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.

Does Accent Reduction Improve Your Job Prospects?

Does accent reduction improve your job prospects?  A new study by the University of Chicago suggests it does.  According to the authors, speaking with a foreign accent makes the speaker seem less truthful.  The research shows that non-native speech is more complex for the listener’s brain to understand. This difficulty causes the listener to doubt the accuracy of what they’re hearing. For example, native speakers will hear a statement such as “Ants don’t sleep” as less true when spoken by someone with a foreign accent.  So while presenting, or interviewing, it’s important to speak with a neutral American accent:

“Such reduction of credibility may have an insidious impact on millions of people, who routinely communicate in a language which is not their native tongue.” – Shiri Lev-Ari, Boaz Keysar “Why don’t we believe non-native speakers? The influence of accent on credibility”  The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA

So how does accent reduction work?  The first step is an evaluation of the client’s problem stress and syllable sounds.  From there, the client is taught to readjust their articulators (lips, tongue, soft palette and lower jaw) to create neutral American speech.  Neutral American speech is achieved by changing individual problem sounds as well as the rhythm and flow of the language.  It is intonation (the musicality of speech) that has the most impact on the listener’s ear.

If you would like to adjust your accent, contact me directly to set up a free, 20 minute consultation!

Imperfect English? – 5 Ways to Improve Your Presentations

Presenting well is a challenge, and that challenge is doubled when English is your second language. Here are five ways you can improve your ability to present to executives despite imperfect English:

1) Write your speech out – This is the simplest way to improve your speeches. It’s generally best to speak from brief bullet points, but this is not an option if English is your second language. Put your thoughts down on paper.

2) Have your speech proofread – Go to Craigslist and hire a graduate student from Columbia or NYU and have them weed out awkward phrases. If it is a 30 minutes speech, this might only cost you $40 or so. It’s worth it. Make sure you ask why your phrases are off so you can improve them going forward.

3) Rehearse your speech with a coach – A speech coach with a specialty in accent reduction (like yours truly) can hear your problem sounds and rhythm patterns clearly, and teach you specific techniques to fix them. This will vastly increase your ability to be understood. A good coach can teach you effective speech structure as well so your speeches spark interest.

4) Go slow and pause at the end of phrases – This is the simplest way to improve your presentations. Simply take a pause at the end of a thought or phrase, take a breath, and allow for some space and time in between thoughts. This gives the audience time to absorb what you are saying. Read this post to practice pausing between thoughts.

5) Try again if you stumble on a word or phrase – It’s ok if you cannot pronounce every word in your presentation perfectly. There are plenty of successful New York City executives who give presentations with speech mistakes in them. But it’s not a good idea to just skip over mistaken words or phrases while presenting if it will confuse the audience. If you mispronounce a word, take a breath and try the phrase again, going slowly and really focusing on your articulators (lips, tongue, lower jaw).

If you would like some help with your presentations, contact me directly for a free, in-person, twenty minute consultation. I can put a coaching plan together for you that will vastly improve your articulation, and your persuasiveness.