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.

What Should Obama Be Speaking About and to Whom?

What Should Obama Be Speaking About and to Whom? Click To TweetBarack Obama will be giving a speech on healthcare to Wall Street investment banking firm Cantor Fitzgerald, and the internet is up in arms about it.  Apparently, he will be pocketing a hefty $400,000 speaker fee, which is the source of much of the internet’s consternation.  While this fee pales in comparison to the $153 million the Clintons made on speaking fees after Bill’s presidency, it does bring up some thorny ethical questions.  Not the least being, what should ex-president’s be speaking about, and to whom?

A comparison might be made to Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech delivered at Westminster College in Fulton Missouri in 1946, in the midst of the Cold War.  Churchill had recently lost a re-election bid for Prime Minister, and was on the speaker circuit, much as Obama is.  Churchill used the occasion to send out a warning regarding Stalin’s expansionistic tendencies in Europe, and to try to strengthen the bond between America and Britain.  Churchill spoke to students and addressed his comments to the American public.  His speech foreshadowed decades of American foreign policy.

Nowadays, world leaders view speaking opportunities as a means to fast cash, and forget the tremendous power they wield to forge policy, and change hearts and minds.  Would Churchill have spoken to titans of industry at a crucial moment in world history?  And are we not in a similar moment (rising healthcare costs, immigration reform, a resurgent and dangerous Russia, etc, etc)?

Obama has a right to make some money post-presidency, but the world will lack for his ideas when it desperately needs them if he chooses to address his comments in private.  At this defining moment of history, we need politicians to address the concerns of our time to future leaders, and to the American public, much the way Churchill did over seventy years ago.

The Power of a Single Sound

Let’s give Benedetta Berti her due.  Her TED talk is packed with fascinating information about the way that terrorist states operate, and how to effectively combat them.  I love her inventive Power Point slides, her creative use of statistics, and her rousing call to action.

But as is the case with many Ted-talkers, there is something to be desired in the way she is delivering her speech.  To begin with, she is speaking much too fast.  Keep in mind folks, the audience does not know nearly as much about your topic as you do.  It’s important to take your time, so your concepts can really land.  She also appears to be reading her speech, rather than coining her ideas in the moment.  Since she is so knowledgeable about her topic, it might have been a better idea to bullet point her speech, rather than write it all out, so she could keep things loose.

I’d like to call your attention to her articulation.  She is mispronouncing the “th” sound consistently throughout the speech, lending to some confusion.  Is that “den” or “then”?  “That” or “dat”?  This single mispronunciation is a major flaw in the speech.  Yes, native English speakers will probably be able to translate, and understand the mispronounced word, but what about non-native English speakers?  Will they be able to parse her speech, identify the mispronunciation, and figure out which word she is really getting at?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

If English is not your native language, and you have a speech coming up, run it by a friend, or a coach, or your spouse… anybody who has good speech.  This will allow you to identify where your articulation problem areas lie, and correct them before your big day.

Great Speech, Bad Body Language

Intellectuals like professors, students, scientists, etc, tend to give great speeches.  They have a firm grasp of their topic and they are used to thinking about an issue from a creative perspective.  This is certainly the case  with Mr. Flynn’s TED talk on society’s upward I.Q. progression, but there’s a key component missing.

What Mr. Flynn does extremely well is use metaphor and analogy to build his points during the discussion section of his speech.  A wide variety of strange and creative contexts become organizational tools for Mr. Flynn’s thesis; a sharpshooter hitting a target and a martian archaeologist sifting through human artifacts to name a few.

But what is missing from this speech is body awareness.  You can tell the good professor has spent a lot of time in his head!  His voice is booming, stentorian even, but he puts his hands in his pocket, shuffles about on stage without clear direction, avoids eye contact, and muddles his gestures.  Not so good.  It’s a statistic that has been trotted out quite a bit, but it bears repeating; 80% of our impression of a speaker is non-verbal.

The first step toward improving the way you present, is to be aware of what your body is doing while you present.  I don’t mean being self conscious.  I mean simply being aware.  Do I saw the air when I present?  Do I fold my arms across my chest?  What is my body saying about me?  When you fidget on stage, make a mental note, and write it down later.  Build awareness, first, and build power and nuance later.  One step at a time!