Friday, March 6, 2009

Accents are Beautiful

The French have a saying, "Vive La Difference". It was coined by a man giving thanks to God for having created women.

Yet when it comes to accents, it seems that everywhere in Corporate America we are shouting "Vive La Boring".

Sometimes it appears that we want to put everyone through a kind of Cultural Cuisinart and have them emerge sounding like a newsreader on CSPAN. Everyone stops being a Rich Roquefort, or a Sharp Cheddar or a Racy Romano and we become American Cheese, with no flavor, aroma or bite. It's bland-by-design.

Managers call coaches like myself and report that they or their clients cannot understand one of the employees because of an accent. They want to send them off for 'accent reduction' or something called 'accent neutralization'.

Now I'm sure these are legitimate corrective measures taken by professionals in the field of speech. I do not mean to denigrate their profession. I want to offer common-sense alternatives from someone who listens to people speak for a living.

#1 - Go buy some French champagne and celebrate your accent. You might even yell "Vive La Difference" while you're doing it. Your accent is part of who you are as a person. It makes you sound distinctive and memorable. We are drawn to listen to you.

#2 - Slow down. Buy a $20 microcassette recorder and a $20 digital metronome. Then set the metronome on it's slowest beat and record yourself reading stories from a newspaper at that slow beat. You are now retraining your ear. Or click here on and click on Movie Speeches. Then try to mimic the pace of one of the really slow speeches. A real good one is Billy Bob Thornton's Being Perfect speech as Coach Gaines from the movie Friday Night Lights or Kelly MacDonald's reply to the Prime Minister from the movie The Girl in the Cafe. The best slow speech out at the movies now in my opinion is Philip Seymour Hoffman's sermon on Gossip as Father Flynn in the movie Doubt. The technique is about speaking slower and pausing and breathing. Try it. People will hear you better, even with your accent.

#3 - Vary your voice. If you have a constant high pitch, add in some bass or alto to give your voice more authority. If you have a constant low pitch, add in some tenor or soprano to give your voice more life. In any language or any accent, what kills is sameness. We love to listen to variety, as in a piece of classical music - up and down volume, high and low pitch, fast and slow pace, passionate and peaceful delivery. If your voice always sounds the same, we will lose your personality - and you will lose our attention.

#4 - Move your face. Many people with accents speak with a tight jaw which exacerbates our lack of understanding. Words get swallowed, sylabbles disappear and messages get missed. Whether you're from Ireland or Belarus or Pakistan or Japan or West Texas - if you never move your lips when you talk, people will have a hard time hearing you. Relax your jaw and your facial muscles and engage them when you talk. It may seem strange at first but it allows the air to come up from your diaphragm and escape your lips. Add in some deeper breathing as you talk and all of a sudden a weak voice becomes a lot more powerful - and we hear you better.

#5 - Gesture with purpose. Some people are deathly afraid of being seen as someone who 'talks with their hands'. But there is a simple guideline for gestures. If they have purpose, keep them. If they don't, get rid of them. At times though, punching words with gestures help us hear you better. It's great for phone calls. The counterparty can't see you. You could be standing there in a Speedo doing a Samba while you speak. They don't know. Try it. Not the Speedo and the Samba. Just the purposeful gesturing. It gives your words bite and it acts as a natural speed governor when you sync your gestures to a key word in a sentence, like "assets got crushed".

#6 - Examine your speech. Have a native English speaker listen to an audiotape of your voice and help you to identify missing articles of speech like the or a or English words you may be mispronouncing because you emphasize a different sylabble or sounds that come out differently like a d sound instead of a t or th sound. For example, if a sports talk radio host with a New York accent says the phrase "we'll be back after this" it becomes "we'll be back after dis". If that person retrains their voice with a tape recorder to get used to the th sound, they can eliminate one of the tell-tale signs of a New York accent.

#7 - Be conversational. This is why offshore (and even onshore) call centers make some people upset. People hear a person reading a script. "Of course, I can help you with that problem. May I put you on hold for a brief moment?" If you have a script to adhere to, practice it and internalize it to the point where it sounds conversational. It is doable and people will react to you more favorably and they will hear you better. I once sat next to a 'cold call' salesman for a month. We both had the exact same sales script. People hung up on me but they talked to him and he made hundred of sales. Why? He made the script his own and sounded like he and the person whose name he picked out of a phone book were long lost friends. Disingenous? Perhaps. But he argued that he was simply being friendly and talking to people as people, not as blind prospects. Whatever you think of the strategy, it worked. When we go across cultures, we tend to lose our native personality that exists in our native tongue. I know it's extremely difficult to be yourself when you are simultaneously translating in your head as you speak, but try. When we like you, we listen better.

Even if you only do these 6 things (I'll let you decide on the champagne), I believe colleagues, clients and audiences will begin to hear you better and your boss may stop trying to send you off to have your accent neutered. After all, we're not cats. We're human beings.

OK, enough of this English-Centric approach to communication.

Anyone want to help someone get rid of a Brooklyn accent when speaking Hindi?

The Global Coach