Kamala Harris: how about we just let her talk

The morning after the Vice-Presidential debates, “I’m speaking” is trending and for obvious reasons. (Along with memes about the fly, but that’s not covered here.)

Women across twitter are celebrating Kamala Harris’ reaction to being interrupted. Because we have all been there. “This is unfortunately the reality for many professional women.”

Regardless of who won or lost that debate (except that obviously she won), I’m interested in how I felt when Kamala asserted her right to keep speaking. Sure, part of me celebrated it. I admired her gumption, but there was something else.

I hate to say it, because it makes me feel disappointed in myself, but I thought she was a bit…rude maybe? I know in my head that she was being assertive. Every woman knows this. And she was really calm. Like, she must have wanted to scream at him “Will you just shut up, man?” But she’s a woman of colour on the public stage and she knows she’ll be judged more harshly than most if she does that. So she holds it together like she’s probably had to do her whole life and calmly asks for her time back. It was a master class in restraint. Which is why I hated my gut’s reaction.

When she asked for her turn back or said, “Excuse me, I’m speaking”, deep down half of me cringed a little. I’m a peace-loving white girl with a very thin skin for confrontation, even when justified. At my own dinner table I’m uncomfortable when someone interrupts and my partner or kids point it out by saying “I was speaking.” That act in itself creates a meta-conversational moment that is jarring to me. It’s ultimately a reprimand and this thin-skinned confrontation avoider feels it. Overtly demanding my turn in a conversation is something I very rarely do for myself. Maybe I think it would be…rude. But isn’t it just being assertive? And isn’t that okay?

Now, I have many kick-ass friends who would absolutely demand not to be interrupted just as Kamala Harris did. But truth be told I’m as afraid of them as I am impressed by them. (You know who you are.) I also know that I carry unconscious biases and when I’m uncomfortable with my feelings, I have to scratch the surface to see what’s up.

Having spent most of my professional life analyzing speech, I wondered if Mike Pence’s interruptions and Kamala Harris’ assertions were violating any of Grice’s Maxims of conversational cooperation or at the very least the general understanding of rules on turn-taking in discourse. Long story short: yes, and probably.

You’re not a cooperative conversation partner if you continually interrupt, and you’re not a good turn-taker if you are going to overtly demand time to speak. But let’s be clear; one person started this and his name is Mike Pence.

Once interrupted, Kamala Harris has two choices. She can either be the demure, accommodating woman everyone is comfortable with: the one who smooths things over, doesn’t ruffle feathers, keeps it all positive and civil. She can let Pence take over the conversation and have his say, even though it’s her time. She can be that peace-loving, non-confrontational woman who is rewarded by society.

Or she can assert herself and gain the floor back.

Those are her only two choices. Because he interrupted her. A lot.

Well, Kamala Harris did not find herself in that chair last night by letting those around her take away her time. Would she prefer to simply be able to keep talking to make her point? Yes, of course. But Mike Pence took that option away from her at twice the rate it was done to him.

So she had to gain the floor back from him twice as often. She had to assert herself just to finish her point twice as often as he did. Having to ask for your turn doesn’t look good on anyone. Think about it. “It’s MY turn!” may be necessary to regain the floor but it is likely going to come across as slightly rude or slightly pathetic. We can use our slow brain to see that she is just being assertive, that Kamala Harris is doing what she has to do to make her point, but our fast brain might judge. Mine did. Even though I know better.

The Cost of Interruptions

Every conversation is going to have overlaps. Turn-taking is never perfect, and some of the best exchanges happen in those overlaps. But an imbalance in interruptions creates an impression, because interruptions have a cost. So as mentioned, one cost to being interrupted is that regaining your turn can make you look rude or pathetic—man or woman. You have to overtly request talking time, which explicitly points out that you have not been afforded respect. You have to tell your partner not to interrupt you, or assert “I’m speaking”. Even if our logical mind can appreciate that it was necessary, and even celebrate it, it’s not really a good look, no matter who you are. I once tried to instruct a group of women on how to graciously counter interruptions. It was a bit of a flop because it’s really an impossible task. “Let me finish”, “I’m speaking”, “It’s my turn,” are always going to leave a bit of a bad taste no matter how justified you are. It’s a reprimand and it highlights the fact that you weren’t respected. But if you’re continually interrupted, it has to be done. That’s the cost of regaining the floor and it’s worth it. Otherwise, you have no voice.

