Is English not your first language?

Currently, and this could well change, most international research is communicated in English. For now at least, all international researchers need to become proficient at speaking English in public. Using interpreters at conferences is truly difficult and a great deal is lost in translation.

Now, it is well known that many people fear public speaking second only to death, so how much more frightening is it to have to give a formal presentation in a language other than your mother tongue? And how does this fear affect your speaking technique?

It’s not the accent, it’s the fear!

In recent years I have worked at Australian universities, training postgraduate students how to communicate their research. During this time, some PhD students undertook some special training for the 3MT© (Three Minute Thesis competition) and as part of this training, we had an expert give a workshop on voice projection and “presence.” This was fun to watch, and it was really all about learning to be comfortable with yourself and speaking out.

Some weeks after attending this workshop, one European student who had a very strong accent asked if she could present a 30-minute seminar to one of my workshops for new PhD students. I said yes, and she came and gave a powerful and exciting talk. All the new students admired her confidence and thought her presentation was great.

It was really enjoyable listening to her speaking now that she was no longer embarrassed by her accent and was projecting her voice fully. Her accent was still very strong, but her full voice projection fully engaged us. Her confidence and overall presence were now so powerful that her sometimes poor grammar, mispronunciation and misuse of words no longer mattered at all!

Fear makes many people swallow their words so that the audience can neither hear nor understand what they are saying. But if they can learn to speak out, whether or not the language and actual words are correct, the audience will still usually be able to understand and enjoy the talk. Communication is far more than words. Certainly, the actual words are very important whenever someone is trying to explain detailed and important research, but props like diagrams and figures can be used to fill in some of the details.

It is actually much more important to have great projection and appropriate body language than to have the exact words and pronunciation.

Can you be over-confident? Strong English accents, dialects and speed

Lacking confidence is, however, not the only problem in clear communication in English. Native English speakers who have strong dialects and accents are often extremely hard to understand. If you have a strong accent, even if English is your first language, many people will simply not understand you. You must slow down and if at all possible, reduce your accent.

People who speak too fast can also leave most of the audience bewildered. Since the speed of speech tends to be cultural, you might not be aware of your speed unless you really stop and take notice. Even if your accent is clear, if you speak too fast, you are likely to leave your audience behind!

Always remember that as well as hearing you speak, your audience needs time to process the information you are presenting. You are no doubt extremely familiar with your own work, but for most of the audience, it is the first time that they have heard it. Even the sharpest minds need a few seconds to process new information. Speaking too fast is a poor quality in any presenter.

Difficult, unusual or critical words need to be displayed visually

One very simple way to ensure that your audience understands your key message: Write it down or display it in some type of visual. You should adopt this habit regardless of whether English is your first language.

Don’t ever run the risk of your audience thinking that you are speaking about anything other than your key topic! You might be surprised how often people come away from a talk with completely the wrong message.

Make sure that this never happens to you.

I provide individualized speaker training at my site.

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1 Comment
MoG says:

Having grown up in Queens, NY I had a strong New York accent when I started graduate school. At my first department presentation, despite speaking slowly and projecting, as you so correctly suggest, I was told by the faculty feedback reviewers that my Queens accent made me sound stupid and that I needed to work on losing it. (I don’t think people could get away with saying that to a student now, but this was in the early 1990’s.) I certainly did not want to give scientists in my field the first impression that I was stupid as soon as I opened my mouth! For many years I was embarrassed that I was from Queens and I tried to hide my accent. I am now less concerned about having an accent and sometimes intentionally bring it on strong…luckily no one has ever told me again that I sound stupid. I find your piece very refreshing! Thank you for encouraging people to not be ashamed of their accents. I think if we all sounded the same it would be quite boring.

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