Suki Kim gives an inspired, unconventional TED talk here. Ms. Kim spent a few years teaching in North Korea and her stories from that time are heartbreaking and harrowing. They deserve to be heard, and thankfully, despite having some difficulty articulating certain words and phrases in English, each idea is clearly conveyed. Let’s take a look at a few things Ms. Kim does to ensure she is being understood.
1) She reads from a script – For many speeches, it’s best to read from a loose outline. But if your English is not perfect, it may be better to write the entire speech out. Make sure to look up the pronunciations for the words you have trouble with, and circle them in your speech so you know to slow down and take your time with the articulation when you pronounce them.
2) She speaks slowly – I repeat this quite a bit in this blog because it’s so important. You can fix 50% of your articulation problems simply by pausing at the end of each thought, and taking your time with the language.
3) She uses simple words- There is no need to use complicated language. Some of the best speeches in history used very simple language.
It should be noted that Ms. Kim’s use of live music while speaking is odd, and not to be reproduced. It is your ideas and your words that are most important when speaking. It’s best not to do anything that will pull attention from these important factors.
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.
Many new clients of mine confess to being confused about which direction they should head if they feel they are having trouble with a number of issues pertaining to their presentations. Articulation? English fluency? Basic presenting skills? Vocal training? Where to start?
Here are my thoughts:
1) If your English is rusty enough that you feel you are frequently misunderstood (say more than 20% of the time) then work first and foremost on reducing your accent. An accent reduction specialist can help you sharpen your speech, and put your best foot forward. You’re not going to be able to focus on presenting skills, or optimize your training, if you are struggling to be understood.
2) If your English is decent, consider taking a voice and speech class first and foremost. 80% of our impression of a speaker is non-verbal. Your audience will make a decision about you within the first 60 seconds of your presentation, and that decision will be based largely on the tone of your voice and the way you move.
3) Once you have mastered articulation and vocal projection, and you know how to convey confidence with your body language, start working on basic presenting skills. Learn how to develop your opener, discussion section, and closing section. Learn how to master powerpoint design. Lean how to use contrast, comparison, analogy and metaphor.
If you take a gradual approach to presentation training, you’re in a much better position to grow your craft.
As an accent reduction specialist in New York City and Central New Jersey, I see a fair amount of business people preparing themselves for interviews. For the ESL executive, this can be a daunting task. If you find yourself stumbling over your words in job interviews due to your lack of English fluency, try these few tips:
1) Don’t rush – it seems obvious, but most ESL executives speak too quickly. Take a breath at the end of each phrase, and really consider what you need to do with your articulators (tongue, lips, lower jaw, soft palate) to make each sound.
2) Study beforehand – pick up an accent reduction book, or begin to work with an accent reduction coach before your interview. Pick out five core problematic vowel sounds and five core consonant sounds. Listen to the sounds, then work carefully on your articulation. Pick out words you think you might say in the interview, and run them by your coach. Work them before the interview.
3) Role play – Write out the questions you might get asked, bullet point the answers, and then role play the interview with your husband, wife or coach. The more you prepare, the less likely you will get stuck trying to pronounce a word your don’t know!