There are even more costs. Interruptions also take a speaker out of the game for a second. Whatever point you were in the middle of making, you have to momentarily abandon to deal with the meta-conversational task of gaining back the floor. On top of that you have to manage any emotion that might have surfaced after being interrupted, especially if you’re a woman of colour. In this debate, Kamala has to push that emotion down or risk looking—oh I don’t know—all that. Once regaining the floor, she then has to re-enter her initial thought that was interrupted. She has lost the flow, and the strength of her point will be greatly diminished, if she manages to find it again at all. And I think last night sometimes she didn’t. It was still a masterful performance, but imagine if she didn’t have to spend all those words defending her time.

The costs of interruptions are great. And Kamala Harris had to pay twice as much as Pence did.

If simply being the accomplished person that she is on the stage where she has earned a seat doesn’t afford her Mike Pence’s respect, then it’s either time to cut the other microphone when each speaker takes their turn, or for the moderator to step in and give Kamala Harris her time back, without her having to ask. We can argue about whether her demanding her turn is rude or assertive, but I say why does she have to demand it at all? Why should she be even be put in that position twice as often as her debating partner?

So if any part of your subconscious thought that Kamala sounded a little like an obnoxious bossy-pants—even if you know better—consider that she likely would have preferred not to have gone there. She didn’t want to have to defend her time. She had a lot of other stuff to say. But she had no choice.

Mike Pence did that.

It happens to women too often, and we need to stop letting that fly. If a woman is speaking at the table—or in a Zoom room—how about next time just button it for half a minute and let a girl finish?

And when you see someone who isn’t getting her turn, don’t just stand by and watch. Step in on her behalf.

“Excuse me, she’s speaking” never looked bad on anyone.

Lower the Bar

When I first heard the quote “Perfection is the enemy of good,” it was a revelation. In the spirit of lowering the bar, here is the first of a short series: Just Put Yourself Out There.

In the world of public speaking, the more you just put yourself out there, the easier it becomes.

I recently came across an old series of videos of myself. I’m telling bad jokes that I didn’t write. I probably thought they weren’t good enough to put out there. I was obviously right, but posting a video of myself has been a hill I have struggled to climb. For me, getting behind a microphone is no great feat anymore, because I’ve done it a lot. I have strategies that I teach, and I practice what I preach so I know they work. But posting a video on the interwebs has been a challenge. I keep letting things get in the way; I need a better microphone, better lighting, perfect script, makeup, hair…. The list goes on and on, and another day goes by and my videos don’t make it out there.

So here I am showing perfection the door, big time.

This took everything out of me to post. Please please laugh.

Even just a little.

These jokes are not perfect. Hell, they’re barely funny. But there will be more. In fact, there are 11 more.

I invite you to find out where the pursuit of perfection is holding you back. Maybe the world needs to hear your big ideas.

Or just your bad jokes.

Maybe Don’t Ask the Awkward Accent Question

 

My most memorable taxi ride was only 8 blocks long. Two couples, pouring rain and some high heels all combined to force the decision to call a cab and when it pulls up, the driver gets out to help us in the car. My husband, confused, says ”Oh I thought maybe you were gonna let me drive!”

The driver’s reply surprises the heck out of us. ”Sure, you can drive.”

My husband gets behind the wheel. The driver sits himself in the passenger seat and the rest of us climb in the back, astounded. As my husband puts it in gear and starts out, the driver casually turns sideways to face him. In accented but perfectly clear English he asks my fifth-generation, white, Canadian, unilingual, English-speaking husband,

‘So, where are you from? Your English is very good.”

We laugh. And laugh. And so does he. In retrospect though, I think he laughed a little less heartily.

”So, where are you from?” How tired he must be of that question.

Some of my Accent Clarity clients come to me hoping to lose their accent entirely, so they never have to hear that question again.

If that is their goal, I have to set them straight. It is nearly impossible to lose one’s accent entirely (especially if the second language is learned after or around puberty). And why would they want to lose such an integral representation of their rich life experience? Just because of a simple question? Well, because the question is a loaded one.

For many of my clients, the question ”Where are you from?” is annoying. For others though, it can be downright hurtful.

The person asking about an accent can have two intentions.

  1.  I can hear that your English sounds different than mine! I genuinely wonder where you are from. And I bet I can guess! (This is the annoying option. Maybe it was quaint the first thirty times, but no longer.)
  2.  I can hear that your English sounds different than mine. And I am not entirely sure you belong here. (This is the hurtful option. I am sure it is rare, but some people have been emboldened. Yes, even in Canada.)

