Friday, August 8, 2008

Communication Etiquette: Using Names

I think it must be a prerequisite for hairdressers to be great talkers and have fantastic interpersonal skills. They aren't just in the business of cutting hair, but also building relationships. If I don't like my hairdresser, I probably won't go back.

I went to a new hairdresser today on a friend's recommendation and he was a pleasure to talk to. Other than having a million and one "chit chat topics" up his sleeve, the one thing I really noticed right from the start was that he addressed me by name. "So Heather, what would you like to do today?" "Well you know, Heather I think coloring hair is an art form." "Did you know Heather, you can win $8 million in TOTO today?!"

Some people argue that you can use a person's name too much, and that can definitely be true, but for my hairdresser it came so naturally that I never once questioned his sincerity. When it comes down to it, we all like to hear our own names. When this new hairdresser used my name it made me feel special - like he was going to remember not just my hair, but also me.

There are other benefits to using a person's name when you speak to him/her. For one, if it's someone you just met you are more likely to remember the name. Also, it shows that you are making an effort to connect with the person. You've taken the time to not just remember the name, but also use it.

This tactic can backfire however. Make sure you use the correct name! If you're in doubt, ask!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Speech Training: What is "correct" pronunciation?

What is correct pronunciation? I've asked myself this question so many times while designing my programs, and participants in my programs ask it even more.

Yesterday, I received 938LIVE's English@Work e-newsletter (938LIVE is a talk-radio station here in Singapore that supports the "Speak Good English" campaign). They were also asking this question and their answer was "any pronunciation used by careful speakers and recorded in dictionaries, like the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary." At face value, this seems like a pretty decent definition - if you happen to come from the US (lucky me!) or UK; the Cambridge Pronouncing Dictionary only covers the most common and acceptable pronunciations for these two countries.

What the dictionary doesn't cover are all of the absolutely acceptable regional variations of the English language. What about Australian English accents? And what about here in Singapore? Is there a Singaporean dictionary that outlines the correct pronunciation for the English spoken here? Adam Brown, David Deterding and Low Ee Ling (among others) have done fantastic research into the Singapore English Dialect, and have recorded many of the pronunciation rules for this variety. Yes, there are "rules" that people generally follow here. Are we to say that since these rules aren't recorded in a formal dictionary, they are "wrong?"

When people ask me what "correct" pronunciation is, I continue to have the same answer: it depends. It depends on where you are in the world, who you are speaking with and where that person comes from. Pronunciation is learned by listening to the people around you. You copy what you hear. So if your teachers pronounced the word success as "sus-sess," that's probably the way you pronounce it. Just as I pronounce the same word as "suk-sess" because that's how people around me pronounced it. Is one better or more "correct" than the other? Not in their relative regions. My American accent is no more correct here in Singapore than the Singaporean accent would be in America.

The current debates about pronunciation arise because our world is becoming increasingly small. When we speak across borders our regional varieties begin to cross and suddenly there are misunderstandings. We all need to work to speak slowly and clearly. We need to articulate our words from start to finish (see my earlier post on word endings), sharpen our consonants and get serious about our speech instead of lazily mumbling through our conversations. It wouldn't hurt to learn some of the differences in vocabulary in different parts of the world too.

What we don't all need to do is adopt an American or British accent. What a boring world that would be to listen to!

Related references:
938LIVE English @ Work newsletter:
Brown, Singapore English in a Nutshell (my personal favorite on SG English)
Low & Brown, English in Singapore: An Introduction
David Deterding, Singapore English

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Public Speaking: Visual Aids

Since the advent of PowerPoint, visual aids have become a larger and larger part of public presentations. "Slides" have practically outranked "speech" and it seems like a lot of people are putting more effort into impressing people with their visuals than with their voices. Visual aids are just that - aids. You are the main attraction.

