Face Masks Make It Hard to Speak
by Laura Bresee
June 19, 2020

To anyone who played the French-inspired flower petal plucking game, “He/she/they love me, they love me not “(originally called Effeuiller la Marguerite), you may have seen a slight resemblance to Americans’ decisions “To wear a face mask, to not wear a face mask.”  With the recent surge of novel COVID-19 cases, however, the last petal “To wear a face mask” has been plucked for you, in Memphis at least.  Memphis City Council is clearly expressing their affection for the health of its citizens and the local economy by requiring you (and everyone else) to wear face masks in public as of June 16, 2020.

As we all mask up together, you may begin to notice the challenge of having a totally successful communication exchange.  The reasons for the difficulty in communicating are plenty.  To begin, American speakers aren’t formally trained to speak clearly and intelligibly.  Lack of elocution skills is further compounded by a trifecta of issues related to nonverbal, verbal, and self-disclosure issues. Fortunately, I have dialed in on the issues so you, too, can speak with power from behind the mask.

Eye contact and body language when wearing a mask

In the face mask-wearing era, eye contact is crucial to know how and when to make adjustments to ensure the conversational exchange is clearly understandable.  When the speaker and listener fail to lock eyes, both miss out on important visual and physical cues that convey some factor within the communication exchange that needs attention. 

Moral of the story:  Eyes being the window to the soul is temporarily closed. These are days when strangers need to make powerful eye contact as often as possible to successfully fulfill the intention and necessity of communicating in the first place.

Raise your volume to be understood when wearing a mask

In the recent past, distractions were rated as a major culprit of our lack of listening issues. Currently, realistic barriers including face coverings, speaking at 6” distance from your listeners, and talking through plexiglass pose real threats to being heard and understood.  Simply put, these barriers greatly reduce sound waves and vibrations that enable the human brain to perceive speech sounds and interpret language.  Journey of Sound to the Brain is a great video to educate you on how the brain receives and interprets meaning.   

To overcome the impedance mismatch, it is crucial to increase your vocal volume!  Know Your Vocal Volume shares the importance of gaining the skill of intuitively adjusting the vocal volume for the situation. 

The tangible skill of adjusting your volume involves the necessity of speaking at a minimum of 70-75dB when talking from behind the mask.  Not sure what 70dB feels and sounds like? Use a sound level meter app to practice adjusting your voice volume so that your voice sounds natural. 

Moral of the story: Have you always wanted to learn the ways of adopting a booming voice?  Now is your time.  As my GenZ age boys would say, “Learn to speak up and out, bro, so people can hear you.”  

Miscommunications occur when wearing a face mask   

If you are aware of a breakdown in the communication exchange, just come out with it already.  Creating a foundation for clarity in the communication exchange saves everyone time and additional frustration.    

Asking someone to repeat or being asked to clarify your message is uncomfortable.


Repair Tip 1: “I heard you speaking but I didn’t understand you.  Will you please repeat everything you said to be a little louder?” This indicates the speaker needs to repeat the entire utterance again.   

Repair Tip 2: “I heard you say, “(state what you heard)” but I missed the last part of your sentence.  Do you mind repeating?” This indicates the speaker only needs to repeat a portion of the utterance.

Personal self-disclosure about existing speech and hearing issues is embarrassing.


Repair Tip 3: I’m generally a soft-spoken person.  Please let me know at any time if I need to speak louder.”

Repair Tip 4: I’m hard of hearing.  These face masks make it really challenging for me because I cannot read your lips.  I’m going to turn my good ear toward you while you are speaking. Or, do you mind speaking louder so that I can hear you better?”


Mask wearing will help you become a more confident speaker

My hope is many people have learned to be patient, accepting, and understanding as the past few months have surely blown a gaping hole in the status quo.  Therefore, it’s time to drop the guessing games and tip-toeing around what it takes to be a successful communicator with so many obstacles between your mouth and the listeners’ ears.  

Moral of the story: Communicate with intention. See with your eyes. Project your voice. Be upfront about any misunderstandings.  Although being forced to change and grow your communication skills may be uncomfortable, the skills you develop from behind the mask, glass, and physical distance will certainly help you become an empowered speaker. These are skills you can then carry over to any speaking engagement anytime, anyplace. The more you fulfill your communication intentions when times are tough, the more confident you will be when the going is a bit easier!        

Memphis Speech Solutions

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Memphis, TN 38120

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