Fight the Urge to Ask

Where is your accent from?

Where are you from?

These are questions that can affect people in different ways. For some, it’s a welcome invitation to share information about their rich life experience. But for others—especially those who have been here for years—they are questions they’ve been asked so often that they instantly feel deflated. For yet others, it’s like a smack in the face, making them feel that they don’t belong in this country. I’ve heard from a lot of the latter. Sometimes it’s what brings them to me. They want to sound like they were born and raised in English Canada, just so they can stop getting these questions.

My job is to point out that they are not flawed. This country is.

Fight the urge to ask the question. You can’t know its impact. Where your conversation partner is from is something they may bring up if it’s relevant to the conversation and if they want to share it with you. Until then, think of other things to ask. You know, like those things you ask people who sound the same as you.

30 tries

I did this video about 30 times. Some versions were hilariously bad. If I gave you my first version, there would have been zero jokes. The humour makes it. I like jokes. I tell jokes. It took me 30 tries to find myself in this 45 second video. Practice really does help. You don’t need to be perfect, you just have to convey who you are. This is me.

I’d be happy to help you be you. Let me know if I can help.

The next Amanda Gorman?

Hey, if anyone out there has a sound or a word or a line or a poem or a speech that’s in you but giving you trouble and you think a speech pathologist can help, find one! I mean, it doesn’t have to be me. This woman, this Amanda Gorman, this spark of joy, this force, couldn’t say the “R” sound a couple of years ago. I’m so glad she figured that out, or she might have hesitated to say yes to the invitation to recite her incredible poem. Here’s an interview about it. Careful, you’re gonna fall in love with her.

Schwarzenegger brings his muscle to words

If you haven’t yet taken the seven minutes to watch Arnold Schwarzenegger’s speech addressing the attack on the U.S. Capitol, here’s your chance. It’s well written, well delivered, and a perfect example of someone with an accent—a very famous one—delivering a message with absolute clarity. His words are personal, powerful, and crystal clear.

Accent and clarity: not mutually exclusive!

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 demanded her right to keep speaking. Sure, part of me celebrated it. I admired her gumption, her assertiveness, but there was something else.

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 really look good on anyone. Think about it. “It’s MY turn!” may be necessary to regain the floor but it may come across negatively, even if our logical brain knows she’s doing what needs to be done. 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. One cost to being interrupted is that regaining your turn could make you look rude or weak—man or woman. If you have to overtly request talking time, it 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. (Update: that’s exactly what they did for the subsequent presidential debate.) 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?

Kamala Harris obviously has lots of practice being assertive, but I suspect she would have preferred not to have had to muster those skills during the debate. She didn’t want to have to defend her time. She had a lot of other stuff to say. Important things. 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.

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.

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…


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.


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.