Here are some general pointers for PowerPoint slides:
  • Use images wherever they can replace words
  • Keep the slides simple and neat - don't overdo the text
  • The font size should be at least 28pt (I try not to go smaller than 32)
  • Use contrasting colors (black text on white background or vice versa)
  • Do not use too many colors or too much of one color (overusing red makes it lose its impact)
  • Print out a notes page of one of your slides. Put it on the floor at your feet. If you can't easily read it when you look down at it, there is too much content and your font is too small.
  • Don't overdo animation - keep their focus on you

And remember, PowerPoint isn't the only kind of visual aid. Don't discount a row of flip charts that you can write on (largely), white boards, magic tricks or anything else you can think of that can add a bit of fun to your talk.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Speech Training: Have You Lost Your Word Endings?

In daily conversation we can get very lazy. We speak quickly, cut off the ends of our words and end up pushing our words together. For example, when is the last time you said, "How are you doing?" Most likely you said, "Howyadoin'?" Sometimes it just takes too much energy to speak properly!

When it comes to word endings, the most common omissions are "ed," "ing" and "s." It is especially important that you remember to articulate "ed" and "s" endings because they are also grammatical markers. "Ed" marks the simple past tense and "s" identifies either plural nouns or third person singular verbs (see my recent post on subject/verb agreement). If you don't pronounce these endings it sounds like you are, at worst, making simple English grammar mistakes, and at best, like you're linguistically lazy and don't pay attention to detail.

Have you ever heard the rule "Write the way you speak?" Well, I think the opposite is also true. "Speak the way you write." You would never write, "I walk down the street," when you meant "walked." Articulate the entire word and you will be a lot easier to understand and will make a much better professional impression.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Public Speaking: What to wear?

When you stand in front of an audience, remember that people aren't just listening to your words, but are also checking you out. They are taking in the whole picture - your words, your voice and your physical appearance - and are then making judgements about you and your message. This is why the outfit you choose to wear to a speaking event is so important.

If you're ever wondering if this is true, just test the theory. When I was over 7 months pregnant I spoke at a conference. For my 45-minute talk I was wearing fantastic high heels. As soon as I left the stage I went back to the speaker's room and changed into my "granny loafers." At one of the breaks during the day one of the participants came up to me and asked what I did with my shoes. They notice everything!

I always take the following 3 Ps into consideration before grabbing any old thing out of my closet.

Who is your audience? CEOs? You should probably be wearing your best suit. A group of parents at a PTA meeting? You can probably be fairly casual.

Also, how many people will be there? In front of really large audiences, wear something that will stand out. For men, that might mean a red tie or colored shirt. For women, a colorful scarf or jacket will do the trick.

Whether you are speaking at an outdoor stadium in front of thousands, a 5-star hotel ballroom or your company's boardroom, you should always be wearing something appropriate for the place.

When speaking in foreign lands, make sure you know what is culturally appropriate. There are thousands of stories of deals gone bad because people haven't done their homework and have offended the local audience.

Why are you speaking? Are you running a day of training for a small group of professionals? Business casual attire might be formal enough. Are you being called in as an expert in your field for an annual industry conference? You might want to step things up a notch and wear a suit.

Besides the 3 Ps, I have some general rules that I always adhere to when I speak. You may think some of them are outdated or too formal, but like my mom always told me, "You can never be too formal!" Your image will not suffer from being slightly formal, but could shatter from being more informal than the situation dictates.
  • Clothing should be clean and ironed
  • Skirts should not end above the knee
  • Wear closed shoes (no sandals or slingbacks)
  • Always dress one notch more formal than the audience
  • Wear nylons (even I compromise on this one in ridiculously humid climates like Singapore)
  • Avoid overdoing accessories, especially things that make noise
  • Make sure your pockets are empty and you don't have coins or other things jingling around
  • For women planning on using clip-on mics: avoid wearing a dress- it isn't very comfortable clipping the transmitter on the back of your bra!
Who knew there was so much to think about when getting dressed! You might want to pick out your outfit the night before so that you won't be rushed the morning of your big event.