It would be hard to know the difference between these two intentions, when they both arrive in the same form (”Where are you from?”) within the first thirty seconds of meeting someone. How is one to know if the asker is from Camp 1 or Camp 2? Regardless, after the 30th time it is used as a conversation starter, it is understandably not a fun question and will at the very least make the speaker feel like an outsider.

So if you are a receiver of this question, I humbly apologize. I have asked it in the past. I have learned. Since I do not live with this annoyance, I can offer no personal advice but perhaps for you to go inward to your happy place and forgive us our sins.

But for the askers, I do have some specific advice. The next time you hear an accent and feel compelled to ask ”Where are you from?”, challenge yourself to simply put off that urge. Button it. Think of something else to say. (You know, like those things that you say to people who don’t have accents.) In my experience, your conversation partner’s place of origin will come out soon enough if it is relevant to your conversation. And it often is. Because where we grew up really does define a lot about us. But not everything.

Instead, just listen to what they have to say. See what you can learn from this conversation partner who decided to pack it all in, move their entire life to another country and live in another language.

And may that conversation lead you to a story that has you both laughing—equally heartily this time.

In Defence of Speaking Moistly

By now you’ve heard Justin Trudeau’s verbal stumble. They’ve even autotuned a catchy music video to celebrate it.

“Speaking moistly……oh what a terrible image.”
I laugh every time. A legit, out-loud laugh. Every time.

But it’s a kind laugh.
It’s a laugh full of empathy and humanity and, in fact, respect.

This guy has been speaking live to a national audience every day for almost thirty days. I suppose it gets easier, but still it must be a bit terrifying.

He must on some level think,
What if I don’t know the answers to their questions?
What if my mind just goes blank?
What if I say something embarrassing? Like ‘speaking moistly’?

His instant recognition of the ridiculousness of it is a gem of pure honesty. It gives us a little insight into his character. All of his prepared words don’t do that. His prepared words are necessary and important and are easing the worries of this country. But this moment shows us a little about the guy behind the mask curtain.

Well, ladies and gentlemen. Here it is.
This is what it looks like when your biggest public speaking fears come true.
And look, he’s still alive, he’ll be back out there today and quite frankly he seems even more human than he did yesterday.

Sure we’re laughing at his expense, but the underlying respect is still there.
As I’ve said before, the payoff to speaking genuinely is well worth the cost.
Be prepared, but don’t be afraid to show people your character.

So what’s holding you back from getting your message out there?
Prepare. Then do it.
Be clear. Be yourself. Be heard.

Don’t let your fears keep you from sharing what you’ve got with this world. Someone out there needs it.

I mean, come on.
“Speaking moistly.”
Again, out loud. Every single time.

3 Steps to Hit-it-Out-of-the-Park Public Speaking

Two days before Christmas, I walked right into the middle of the arena.

Not a hockey arena, but Teddy Roosevelt’s arena, the one where he tells us to ignore the critics in the stands—to jump in, do it ourselves, and give it all we’ve got. Usually I’m the one coaching from the sidelines, and I know the view from there very well. I have helped countless people hit it out of the park when delivering messages in public, despite their anxieties and fears. This time it was my turn. 

That morning, while still in my PJs in front of the computer, an online CBC piece featuring my work with accents appeared. Then the reporter let me know that the documentary she had also prepared would be airing on CBC Radio One at 5pm. Then a terrifying email arrived in my inbox, a request to do a live interview in the afternoon with NEWSTALK1010.  

I wanted to say no to the live interview request. Live radio, super scary! What if I say the wrong thing? What if I can’t think of anything to say at all? But I did what I tell others to do, and said yes. According to my partner, I too hit it out of the park. (I’m ignoring his possible bias and running with that review.) If you want to have a listen, skip to the 21 minute mark.

In saying yes, I was reminded that the view from the middle of the arena is decidedly different than the one seen from the sidelines. It’s not always pretty, and in this case it badly needed dusting.

My view for the live radio interview and yes I now realize that this arena needs cleaning.

I did the interview from my car, which I don’t recommend, but I was parked outside my next client’s office at Shopify and, frankly, a girl’s gotta make a living.

