Friday, July 17, 2009

Public Speaking: The Power of Forecasting

You've probably heard this overused pearl of wisdom from every presentation coach you've ever spoken to: "Say what you're going to say, say it, then say what you said." It is a good piece of advice, but do you really know how to apply it? In this article, I'd like to focus specifically on the 'say what you're going to say' part, which is also known as a forecast.

What is a forecast?
Just as a weather man or woman tells us what we can expect from our weather, you as a speaker are expected to give us the forecast of your talk. A forecast is as simple as one line outlining the main points of your presentation.

Why is a forecast important?
Have you ever listened to a presenter and wondered where in the world he was going? You have no idea what topics he's planning on covering, how long he's planning on speaking or what his main point is. As a result, you usually end up being bored, confused and frustrated that your time is being wasted.

If you don't want to do the same thing to your listeners, be sure to use a forecast. It gives your audience a road map of where you're going and how you plan on getting there.

When should you use your forecast?
The forecast should be clearly stated directly after your introduction and directly before your first point.

What does a forecast sound like?
Let's use a presentation scenario to illustrate how a forecast is developed. Your presentation topic is "Getting Organized" and you main points of the talk are:
1) organizing your mindset
2) organizing your home
3) organizing your workspace

There are many ways you could choose to forecast this talk, and depending on your ability and confidence level you might use one of the following or a variation.


"There are 3 important areas to look at when we're talking about organization: organizing your mindset, your home and your workspace. Let's start by taking a look at your thoughts..."


"Organization starts with you. Once you understand how to better manage your own mindset, it will then be easier to organize your home and office. I'll show you how to conquer each of these areas this evening."

There is nothing wrong with the basic forecast. It is clear and concise. Most presenters (if they use a forecast) will use the basic one. The advanced forecast however, gives the same information in a more creative way that flows from your introduction to your first point.

Don't be afraid to start simple and use the basic forecast until you feel more comfortable. The most important thing is that your structure is clear and concise. When your audience doesn't know where you're going, they might assume that you also don't know, and that's when they'll stop listening.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

10 Interesting Language Facts

Here’s a quick list of tidbits and resources about the English language (and language in general) which I’ve picked up throughout my time as a speech & language trainer in Europe and Asia. I hope you find them as interesting as I do!

1. The majority of the world’s languages are believed to stem from a common root: Indo-European. For a gorgeous illustration of the Indo-European Family Tree, click here:

2. Two languages that are not related to Indo-European, but are related to one another are Hungarian and Finnish. Granted, the two languages went their separate ways around 6,000 years ago, but they are still considered to be siblings in the Finno-Ugrian family.

3. The word “set” has the most definitions out of any word in the English language.

4. Countries where English (or other Germanic languages) is spoken account for more than 40 percent of the world GDP, while comprising only about 8 percent of the world's population (as of 2006).

5. A Singaporean client taught me that in Chinese, the word crisis is a combination of two characters which, on their own, mean risk and opportunity. Now isn’t that an interesting outlook?

6. My Danish husband’s favorite English word to say is humongous. The hardest word is refrigerator, and the funniest is hippopotamus. I always love to see how other people view our language! The hardest word for me to say in Danish is gulerødsrugbrød (carrot rye bread).

7. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, states that out of the world’s 6,000 languages, 2,500 are in danger of becoming extinct or have recently disappeared. How very tragic!

8. Every human being is born with the capacity to make every sound of every language in the world perfectly. With time, we filter out the sounds we don’t need for our primary language and focus on the ones we do.

9. It should come as no surprise that English has the largest number of non-native speakers. There are actually more non-native speakers of English than native speakers in our world today. This leads to some interesting arguments about how “Standard English” should really be defined.

10. The longest word in the English language is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (45 letters). Sing that, Mary Poppins!

Do you have more interesting language points to add? List them in the comments!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Speech Training: Say WHAT? How to pronounce the word "what"

Last week a participant in my Speak up Successfully course asked me a very good question: "How do you pronounce the word, 'what'?" He was under the impression that it should be pronounced hwuht with an h in front.

