How to Make a Great Speech About a Simple Subject

It’s hard to make a great speech about grain, but Pierre Thiam has managed to do so in this wonderful TED talk. He starts with a simple opener: “I was born and raised in Dakar, Senegal”. By signaling that this will be a “personal creation” story at the start, he has us hooked. Storytelling is the lifeblood of any good speech, and personal storytelling is king.  

As he reveals his story, he eloquently weaves in his argument for a solution to desertification in Africa. His speech overflows with rigorous research and startling stats about migration patterns, immigration, and food sustenance in Sub-Saharan Africa, but we never really lose the sense that this is a personal journey. It’s this combination of careful research, intellectual rigor and personal revelation that makes this simple topic dynamic.

I’d like to call attention to Mr. Thiam’s articulation. Clearly, English is not his native language, but he is able to get his points across (despite some mispronunciations) for a few simple reasons. First, he is taking a clear and deliberate pause at the end of each phrase. Second, he highlights one focus word per thought group with his intonation, and finally, he uses proper intonation on “road sign” words that signal a change in thought like “however”, “then again” and “although”. Mr. Thiam’s articulation is clear because he prioritizes proper rhythm, stress, and intonation.

Is it Possible to Speak too Slow while Presenting?

One of the biggest concerns of my executive presentation training clients in New York City is pacing.  “How fast should I speak” is a question I get a lot.  I tend to think you cannot speak too slow while presenting.  Adrenaline is a powerful substance, and it tends to take over a speech.  Without awareness, it’s all too easy to rush.  But there are those that think speaking too slow is a legitimate problem while presenting.  Let’s compare two TED talks, and analyze their rate of speech, starting with Laura Galante’s speech on Russian hacking:

I think Laura’s pacing is good.  She takes a clear pause at the end of each thought, and highlights important words with her intonation.  By taking her time, she makes complex material clear.

Now let’s check out Bendetta Berti’s TED talk from 2016:

Interesting comparison on a number of fronts.  I would say she is speaking much too fast, especially toward the middle of the speech.  Occasionally, she will take a break at the end of each thought group to allow her thoughts to land, but in general, she is rushing through ideas and concepts.  The problem is made worse by the fact that she is mispronouncing some important words, and dropping the “th” sound entirely.

I did my best to find an example of a TED-talker who was speaking too slowly.  I couldn’t find one.  So I stand by my original premise; you cannot speak too slow while presenting.  What do you think?  Comment below or tweet me your thoughts.

Should ESL Executives Focus on Mastering the Written Language or the Spoken Language?

There are two English languages; the spoken language and the written language.  Broken English happens when the speaker does not understand the difference between the two.  In many other languages, one symbol equals one sound, hence the spoken and written languages are one.  This is not the case with English.  There are 26 letters in the alphabet, but there are 44 sounds in well spoken English.  One letter in English can have many sounds, and one sound in English has no letter equivalent at all.

But because many foreigners assume that the written and spoken languages are essentially the same, that the English language is phonetic, they assume that if they master the written language, they will be mastering the spoken language as well.  Because English is not a phonetic language, it is essential that students understand that the spoken and written languages are largely distinct, and learn their separate rules and logic.  Over time, the vague connection between the two can be gleaned.

What happens to your English if you don’t understand that the “o” symbol can be pronounced many different ways? “Hot” sounds like “hope”.  “Pot” sounds like “Pope”.  And on and on.  Mispronunciation becomes common because the speaker is pronouncing the 26 letters of the alphabet, rather than the 44 sounds of English.  To avoid this, it’s important to be sure to learn the spoken language concurrently with the written language, and with the same vigor.

Understanding the difference between the spoken and written language is only half the battle.  If you want to speak English excellently, you must fight against a larger, more insidious force than this basic misconception.  Do you know what it is?  Your Iphone.  Unfortunately, we live in a society that prizes the written language to the detriment of the spoken language.  How many of your friends prize public speaking, and can’t stand dawdling on their Iphones? None? Yea me too.  Since Guttenberg’s time, we have canonized writing, and eschewed speaking.  To win the battle of better English, you have to resist the pull of the written word, on your computer screen, Iphone, tablet, TV, ect, and begin to open your ears to the sounds of English.

Three Big Mistakes ESL Executives Make with their Presentations

Three Big Mistakes ESL Executives Make with their Presentations Click To Tweet

I really identify with the struggle ESL executives face when putting together a speech.  It’s difficult to give a solid presentation without struggling with the language, let alone trying to manage phrasing and articulation while presenting.  That’s a lot to juggle.  During my years as a speech coach in New York City and New Jersey I’ve seen a lot of ESL executives give a lot of different types of speeches.  Here are three mistakes I see most often:

  1. Focusing too much on the articulation of individual sounds, and not enough on the musicality of the language – It’s important to circle trouble words within your speech outline, and work on their pronunciation, but it’s equally important to make sure you circle the focus words within a phrase, and lift your intonation on them.  The rhythm and intonation patterns of the language are more important to master than individual sounds.
  2. Going too fast! – If you are an ESL executive, here is the best piece of advice I can give you about presenting… YOU CANNOT SPEAK TOO SLOW!  I know, I know, you feel like you are boring the room.  But would you rather take the risk of being a little too boring, or not being understood?  Pausing is powerful.  Take your time. Focus on your articulation.
  3. Using complex words when simple ones will do – I recently had an executive who was giving a major speech at a conference and he was throwing out a number of four and five syllable words like “instrumentation”.  Naturally, he was stumbling quite a bit.  There’s no need to use complex words, in fact the worlds greatest speakers (including Winston Churchill) generally advocated using simple words while presenting.If you want to make improvement on your articulation, join me for an upcoming online accent reduction course.