies from her” (I might have stolen something else…)
- “I didn’t steal cookies from her” (I stole them for her!)
- “I didn’t steal cookies from her” (I stole them from someone else)
Placing emphasis on the right words is the key to communicating in a clear, effective, and accurate way. When you get this wrong, you are much more likely to be misunderstood by others.
10. Learn how to recover from mistakes
Even people who speak professionally sometimes make mistakes, get their words mixed up, or misspeak. If being perfect is your goal, you are bound to fall short and much more likely to spiral downward if you mix up, mispronounce, or jumble a word. Instead of letting these small mistakes throw you off, practice making smooth recoveries from them.
Here are some ways to recover when you misspeak:
- Use humor to lighten the mood by saying, “I can’t talk today!” or, “I just made up a new word!”. Humor makes mistakes feel like less of a big deal and helps you move on from them more easily.
- Backtrack if you feel like the conversation isn’t going in the direction you want. Try saying, “Let me try again,” “Let me restate that,” or, “Let’s rewind…” These verbal cues provide an easy way for you to backtrack or start over when you make a mistake.
- Pause, stop talking, and take a minute to collect your thoughts. If no one else is talking, you can even say, “Let me just think for a minute.” This keeps the silence from becoming tense or awkward while giving you some time to think.
If you often feel like you are stumbling or tripping over your words, it might be because you have social anxiety or speech anxiety. Both are very common issues and are more likely to show up in high-stakes conversations or when you feel nervous. Many people struggle with these issues, but there are many proven ways to overcome the problem.
While your first instinct may be to avoid conversations because of your anxiety and speech problems, avoidance tends to make both problems worse. By pushing yourself to practice speaking more (both on your own and with others), you will become less anxious, more confident, and better at speaking. With practice, you can strengthen your voice and become a better, clearer, and more fluent speaker.
Some speech problems are signs of an underlying speech disorder or even a serious health issue such as a stroke. Speak with a medical professional if you experience regular speech problems like stuttering, “losing words,” or slurred speech or if these speech problems come on suddenly.