As an American in Singapore I can sometimes be too quick to answer pronunciation questions by explaining how I personally pronounce things. This isn't always fair because Singaporeans have been taught British pronunciation which can be quite different.

I answered his question by saying, "No. There should not be an h sound before the w in what." Like a good student, he went home after the course and checked the online dictionaries I listed in the resource section of his workbook. The next morning there was a mail in my inbox:

"Remember, i asked you how to pronounce WHAT.. says: '/ʰwʌt, ʰwɒt, wʌt, wɒt; unstressed ʰwət, wət/
Show Spelled Pronunciation: [hwuht, hwot, wuht, wot; unstressed hwuht, wuht]'

hwuht means that there's a 'h' in it?"

Hmmm... This is a tricky one.

First of all, it is important to note that several pronunciations are acceptable. Depending on where you are in the world, you may hear people pronounce what with or without what looks like an h sound in front.

My original answer, that there shouldn't be an h was correct for my own variety of English, but wasn't entirely accurate for all varieties. At the same time, in order to really understand what the spelled pronunciation is calling an h sound, we need to go into slightly deeper phonetics.

The superscript h (called a diacritic in the phonetic alphabet) means pre-aspiration. Aspiration refers to your breath, so what that means is that the w sounds slightly ‘breathy’ (for lack of a better non-technical word).

When we breathe out, the closest real sound we make is the h sound which is why it is transcribed as hw in the spelled pronunciation (a slight downfall of spelled pronunciations, in my opinion). This sound is very slight in most varieties of English and I would not classify it as a pure h.

Try putting your hand up in front of your mouth while you make the p sound. You should feel an explosion of air on your hand. This is aspiration. You are not really making the sounds p-h. Rather, your breath accompanies your pronunciation of the p.

The same is happening when you make the w sound, but the breath is coming slightly before the w. If you were to look at the visual imagery of a recording of someone saying what you would be able to see slight aspiration at the beginning of the word. I believe this would also be true of the way that I say it. I cannot however agree that the word starts with an h.

Does that make any sense? What do you think? How do you say WHAT in your variety of English?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

English Language: Irregardless is NOT a word! Setting the Record Straight...

The hot topic in my world this week has been the word (or should I say, non-word) irregardless.

On Tuesday I had an article that I wrote on word stress published in the Recruit section of The Straits Times newspaper. Usually these articles bring some nice publicity, but this time, the editors made some terrible changes to my original work and made most of the mistakes in their writing (which now looks like MY writing) that I always teach people to avoid! One of those changes was inserting the (non-) word irregardless. I mean really, even a spell check in Word will highlight that error!

When I changed my Facebook status to reflect my unhappiness with the vandalism of my work (especially the insertion of irregardless) I was surprised by how many messages I received from friends saying "Thanks for making that clear," "I hear people saying that all the time!" and "You should teach this stuff in America!" I knew that irregardless was a normal word in the Singapore vernacular, but wasn't aware of how wide-spread it is other places.

Irregardless in America
After a bit of research on the subject, I've actually learned (as stated in Adam Brown's Singapore English in a Nutshell) that the word irregardless is listed as a word in the American Dialect Dictionary and was recorded in western Indiana in 1912. He goes on to explain that the Merriam-Webster dictionary notes that most Americans agree that "it is not a word," but many continue to use it anyway!

So let's set the record straight. What is it about this word that gets everybody so confused?

Setting the record straight
Let's start with the base word, regard.
Regard can be used as a verb or noun, but we are going to focus on the noun form here. has several definitions, but the most appropriate one for our uses now is:
#12. thought; attention; concern.

Now, look up regardless. This word is not a noun, but an adjective or adverb:
1.having or showing no regard; heedless; unmindful (often fol. by of).
2. without concern as to advice, warning, hardship, etc.; anyway: I must make the decision regardless.