I do recommend these three steps to help you the next time you find yourself invited into the middle of the arena:

1. Say Yes

I wanted to say no, a hard no, but I said yes. I said yes because Informed Opinions tells us that not enough women experts are being asked to share their knowledge in the media. I said yes because I want my accent clients to know they are not alone in their struggles, and that sometimes the problem isn’t actually theirs. And I said yes because I wanted to put my skills to the test, to once again confirm that what I tell my speech-coaching clients in similar situations actually works. Just say yes. Even though every fibre of your being is saying nopety nope nope nope.

2. Make a Simple Plan

Decide what one message you want to get across. Not five messages, one. Put that message in the middle of a page and draw a circle around it. If listeners only hear that one message, it’s a win. Auditory processing is hard. Keeping it simple is a gift to your audience. Draw three (ish) circles beside that message. There, put the points that support and add to your main message. Simple simple simple. Trust me.

I too went down the road of what ifs, and wanted to add detail after detail to make sure I had it all there—but none of that made it onto to that grease-stained paper. Keeping it simple helped keep me focused. Here’s what my plan looked like. It’s not pretty but it worked.

The interviewer started in a place that wasn’t my main point, but it was covered by the side circle, so it was easy to pivot to the main message. Simple and clear. I know it worked because at the end of the interview, the host closed with “I like the fact that she says it’s about being clearer, and not necessarily losing the accent.” That’s the message in my middle circle! Simple and clear hits a home run.

3. Breathe and believe.

I used to think this whole “belly breathing thing” was kinda flakey and no big deal, but now I’m a reformed and recovering chest breather. Whenever I can, I consciously breathe without much movement in my chest. Instead—and this was really helpful before the interview when the nerves started—I put my hand on my belly and make sure that it, and not my chest, is expanding on the inhale. Whenever that nervous feeling came, that’s what I did, over and over. This stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) instead of the sympathetic nervous system where chest breathers live (fight, flight, freeze). It’s not flakey, it’s science.

I’ve worked with enough high level professionals to know that even the best of them get the imposter syndrome monster rearing its ugly head at the worst possible moment. I was lucky enough to have a smart and supportive partner who gave me a pep talk to put that monster back in its place when I wanted to say no to that interview. And I replayed his words in my head as I was waiting for the call, doing my belly breathing.

You know more than you think. So put that monster back under the bed. If you can’t get it back in its place yourself, surround yourself with people who believe in you. Do whatever you need to do to ignore it. Breathing from the belly, not the chest, helps.

So the next time you’re invited to step up to the microphone and speak publicly, do it.

Say yes. Make a simple plan. Breathe and believe.

These three steps work. Be diligent, trust them, and you’ll trust yourself.

Now, off to your arenas everyone. Maybe take a second to dust if you have time.

The Truth about Accent Reduction

“Why do you want to work on your accent?”
This is the first thing I ask prospective clients. If your answer is ‘Because I want to sound like a native speaker’, then I may not take you on as a client.
And I realize that might seem like a bad business decision.
If you are willing to pay for my help, why not give you hope that you can lose your accent?
Well, because it’s not the honest truth. The honest truth is that you will not lose your accent entirely.
There, I said it.
And it’s what many in the world of “Accent Reduction” don’t want you to hear. Some advertise Start Speaking like an American Today! Lose Your Accent in 28 days!
In the 23 years that I have worked in this field, I can tell you the number of accented speakers who have left my practice sounding like a native English speaker: Zero. Nada. Hasn’t happened.

But do they come away with increased clarity? Absolutely.

Increased confidence that their message will be heard? Yes. 100%.

But that is not the same as sounding like a native English speaker.
I’m not saying that there aren’t people in the world who were born into another language, learn English later, and can pass as a native English speaker. But those people have likely been fully immersed in that 2nd language early in life (before puberty), or have some super special talent for imitating accents. If that’s you, yay you. You’ll likely soon be receiving an Academy Award and everyone will say “Her accent was perfect!”
If you’re not expecting a red carpet appearance any time soon, then it’s time to shift your perspective on your accent.

Since English has become the most common Lingua Franca (bridge language, trade language), we hear it spoken in many ways by people who learned it later in life. We hear these many accented speakers slap the rules and sound systems of their first language onto English like a hockey player competing in a figure skating competition. Sure, the basic moves are there, but it’s not exactly the same sport. You may have been the Wayne Gretzky of your first language, but even Wayne Gretzky would probably drop Tessa Virtue on her……virtue (sorry Tessa).

