Why Do People Doubt You When You Speak With An Accent?

In my coaching practice, I often hear that people feel they are being discriminated against due to the fact that they have an accent.  Accent discrimination is rampant and surprisingly legal.  The question is, why do people discriminate?

New research done at the University of Chicago suggests prejudice is only part of the problem.  Non-native accents make speech more difficult for native speakers to parse, and thereby reduces “cognitive fluency”, or the process by which the brain organizes stimuli.  This causes people to doubt the veracity of what is said.  From “The Scientific American”:

As a test case, researchers asked people to judge the truthfulness of trivia statements.  Statements were recited by either native or non-native English speakers. (Example: A giraffe can go without water longer than a camel can.) The non-native speakers had mild or heavy Asian, European, or Middle Eastern accents. The subjects were told that all the statements had been written by the researchers but, still, the subjects tended to doubt them more when recited with an accent.

This has broad implications.  It may be that accent discrimination isn’t really about prejudice as much as the brains inherent distaste for any information that is difficult to process.   This may be cold comfort for those who have difficulty being understood on a regular basis.  By encouraging both higher levels of spoken English fluency AND increasing awareness around the science of accent “discrimination”, we can increase effective communication across the globe.

8 Speaking Tips Gleaned from the Debates

Here are my eight speaking tips gleaned from the debates:

1) Always know your audience – Americans love a good fight, and as a general rule, it’s better to err on the side of being too aggressive during a presidential debate then not aggressive enough. Obama mastered this lesson quickly. Know your audience.

2) Understand the occasion – During the first debate Obama looked like he was ready to chat with members of a PTA meeting, not do battle with a formidable opponent. If you understand the occasion, you will prepare appropriately.

3) Rehearse – Mark Twain once said “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech”. The same applies to debates, and yes, to your business meetings. Think you might get asked a tough question in front of the boss next week? Start prepping answers now. Take out a pad, and make some notes.

4) Eye contact matters – … a lot. 80 percent of our impression of a speaker is non-verbal. Romney wiped the floor with the president at the first debate largely because he looked the president directly in the eye when he challenged him.

5) Voice matters – …a lot. Obama had a tendency to be high-pitched during the first debate, and it played into the next morning’s scathing reviews of his performance.

6) A story is worth a thousand statistics – Romney has an encyclopedic mind for statistics, and stats are an important element of speaking well, but they tend to be subjective. He was at his most effective when he spoke about his time as a missionary in France, or relating stories of the hard-pressed in the midst of our down economy.

7) Watch your tone – This one is tricky, but it’s important to be weary of coming across as too defensive. There were moments where I felt that both candidates were a hair to strident… especially Romney. If you hear yourself accusing either the audience or a colleague or participant, allow for some silence, and re-word your thoughts.

8) There’s always another speech – Everybody has an off-day. You can say what you want about our president, but he doesn’t give in easily. He bombed the first debate, and dusted himself off, and resolved himself to prepare better. You can do the same.

Do you want some help with your presentation style? Contact me for a free, twenty minute in-person consultation.

Well it Sounded Like a Great Speech…


Man this sounded like a great speech.  If only I could hear it!  In my humble opinion, this clip is a classic example of amazing material, terrible delivery.

Let’s start with the material… great stuff.  Philip Zimbardo asks “why are boys struggling?” and throws out some startling statistics about boyhood, including the fact that boys are five times more likely to develop ADHD, and 30% more likely to drop or flunk out of school.  His stats are impressive, and build effectively.  He also has a sharp wit, and tells a joke well.

But most of the speech flew by me in a mass of incoherence because he is rushing needlessly, and his articulation is terrible.  Luckily I had the pause button handy, so I could go back and watch interesting sections over again to catch the speaker’s meaning, but the audience did not have that luxury.  Yes, he only had a minute to make the speech, but time limits are not an excuse to rush.  It doesn’t matter how brilliant your speech is if nobody can understand it.

I think Mr Zimbardo would have done himself and his audience a big favor by cramming less into his one minute speech, breathing more, and taking his time with the language.

What do you think?

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