We use the word regardless to describe an action or mindset that does not show thought, attention or concern. It's an action taken without regard. The suffix -less negates the noun, regard to show this meaning.

So what's wrong with irregardless?
In English, the prefix ir- is also used to negate the meaning of words, for example revocable and irrevocable. By adding ir- to regardless, we actually form a double negative. It's like saying, "not without regard" or in other words, "regard." Get it?

Where does irregardless come from?
The best guess is that people are confusing irrespective and regardless, which are two words with basically identical meanings. Somehow the ir- from irrespective gets thrown onto the beginning of regardless, creating the non-word.

It is not however due to any tense changes as one astute reader pointed out in his email to me:
"I hear people in conversation using this 'irregardless' word, oblivious of the fact that the past tense of 'respective' is 'irrespective.' But the past tense of 'regard' is not 'irregardless' but 'regardless'."

Although he is correct about the non-word irregardless, his reasoning is not at all correct. Only verbs have tenses and respective is not a verb, but an adjective. Regard can be used as a verb, but in that case, its past tense would not be regardless, but would be regarded. I think that the reader meant to explain that the negative form of respective is irrespective, but the negative form of regard is not irregardless, but regardless.

A solution
Seeing how confusing this regard/regardless/irregardless issue can be, why are people using the word regardless at all? It's long and gets even more complicated when we have to add the preposition of. Here's an example of how we can remove the word from our vocabulary and speak more simply.

Regardless of what you think of this word, take it out of your vocabulary.

Change to:
No matter what you think of this word, take it out of your vocabulary.

How widespread of a problem do you think this is? Do you hear people use regardless and irregardless interchangeably? Share your stories and opinions in the comments!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Speech Training: Say it Right! Article in The Straits Times Today!

If you live in Singapore, pick up a copy of today's The Straits Times and flip to the Recruit section! Here's the original version of the article they published today...

When I bring up the topic of word stress to a group of Singaporean professionals, I’m usually met with blank stares. Word stress plays a minimal role in Singapore English, but an enormous role in the intelligibility of your English when speaking with people internationally.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Let’s look at a simple example.

The word calendar can be broken down into 3 syllables: cal-en-dar. Of these three syllables, one is stressed more than the others, meaning it is said louder, longer, at a higher pitch, and/or with a purer vowel sound. In this case, the stressed syllable in Standard English is the first one: CAL-en-dar.

Over time, and due to other language influences in Singapore, this word stress has shifted to the second syllable. It is very common to hear calendar pronounced as cal-EN-dar.

This pronunciation has little resemblance to the standard one that many international visitors to Singapore learned while listening to British English recordings during their English as a Foreign Language class. If people don’t seem to be responding to what you say, it could just be a simple problem of word stress.

Two-syllable nouns and adjectives

Two-syllable words surprisingly present some difficulties. These words are so short it’s amazing that a simple shift in word stress can make such a huge difference – but it does.

Most two-syllablle nouns and adjectives have stress on the first syllable. In Singapore however, this stress is often moved to the second syllable, or both syllables are given equal stress.

Some words I often hear in Singapore are collEAGUE (instead of COLLeague) and purCHASE (instead of PURchase). This pattern of word stress is so ingrained in Singaporeans, many will fight me on this point until they are blue in the face (if we don’t find a dictionary before then).

And it’s not just Singaporeans! One of my clients, a non-Singaporean and non-native English speaker, told me he had been busy writing up purCHASE orders. When I corrected his pronunciation, he resisted and said that this time I was definitely wrong. I asked him where he heard the word pronounced this way, and when he said, “From my collEAGUES!” I realized we had a larger problem on our hands!

Two-syllable verbs

As if things weren’t complicated enough, two-syllable nouns, when used as verbs, shift their stress to the second syllable.

The majority of nouns that also have a verb form (e.g.: progress, present, object, produce, record) will be stressed on the first syllable when used as a noun, and the second syllable when used as a verb. Take for example the word progress. Watch how the stress changes depending on how the word is used.