So if your goal is to lose your accent entirely, I am here to tell you to change your goal. It is not only unattainable, it is unnecessary. 

Your accent should be an asset. If the person you are speaking to has a problem with it, the problem may just be theirs, not yours. There is accent bias out there, and some people simply won’t see you as a leader, no matter how clear you are. I believe we can change those people by giving them more experience in seeing accented speakers in positions of power. We are getting there. But change takes time.

Now, if clarity is an issue, then let’s talk.

There are differences between language patterns that impact intelligibility and those that simply sound different from a native speaker. This difference is represented by two approaches to accent work outlined by Munro and Derwing, 1995: comprehensibility and nativism. If the expectation is that you will be understood, but still have an accent, that’s comprehensibility. If the expectation is that you will sound like a native speaker, that’s nativism. And frankly it is an unrealistic goal. I work from the comprehensibility camp. I’m all about clarity.

If your listener is annoyed or distracted because you don’t sound like a native English speaker, that is not your problem. They are operating from a bias, conscious or unconscious, and there’s not much we can do about them. But if your listener genuinely doesn’t understand what you’re saying and asks you to repeat yourself often, that’s a problem with comprehensibility. If the difference between how you produce English and how a native speaker produces English results in this lack of clarity, then let’s work on that.

Sometimes a clarity problem comes from a difference in the sound systems of the two languages (consonants and vowels), but often the difference is in the prosody (stress, rhythm, and intonation). I often find that targeting English prosody can be the biggest game-changer for how understandable my clients are to their listeners. There is no one-size-fits-all to this work, but that doesn’t mean small groups can’t be effective. Sometimes it’s easier to hear your own differences from someone else than to hear it from your own mouth. But be warned that we might not work on perfecting that pesky “TH” sound—because when someone says “Sank you”, native English speakers may hear that it sounds different than when they say it, but they still know it’s “Thank you”. That’s the difference between sounding like a native speaker vs. being clear.

So let me be clear. My aim for you is clarity.  Not sounding like a native speaker.

And that’s the honest truth.

If you’re interested in clarity, let’s talk.

In and Out

A lesson in public speaking from the sports world.

Sports broadcasters are real pros. They are articulate and expressive; words come easily to them. They have a natural talent, and they have spent hours upon hours honing it.

Athletes also have loads of natural talent and thousands of hours of practice behind them. But not usually in talking. There are exceptions (John McEnroe for one), but athletes aren’t nearly as expressive or articulate as those trained to broadcast their games. So athletes are taught to speak in safe soundbites, which they often deliver with flat intonation. My husband, who has produced hockey shows for many years, maintains that this is helpful to the players. I see his point. Their real expertise, the product of their hours and hours of practice, is in playing the game, not talking about it. But still, it is so satisfying when a post-game interviewer gets some novel content delivered with real enthusiasm from an athlete. So refreshing.

It’s also refreshing when sports administrators deliver their speeches in a memorable way. Sports administrators? You know, those guys in suits that we don’t pay much attention to during the season but then are given the microphone at the awards ceremonies. Remember sitting through an International Olympic Committee President’s speech in the opening or closing ceremonies of the games, thinking Man this guy should stop talking really soon. Why does he think we care what he says? Bo-ring.

So I was pleasantly surprised when the Toronto Raptors won the championship game of the NBA finals. Not only that the Raptors won it all. (But wow. What a ride that was.) But pleasantly surprised for the awards ceremony afterwards. You see, when it was all over, I didn’t want to leave the tv. I kept watching and watching, eating up all the post-game interviews with the players, the presentation of the championship trophy and the Larry-O (great nickname Kawhi). In that awards presentation ceremony, one guy stood out. (No, not Kawhi. I think we can all agree that Kawhi Leonard’s strengths aren’t likely to be found in front of a microphone.) It was NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

He knows we’re not watching to hear him. So he keeps it short and sweet. One minute exactly. Thank. You. Adam. Silver.

It’s only a minute, but in that short time he does everything he needs to, and does it without rushing. In concise, clear sentences that are obviously prepared and practiced, he does all that’s required, and with class. He acknowledges the runners-up, the host city (for its final game as host), the entire country of Canada—even provides an emotional narrative by referencing basketball’s beginnings in Canada, describing it as coming full circle. Then, the presentation of the championship trophy.

Short and sweet. Clear as a bell. Memorized, but still delivered from the heart.

