How to Reduce Um’s and Ah’s While Presenting

Check out minutes 2:00-4:00 in the video above.  The interviewee, Jo Becker, has a lot of interesting things to say in regard to Obama’s foreign policy, but unfortunately her message gets lost in a haze of um’s, ah’s and sort of’s.

How do you fix this?  Get a rubber ball.  No joke.  Go through your presentation and squeeze the ball every time you say “um”, “ah”, “like”, “sort of”, or “kind of”.  Go easy to start, just notice how often it occurs, then run through the presentation again, and really commit to a long moment of silence when you squeeze the ball, and resist the urge to fill the space with stammering.

We use these vocal fillers when we a) don’t have our thoughts organized or b) feel the need to qualify or weaken our stance on the topic we are speaking about.  We fix the vocal tic issue when we a) pause in silence and take time to clarify our thoughts during our presentation or b) stop qualifying our ideas so darn much! 😉

In any case, give me a buzz if you’d like to work on this issue.  I’m happy to help you get your presentation to the next level!


Political Correctness and Accent Reduction

A common refrain I hear among my accent reduction clients is “Wait, that’s how you pronounce that word!?  I’ve been mispronouncing it for twenty years, why didn’t my husband tell me!” Or “my wife”. Or “my friends”.  Or my “co-workers”.

There’s a simple reason.  As Americans, most of us are taught to respect the immigrant experience, but unfortunately this benevolent notion seems to have had unintended consequences.  We now live in a culture that is quick to upbraid those who are deemed culturally insensitive, even if their intentions are good, and their offenses slight.   Newt Gingrich, Robert DeNiro, Bill Maher, and Juan Williams are just a few celebrities across the political spectrum that have gotten caught up in one controversy or another.  Bottom line: It’s very, very easy to be misunderstood and judged these days.

This plays out in the world of linguistics.  Fluent speakers of English are reluctant to correct mispronunciations on the part of the ESL speaker due to a fear of being labeled insensitive.  I have never met an ESL client who said to me “Americans are just so rude, they are constantly correcting my speech.”  It’s always the opposite; “Why is nobody helping me with my language skills or offering constructive feedback?”

As a practical matter, most of us want to feel assimilated, feel a part of the culture that we live in.  As it stands in 2012, part and parcel of feeling assimilated in America is being able to speak English fluently.  This does not invalidate the many amazing accents and dialects that exist in American culture.  This does not necessitate the relinquishing of one’s ability to speak other languages well, nor does it necessitate that one abandon one’s use of their accent-of-origin.  It simply means that it is painful to be misunderstood on a daily basis, and that taking steps to avoid this suffering (and yes it is suffering) is to be commended.

So let’s honor the commitment of those who try to improve their fluency by being a little less sensitive around the issue.  For those who speak English well, native- born or not, you can make a difference in the lives of those around you.  If a friend of yours is constantly mispronouncing an important word, consider helping them out.  A simple, polite question to start might be, “Can I give you a little tip with that word?”  You may be surprised how well people respond.

Click here to learn more about our accent reduction and presentation coaching services, and here for our corporate seminar page!

Listening Comprehension and Accent Reduction

New York City is a results driven city.  “Return on Investment” is a business hallmark, and, it often seems that “getting a return” drives nearly every decision that is made here.  Of course getting a positive result is what we all want, but it’s important to be shrewd about how we get there.  When it comes to accent reduction, the result is in the process.

Many of my clients focus on their articulators in order to change a problem sound.  They contort their tongue, lips and lower jaw into different positions in order to create the correct neutral American sound, often to no avail.  The key to changing a particular sound is learning to hear the sound first and then using your articulators to change the sound.  This seems simple, but in practice it is quite hard.  It requires slowing down the speaking process, and paying very close attention to each sound.

Take some time during your day to really listen to the individual sounds of fluent English speakers.  Can you hear the difference between the words “war” and “worm”?  Do you notice the difference between “debt” and “debit”?  Listen carefully for pitch, volume, and emphasis when picking out vowel and consonant sounds.  Take a moment to notice the overall musicality of a sentence.  How does the pitch rise and fall?  What words are emphasized within a sentence?

It takes work to stick to process, but the result will make it well worth the journey. 😉

Click here to watch a short video and to register for Speak Clear’s Small Group Accent Reduction Course!


Thought Groups and the ESL Executive

If English is your second language, you can use pitch and pausing to vastly increase your ability to be understood.  A thought group is defined by speech specialist Judy Gilbert as follows:

‘When we speak, we need to divide speech up into small ‘chunks’ to help the listener understand messages. These chunks or thought groups are groups of words which go together to express an idea or thought. In English, we use pauses & pitch to mark thought groups.’

You can dramatically improve your English by pausing at the end of a thought and beginning the new thought with a different pitch.  Take a look at these sentences and speak them out loud, taking a break at the end of the punctuation, and giving each new thought a change in pitch:

John said, “The boss is absent”.

“John,” said the boss “is absent”.

Lisa said, “My dog is intelligent.”

“Lisa”, said my dog “is intelligent”. 😉

Notice something?  These sentence pairs are identical; it is merely the punctuation, pausing, and intonation patterns that lend meaning.

If you would like to increase your ability to be understood in English, click here to book a free, in person consultation!  Skype coaching available as well.



Pausing and the ESL Executive

If you’ve coached with me, you know I’m a big believer in pausing.  Pausing allows the speaker to clarify their thoughts, allow residual anxiety to pass, and possibly avoid an epic Rick Perry-like gaff.  And, as the saying goes, “Silence has more eloquence than words”.

For the ESL executive speaker, pausing holds a secondary gain; it allows you to clarify your English.  If people have trouble understanding you, pausing at the end of each thought group can help your audience understand you better.

Practice saying these sentences, and pause after each thought group:

1) I’d like six oranges, and two wedges of cheese.

2) When you get there, call me, and I’ll come get you.

3)  “Let’s go for a walk,” I said.  But she replied, “I’m busy”.

Can you find the thought groups?  Are you able to pause after each one?

Practice pausing in your next presentation, and watch your speech come to life!

Check out my small group accent reduction class!