We are making great PROgress in this field. (noun)
New technologies are helping us to proGRESS in this field. (verb)

Unfortunately for us, there are many exceptions to this rule. Some words will remain the same (keeping stress on the first syllable), such as answer, picture, travel, visit and several others.

Multi-syllabic word stress

Words with several syllables can be even trickier than their short, two-syllable friends. We saw stress shifting with these words when they changed from noun to verb form. Mult-syllabic words can shift their stress based on word form as well; there just aren’t any hard and fast rules governing the process.

Take the word economy for example. This is a good one for our trying times. Make sure that when you talk about the ecoNOMic crisis, that your pronunciation isn’t in crisis! The stress should be on the third syllable, not the second. Words like PHOTograph and phoTOGraphy are similar.

Making word stress less stressful

So, how are you supposed to know how to stress a certain word? Luckily for us, online dictionaries usually have a recording you can play so you can hear the proper pronunciation.

If there isn’t a recording, or you’re looking up your word in a real dictionary, there will be a short vertical line just before the syllable that takes the stress.

If you had never heard about word stress before this article, please don’t get too stressed out! Think of word stress as a tool in your arsenal against misunderstanding. If someone is having trouble understanding you, pay special attention to how you are stressing your words. Sometimes it isn’t what you say, but how you say it that matters!

Friday, January 30, 2009

English Foul-ups and Brush-ups on 93.8LIVE's "The Living Room"

Yesterday I had a wonderful time on air with Stanley Leong and Pamela Ho of 938LIVE's "The Living Room" radio program. We talked about the English used in Singapore and some of the crazy, funny quirks that come out when Singaporeans converse with visitors here.
Here's the 38 minute recording of the show. I hope you enjoy it. Leave your comments and questions here on the blog. I'd love to hear what you think!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Top 10 Language Tips for 2009

Your language permeates every aspect of who you are. You are judged by what you say and how you present yourself. Make 2009 the year that you commit to the way you speak. Fine-tune the little things that make a big difference with these Top 10 Language Tips for 2009!

1. Speak positively
Your language influences your thoughts just as much as your thoughts influence your language. When you set your resolutions for the new year did you list, “Stop smoking,” or “Breathe freely?” Make sure that you’re sending yourself positive images with the language you use.

2. Practice tongue twisters
If you’re concerned about the way you speak or the way you pronounce certain sounds, tongue twisters are a fun and easy way to begin making progress in the right direction. A simple web search will give you lots of ideas. Practice saying the tongue twisters in front of a mirror so you can see how your mouth changes to make different sounds.

3. Set language goals
Whether you want to speak more clearly, correctly or confidently, set goals for yourself. For example, if you want to improve your vocabulary, set a goal to learn 10 new words per week (or whatever number you think is fair).

4. Read... a lot
The best way to improve your language skills and become a better speaker and writer is to read... a lot. Choose magazines, books, newspapers and online resources that not only interest you, but also have good English language content. If you’re reading the tabloids, you’re probably not getting the best English input possible, which leads me to number 5:

5. Listen to and observe good language models
Whether you’re choosing something to read, or choosing who and what you listen to, the most important thing is that the people you emulate need to speak English very well! Remember, practice doesn’t make perfect – perfect practice does!

6. Play word games
Word games are a great way to keep your mind active, build new vocabulary and increase creativity. Solve a crossword puzzle, do a word search or choose one of the hundreds of different games that you can find on the internet. Take a breather from your work and work out your mind in a different way.

7. Be aware of your body language
Don’t forget the non-verbal messages you send! Many people think of language and communication as what they say, but what you do is even more important. To show polite interest in what someone is saying sit up straight, lean slightly towards the listener and hold comfortable eye contact.

8. Speak considerately
Remember all the lessons your mother taught you. Say, “Please,” and, “Thank you.” Slow down in large crowds and say, “Excuse me,” when you bump into people. These may seem like little, unimportant things, but they say a lot about the type of person you are.