In and out.

Well done, Adam Silver. Usually in-and-out’s don’t count for points, but for this one you get the MVP of the awards ceremony.

(And a runner-up to Masai Ujiri for his boyish, contagious enthusiasm.)

So consider this performance the next time you are asked to say a few words, but you know you aren’t the main attraction (introducing a speaker, giving a wedding toast, acting as a panel mediator).

Prepare and practice. Keep it short and sweet. It doesn’t have to be long to be memorable. In and out for the win.

Mean what you say…

Disconnected.

For politicians, it’s a minefield out there, and speaking off the cuff is full of potential pitfalls. But playing it safe and reading exclusively from a script can be damaging too.

In this public statement, Trudeau did something he rarely does; he mentioned his late father. The pundits say it was a mistake. I say, “More of that, please.”

After politicians speak, journalists transcribe the words and decipher their meaning and dissect the legalities and the implications. But let’s be honest. The average Canadian pays much less attention to those details. From a content perspective they are mostly just hearing the messages that confirm what they already believe.

In my logical left brain, I agree that talking about his father seems like a bad idea politically. But personally and emotionally, that was the one part of his address that I actually felt –how to put it– I actually felt he was really SAYING something. With some frank honesty. It was the one part of his speech where he wasn’t being a teacher reading to us from the front of the class.

Connected.

It seems that he’s really talking to us, that he really means what he is saying. It’s not perfect. But I believe him. I’d love an EEG or functional MRI to confirm it, but I suspect that at the moment he begins this part of his speech, the right side of his brain starts lighting up like fireworks. The creative, emotional centres finally get in the game.

And when these parts of a speaker’s brain get in the game, so do those of their listeners. And that’s the magic of speaking off the cuff, from the heart.

From a speech science perspective, expressing novel content spontaneously has certain characteristics: increased pause lengths between thoughts, varied intonation patterns, varied speech rates, hesitations, revisions, increased use of fillers. So sure, you could fake it by reading the words and employing these features. Or you could skip all that and just mean what you say.

It’s a leap of faith to come off the page and speak from the heart. It’s scary and risky, but the payoff is big. It connects you to your listeners and convinces them in ways that encyclopedias full of hard facts cannot.

So even if what you are saying isn’t the best writing, the most adept messaging, the smartest political move–the connection that you make with your listeners may be worth more than that. Consider Mr. Trump to the south of us. When we see his words on paper, they are often ridiculous. Hell, sometimes they are not even words. But somehow, he’s convincing a lot of people that he’s an authentic guy. This is the somehow. Although we may completely disagree, we still think he means what he says. And strangely, that counts for a lot.

So the next time you’re giving a speech or a presentation, find a story you can tell, a personal anecdote that reflects your message. (Practice telling it. Record yourself and revise as needed.) Tell your story early on so that you can come off the page and connect to your audience. It will make all the difference. Get your right brain in the game.

It’s about trust, and if we trust that you mean what you say, you may just win us over.

Outside of that, you’re just a guy reading out words in front of the class.

Public Speaking Lessons from Steve Bannon of all people

Steve Bannon was more convincing during Saturday’s Munk Debates. (Be it resolved, the future of western politics is populist not liberal…)

Between Bannon and David Frum, in both form and content I give Bannon the better score, at least for their 8 minute opening arguments. And believe you me, I did not see that coming. But here’s why:

Form: How they look and sound

In his delivery, Bannon comes across as more relaxed than Frum. His voice is full, deep. He ends most of his statements low, and he uses a lot of pauses, especially after key phrases. He smiles a bit. He looks to me like a belly breather. This is a great asset in public speaking. Belly breathers are able to keep themselves out of the fight or flight response. They look calm and unruffled. They often take a full breath between thoughts, which gives the listener time to process their words. Bannon looks like he trusts himself. So strangely I trust him more. I don’t like it, but there it is.

In contrast, Frum does not look or sound relaxed. His voice sounds tight, he is stingy with his air. There is rarely a pause–he is always quick to get to the next point after he makes one. He looks like a chest breather. He is almost gasping for air at times. This is not a reassuring delivery that instils confidence. I find myself wanting to agree with his words, but the overall sense I get is that he is all in his head, and he’s just trying to convince me — that he doesn’t necessarily believe what he’s saying himself. He speaks quickly in a way that makes me feel a bit frantic. He is looking at his notes a lot, which tells me he doesn’t trust himself. All of this makes me trust him less. Less than Steve Bannon?! Sadly, yes.

