Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Speech Training: Does Your Accent Matter?

I am a strong supporter of the idea that your accent doesn't matter; it's the clarity of your speech and your message that's important. But looking at the news lately, it seems that I am in the minority.

Every headline has something to do with vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin's accent. Is it real? Is it fake? Does it sound educated or uneducated? Where does it come from? What will it mean for the election?

All I have to say is that if an accent is enough to tip the election scales (either way), America is in even more trouble than we thought.

It does bring up the important issue though that an accent, if too heavy or different from the norm, can be a distraction - so much so that no one listens to the message. This in itself is motivation to work on one's diction and pronunciation.

Many people have cut Palin down for lax pronunciation. For example, she drops her 'g' in words like 'going' so they sound more like 'goin.' Plenty of Americans speak this way on a daily basis. The problem here is that Americans don't expect to hear this informal speaking style in a formal debate or televised interview.

It's not so much that the accent is 'wrong' but that, according to a large number of people, it is inappropriate for the situation. This then turns our discussion into more of a social debate than a linguistic one.

Everything comes down to knowing your audience. Presidential and vice presidential candidates have scores of advisers who not only tell them what to say, but also how to say it. Palin was chosen because the Republican camp felt that she would appeal most to the American audience. After the backlash against her, they may begin to feel otherwise.

Here are a selection of articles that have hit the press recently:

Everything You Heard Is Wrong - New York Times
Pinker on Palin's "nucular" - Language Log
Palin's accent takes center stage - Politico
What Kind of Accent Does Sarah Palin Have? - Slate
Sarah Palin's accent explained - The Swamp
MoJo Audio: Linguist Robin Lakoff Analyzes Sarah Palin's Accent - Mother Jones (podcast)

What are your views? Let me know by leaving your comments here!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Communication Etiquette: Eye Contact

I met someone for the first time the other day and when I shook her hand she didn't look me in the eyes. It's amazing what a difference such a seemingly minor non-verbal signal makes.

If you don't look someone in the eyes when you meet them, there are a number of assumptions the person could make:

1. You're hiding something
2. You're very insecure
3. You feel intimidated
4. You're not really paying attention
5. You're just rude

None of these assumptions are positive, and hopefully none of them are true. In my situation, I could tell by the rest of the person's body language that she was just a bit insecure. But I could easily see how other people could read her signals as being rude.

The worst part is that I don't even think she realized the message she was sending. It's very possible that she has had a hard time connecting with others and not known why. Think of how many relationships have started off on the wrong foot because of this small mistake!

When you meet someone for the first time, eye contact is just as important, if not more important than a firm handshake. Make sure you make the best possible first impression and look your new acquaintance directly in the eyes.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Public Speaking: The Secret

I am going to let you in on a little secret. Actually, it's a really big secret. It's the secret that every single person who ever has to do a presentation wants to know:

How can I deliver a powerful, persuasive and entertaining presentation that makes people stop and listen?

The answer?



That's it.


I'm not lying.

I believe, along with every other public speaker on the planet, that the best speakers are the ones who can be themselves on stage. They don't put on a show. They don't use big words to impress their audiences. They don't do what they think they should do. They just do what comes to them - naturally.

This authenticity is what draws us to a speaker and makes us sit up and listen. So what's so hard about being yourself? There could be a number of issues holding you back, and until you take care of each of these, you'll never reach your true potential as a speaker.

1. You don't know who you are
This point is actually a lot more complicated than how it looks on paper. It's one of life's big questions and one which all of us are always working to answer: Who am I? The closer you are to answering this question for this point in your life, the better a speaker you will be. If you aren't exactly sure who you are or what you stand for, it will be hard to open yourself up to an audience and even harder for your audience to trust you and your message.

2. You are trying to be a "speaker"
You've taken so many courses and studied so many "master speakers" that you think that's the one and only way you should speak. All I can say is a big, huge, fat, "WRONG!" Didn't you ever listen to your mother when she asked that rhetorical question about whether you'd jump off a bridge... ? Just because everyone else is doing it doesn't mean it's right. The top speakers have found a style that works for them, now you need to find a style that works for you. This is incredibly easy if you just BE YOURSELF.

3. Being yourself makes you feel too vulnerable
It's scary standing in front of a group of people and sharing what's on your mind. If you put up a front and pretend to be someone you aren't it's a lot easier to accept failure. If people didn't like the talk you don't have to take it personally because really, you weren't personally involved. You can blame it on your "style" instead of accepting that maybe someone in the audience didn't like you. I'll let you in on another secret: not everyone is going to like you. That's just a fact. The sooner you accept this and let it go, the better.

So how can you become more authentic? You should be able to speak on stage the same way you speak to your closest friends and colleagues. There is nothing wrong with being conversational, asking for your audience's opinion or showing that you have a sense of humor. You need to let go of what you think should be said or done and do what feels right for you. Don't compare yourself to others. You've been asked to speak because someone felt that you had something important to say. They asked you to speak because they like YOU, not you in a speaker's costume.

Take a deep breath, relax, put on a smile and share your passion with the world. That's what makes public speaking fun. Enjoy it!