9. Proof-read your work – every time!
Do not write one letter, send one email, or submit one report without checking over your work. Look out for things like your use of commas and apostrophes, typos and spelling errors. Nobody gets everything right the first try. Assume there are errors and find them!

10. Don’t use a long word where a short one will do
This famous rule is one too many of us forget. Remember that communication is not a vocabulary contest. Successful communication depends on people understanding your meaning. Use common words and phrases instead of over-inflated prose.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

English Language: Grammar Myths

"Never split an infinitive!"
"Never end a sentence with a preposition!"
"Never start a sentence with a conjunction!"

Grammar is scary! So many rules, and so few people who really understand them. Don't feel bad if you feel like you can't get to grips with English grammar. I teach the stuff, and I still look to my grammar reference on a regular basis. Who has room in their head for so many rules - especially when they're constantly changing!

Many grammar rules, like the commands above, are generally accepted to be outdated. Winston Churchill's famous quote,"This is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put!" argues the point for terminal prepositions rather well. And if I were to stop starting sentences with conjunctions, it would be very hard to write blog posts in a nice conversational style.

All of this said, there are still some grammar rules which are important to know and practice. Here in Singapore, some rules have been dissected and then overgeneralized, resulting in several English grammar myths. Let's expose two of these myths today and set the record straight.

Myth #1: To make a singular noun plural, just add 's'
A day does not pass in Singapore where I don't hear informations, paperworks, advices, staffs, baggages and/or fruits.

Myth buster: There are two kinds of nouns that do not change in the plural: collective nouns and uncountable nouns.

Collective nouns are nouns that refer to a group of people: staff, management, crew, audience, etc.
You cannot say, "My staffs are very hardworking."
A correct option would be, "The members of my staff are hardworking."

Uncountable nouns are exactly what their name implies - nouns that can't be counted. If you can't count something, you can't make it plural and therefore, can't add an 's.' Make sense? Some good examples are paperwork, information, and advice. They are things like abstract ideas (progress), commodities (oil) and substances (water). So how do we show that these words are plural? We need to add determiners - little words or phrases that give meaning to the number of nouns we are talking about. So, information becomes a lot of information, tons of information or just a piece of information.

Myth #2: Verbs never take 's'
Although here in Singapore everyone likes to add the letter S to nouns, very few people like adding S to verbs. This is a real problem, especially in the third person singular, which, in normal English, means when we talk about he, she or it. I am convinced that this mistake happens not because Singaporeans don't know the rule, but because in conversation it is pretty normal to drop "useless" word endings like 't,' 'd,' and unfortunately, the beloved 's.' That's why we hear people say things like, "He take the bus to work," "She like him," "It make me happy."

Myth buster: Whenever we talk about he, she or it, we absolutely must, without exception, add an 's' to the verb. It will always be, "He takes the bus to work," "She likes him," and "It makes me happy."

What other myths can you think of? Are there any grammar points that get you confused? Leave your comments and I'll try to address them in future posts.

If you would rather have me walk you through these points personally, make sure to register for my new workshop, "Get to Grips with Grammar." I know you don't believe me, but I really do make grammar fun! Come join us!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Speech Training: Speak Clearly Revisited

I found an interesting short article today on the Better Hearing Institute's website that emphasized the importance of speaking clearly when speaking to hearing-impaired individuals, especially if they are lip reading. Their main points should sound familiar if you've been following this blog:

a. slow down
b. speak up (without yelling)
c. articulate (without over-articulating)
d. use pauses to emphasise important chunks of information

The article caught my attention because while I was traveling for Christmas and New Year's I had the joy of conversing with two stubborn individuals who can't hear a thing, but refuse to get hearing aids. Their common excuse is that everyone mumbles, and sometimes they're right about that. One of them commented on how easy I am to understand (while I was speaking a foreign language, no less).

What if we spoke to everyone as if they were reading our lips? Our clarity would improve tremendously!

