What We Can Learn From Comedians About Pacing

I think John Mulaney is one of the best comedians around these days.  What can we learn from him from a public speaking perspective?  Here are three things I think we can take away:

  1. His pacing is very deliberate – Notice the tempo at which Mr. Mulaney speaks.  It’s very measured, but it never feels belabored.  That’s because he is using his tempo to create vocal variety, emphasizing certain words with volume and pitch.
  2. He makes eye contact with his audience –  Pretty straightforward, right?  If you want to create a relationship with the audience, you need to look at them.
  3. He has clearly rehearsed – It’s never a good idea to wing a presentation, but we don’t want to sound too canned either.  It’s often best to rehearse from a set of simple bullet points and allow yourself to improvise within that structure.  Mr. Mullaney clearly has a few “bits” he is working with, but he doesn’t sound like he has thought out each word he is going to say.  He stays loose with his execution.

How Managers Can Assess an Employee’s Need for Speech Coaching

Certain public speaking problems can be solved in a solitary fashion.  If you are unhappy with your powerpoint design, pick up Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds.  If you occasionally stumble over words, watch this blog post, and use a metronome to slow down your speech.  If you feel scattered while presenting, write out a set of short bullet points, and stick to them!  But there are certain public speaking problems they may require a collaborative approach.  Here are some public speaking problems that require coaching:

  1. Panic – if your employee is badly stumbling over their words, or unable to get through their presentations, that is a surefire sign that they need coaching.  A coach can teach them to breathe properly and to prepare themselves mentally before they present.
  2. Very Low Volume – if you are asking your employee to speak up on a regular basis, it may be that they need voice coaching.  A coach can help them breathe from their diaphragm, and utilize chest and face resonance to enhance their voice.
  3. Very Thick Accent – If your employee is unable to pronounce core business words, well, yea you guessed it…they definitely need coaching!  A coach can help them articulate vowel and consonant sounds, and rehearse the words they are using at work.

A good coach usually starts with a thorough evaluation and then draws up a personalized, practical lesson plan.  Be sure the coach you work with is assigning homework, and accessing progress as well.

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.