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.

“Unaccented English.” Compliment or Insult?

Yesterday Canada’s Minister for Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, deleted a tweet that had him praising a young Syrian refugee for his unaccented English.  Kenney got into some hot water for the comment.  But did he deserve it?  Clearly Mr. Kenney thought it was a compliment to acknowledge that this boy had learned English so perfectly so quickly (within a year of arriving in Canada, as reported).  It is impressive!  Just as I’m impressed that my anglophone kids come out of French Immersion Kindergarten in their Quebec school with what sounds to me like perfect unaccented French.  I mean it’s amazing!  I had to work on improving my French accent for years and they get it in one year?  WOW!

Except, that’s simply how our brains work.  There is evidence of a critical period in language development when we are able to learn a new language more easily, and if that’s done before puberty (or thereabouts, research suggests), well then we have a fighting chance at speaking that language without an accent.  Learning a new language after that critical period?  Fat chance.  Now, it is possible to sound less accented, to speak more clearly, to learn ways to make you easier to understand if you learn a language later in life.  Just ask my clients. But it takes focused work (see Accent Reduction).  A goal of “unaccented” speech is too lofty for most adults.  So for us, it does seem truly admirable that someone could sound unaccented within a year of learning the language.  Except that’s what kids do.

So should we be offended by Jason Kenney’s tweet?

Well, I plan on asking my clients this question for the rest of this week.

I suspect their responses will vary.  Clients come to me from different places (literally and figuratively).  They are not a homogeneous collection of accented speakers.

So I’ll wait and hear what they have to say.  In their beautifully accented English.



Not one of my clients was offended.  At all.

Granted, they are not a good control group.  These clients have come to me to work on their speech, their accents.  They recognize that sometimes their message isn’t getting to their listeners very easily, and they are open to changing their delivery.  Still, not an ounce of offence taken by that tweet.  Just disappointment that they had already gone through puberty, so it’s not as easy for them.

Well, the same could be said for just about every aspect of life.  It all gets a lot harder after puberty, doesn’t it?

One thing to keep in mind with such comments, though, is the context and the source.  If someone with a bias or prejudice against immigrants makes such a statement, then we may well be offended by their praising someone’s unaccented English.  But Jason Kenney was the Minister of Multiculturalism.  So I’m sure he only meant it as a compliment.   That’s what my clients think, and here they are the experts.