Here's a little test I did on myself. Turn on your TV and flip to a news channel. Mute the TV. Without any training in lip reading at all, I could pick out words the anchorwoman was saying. Put together with visual images, I could get a good idea of what was going on. Now turn to a reality TV program (they aren't hard to find these days). I don't know about you, but it was a lot harder for me to read their lips!

This isn't to say we should all start speaking like news readers, but a small step in that direction wouldn't hurt! At least our hearing-impaired relatives will thank us!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

English Language: How Social Media Can Actually Help Your Writing

How many social media sites do you actively participate in? Just about everyone I know is on Facebook. And Twitter is becoming more and more popular as well. These types of sites are changing the way we communicate with others, as well as how we write and speak.

The status update is an interesting element of these communications. Assuming you don't fall victim to crazy abbreviations like "C U L8er," writing status updates can actually be a great exercise in creative and concise communication. You can't ramble on and on about the latest film you saw. Instead you have to give a quick and concise review in 140 characters or less. That's not easy.

A friend of mine recently wrote on his status update: "Still thinking about The Last King of Scotland, which was on TV last night. Great film!" Although "great film" might be a bit broad, the fact that he was still thinking about the film showed that it had effected him in some way. I was suddenly intrigued and wondered what the film was like. Was is sad? Disturbing? Really exciting? Without saying anything specific about the movie, he was still able to communicate his reaction to the movie in an interesting way.

Another friend wrote today that she "loves her new bamboo sheets and wishes she could have spent more time in them last night." She could have just written, "I'm tired today and want to go back to bed." But she found an interesting way of expressing that thought.

When you write status updates they force you to use a concise vocabulary and really say what you mean. You don't have room for long explanations, so words need to be used appropriately. When your space is limited, you also need to be creative in how you approach what you want to say.

Think what our world would be like if we approached all forms of communication in this way! Sometimes we could use a bit more simplicity in our lives!

PS. If you'd like to follow this blog in short form, you can follow this site's feed on twitter:

Monday, January 5, 2009

English Language: Positive Language for a Positive Year

As we begin 2009, I'm feeling surprisingly optimistic. I normally feel optimistic when a new year dawns, but the end of 2008 seems to have been cloaked in so much negativity that I wasn't sure if I would be able to rise above it.

The messages we read do affect our emotions, moods and general dispositions. I don't know about you, but when I read something negative it seems to breed more negativity inside of me. This isn't to say we should stop watching the news or reading the paper, but we need to re-program our thoughts and change the way we speak to ourselves. Our own internal voices are the most important of all.

I am in no way an expert in NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) and would never claim to be. As I've been thinking about the new year and changes I would like to make in it, I remembered one concept in NLP from a short overview I read months ago. It talked about positive and negative language.

The argument is that when we speak in the negative, for example, "I don't want to be late anymore," our minds create a picture of us being late and then we attempt to negate that picture. Unfortunately, the picture is already ingrained in our minds and we continue being late because that's the main message we've been sending ourselves.

What if we instead said, "I am going to be on time." What's the first picture that comes to your mind? Relaxing in the waiting room before your appointment with 10 minutes to spare? Arriving at the office before anyone else and having a nice quiet cup of coffee before the day begins? Do you see the difference in this imagery?

It was just this morning that I recognized how I've been changing the way I speak to my daughter - she's only 6 months old, but you can never start too early, right? Instead of saying, "Don't drop your toy!" I use the positive, "Hold onto your toy!" At this point, who knows what sense either sentence makes to her, but it's great practice for me!

Now that I've started using positive messages, it's getting easier for me to translate negatives to positives and use more positive language in my daily life.

When you write your list of resolutions this year (something I highly recommend, by the way) make sure that you're using positive language that reinforces what you do want in life instead of what you don't want. Write "Breathe fresh air freely and easily," instead of "Stop smoking," for example. Then hang your list somewhere you can see it each day. When you read it, think about the images that enter you mind, and notice the emotions you feel.

Positive language can make a difference for you in this new year. So get started thinking positively and see what happens! There's nothing to lose but negativity!