In the last presentation skills workshops I gave, I had a few clients who were having trouble being understood. They had amazing content, and dynamic non-verbal communication, but not a word came across. Part of the problem was their accent, but more specifically, the bigger problem was their sentence stress and intonation.
Let’s take the word “syllable”. If you mispronounce this word and say “swablle”, you’ll likely still be understood. But if you say “syLAble”, and hit the wrong syllable, you will definitely not be understood.
Check out the video above. I think Mr. Scalabre has an excellent presentation here, but a very bumpy delivery. It’s possible to understand him, but it’s a strain to get his ideas. Why? Syllables. He’s hitting the wrong notes.
Don’t forget to circle the words that give you trouble when presenting. Look up their proper pronunciation, and work them. A lot. You’ll be glad you did.
There are 44 different sounds in American English. All are important, but some sounds are more important than others. Which sounds should you tackle first?
Vowel sounds play a very important part in language. We lengthen and intone vowel sounds when we emphasize certain words in a sentence. We also lengthen vowel sounds to indicate syllable stress. Vowel sounds play an important part in making words, and sentences, knowable.
Practice these sounds:
1.) The “Cat” Vowel Sound – This is a very common vowel sound. To make this sound, bring your lips into a smile. Keep the tongue flat. The sound is short.
2) The “Fun” Vowel Sound – This sound often gets mispronounced. Many executives, especially Russian speakers of English, make it more complicated than it is. This sound is made by keeping the jaw and tongue very relaxed. The sound is short. It sounds like a small grunt.
3) The “High” Vowel Sound – This sound is long and your lips, tongue and lower jaw move while you make it. To start, round your lips as if you are holding a small ball in your mouth. As you make the sound, move your lips into a slight smile, and arch the middle of the tongue high toward the hard palette. Count to two as you make the sound.
When I am coaching an ESL business executive in presentation training and accent reduction at one of my offices in New York City or New Jersey, I often ask them to look at these two words:
Pete and Pet
How many vowel letters are there? There is one letter, the letter “e” (repeated three times). How many vowel sounds are there? There are two. What does this say about the English language? Namely, that it’s not phonetic; one symbol can have many sounds. Yet most English or accent reduction students are still vainly trying to learn the language by looking at the words and then pronouncing them phonetically, according to how they think each letter sounds. But as we’ve seen, one symbol can have multiple sounds. What to do?
Listen. We live in a culture that prioritizes viewing (the internet, our phones, iPad’s, etc.) and the art of listening is getting lost. But we have to hear the specific sounds of American English before we can pronounce them. It’s important to recognize that there are 44 sounds in well spoken English (not 26). Familiarize yourself with these sounds, and listen for them in your friend’s speech. Hire a coach (like yours truly) to help you drill the sounds of American English and make them habitual. Weave these changes into your conversational speech and your presentations. By prioritizing listening, you can dramatically improve the way you speak.
Many people believe that accent reduction is for recent immigrants and ESL students. The truth is accent reduction is about building spoken English skills, and anybody can benefit from that, even native English speakers. It’s possible someone could be a native speaker of English, and still have a thick regional accent, or serious articulation issues.
But what about the case of Scott Walker? Mr. Walker is a presidential candidate who is a native speaker of English. He speaks with a thick Wisconsin accent and has reportedly been undergoing accent reduction lessons in order to neutralize his accent and make himself more marketable to a wider audience. Is accent reduction necessary for him?
I would argue no. Mr. Walker’s English is good, and despite his accent reduction lessons, he has not reduced his accent very much, as is evidence from the video above. I would suggest he embrace his accent and use it as way of discussing where he’s from, and what he’s about.
For me, accent reduction is about building English fluency, and avoiding miscommunication. It isn’t about changing who you are. It’s simply about being understood, and feeling a part of the cultural fabric.