Content: What they say

Most importantly, Bannon states his key argument 12 seconds in. Right off the top he gives us his thesis statement, his bottom line, saying,

It’s not a question of whether populism is on the rise or whether populism is going to be the political future. The only question before us is ‘Is it going to be populist nationalism or populist socialism?’

We get to attach everything else he says to this central argument. It focuses the listener. Then Bannon repeats this thesis statement at the end. As one should. We need to hear these things a few times. Auditory processing is hard. Repetition helps.

Conversely, Frum finally gets to his thesis statement after the SIX MINUTE mark. After an eternity of prelude (which includes Frum listing off Steve Bannon’s accomplishments), he finally states,

“Why will this populist movement lose and why will our Liberal institutions prevail? This new populism is a scam. It’s a lie. It’s a fake. It has nothing.” Ok great, but why didn’t you say that sooner?

Six minutes later, we finally get his central point. I think he even calls it the bottom line (although he says that so rushed that it’s unclear.) We shouldn’t have to wait so long for the thesis statement. We are left floundering, trying to process every little bit of his presentation and get to the crux of it ourselves. So those six minutes have been much harder and much less effective than they could have been. And our first impression has already been set and hardened.

When I work on a presentation or a speech with my clients, I start by asking them, “What’s the bottom line?” Then I have them put that at the top. And then repeat it a few times throughout. Auditory processing is hard. Repetition helps.

And just zip it and breathe once in a while. It helps convince us that you trust yourself, so then maybe we will too. Because these days, we need good people to be the ones we trust.

Slowing down — it’s a win-win.

A good speaker gives the audience time. Slowing down can make a speaker sound more confident, and help the listener understand the message. It’s a win-win.

That applies to everyone. And it can be especially true for speakers with an accent.

Accents are an asset. They give the audience a peek into the complexity of a person. They show a life experience beyond their current location, a dip into the depth of their character.

There are times, however, when an accent does hinder the clarity of a message. Sometimes specific speech sounds are missing, sometimes words aren’t highlighted in the way listeners expect, and the meaning of the message is lost. How can you tell the difference between the part of an accent that celebrates your life experience, and the part that leads to misunderstanding?

It’s the difference between nativeness and intelligibility.

Listen to a quick 30 seconds of this video to see a great example of a clear and accented speaker:

This delivery of this speech is solid. It’s clear and easily received. And accented.

This is Accent Clarity.

To see what Cynthia sounded like before our work together, listen here:

We had very specific speech goals to address. Speech rate is part of it, and it is the most obvious in this example. We changed that specifically through word stress by lengthening out the stressed syllables (e.g. deVELoper). And through pausing and intonation. We also targeted the ‘th’ sound, because Cynthia is a perfectionist. I get it. My French R is much better than it used to be. And as a result, we are both more confident in our second languages. Cynthia’s confidence in this performance is also enhanced by her breathing patterns. I start with a solid breathing foundation with most of my clients, and it often yields unexpected results.

Accent Clarity clients may work on English consonants, vowels, or (in my opinion the most important) English prosody (stress, rhythm, intonation.) Most work on a combination of all three. Regardless, the goal is never to rid the speaker of their accent entirely. Only to make their speech clear and confident.

Cynthia was a good speaker to begin with, but her latest speech shows impressive progress. Who knows where you’ll see her next.

Find out what parts of your speech might be limiting your message, and which simply highlight your life experience. What to change, and what to celebrate.

What can change? In 7 seconds.

What can we really change about how we communicate? And will it actually make a difference? It’s difficult to describe the impact on a message that altering your delivery can have.

Well, as the old saying goes, an mp3 is worth a thousand words.

Listen to these 7 seconds. It is a recording of one phrase, delivered before and after one dedicated client’s work with me.

It says so much about the importance of intonation and rate in delivering a message. Hard to explain, but easy to understand once you hear it. The second message is more expressive, clearer, and not as harsh as the first attempt.

This is the kind of work that I do. (To be clear, it takes more than 7 seconds to get here. But it’s worth it.)

There are many factors that can change how a message is received:

  • intonation
  • articulatory precision
  • use of pausing
  • pitch range
  • breath support
  • sentence stress and rhythm
  • linking
  • rate
  • voice resonance
  • volume

What would you change?