When I first start working with many of my clients, they tell me they want to improve their speaking and presentation skills. They're afraid to speak up in meetings, and when they do presentations, they're self-conscious about their voice. They believe their accent and pronunciation stop them from speaking clearly and with authority in their presentations and meetings.
While this might be true for some, this isn't always the case for more advanced learners. They've been led to believe it's their accent and pronunciation that stop them from delivering effective presentations and speaking clearly and confidently in their meetings. I've already discussed this previously in a post about reducing your accent. In this blog post, we are going to explore:
Why your accent might not be your number one problem
The elements of vocal variety and why these are important when giving presentations
How you can use shadowing to help make your presentations more engaging
Why it's not your accent?
One of the essential English features that second language speakers need to be aware of is that English is a stress-timed language. This means you need contrast between stressed and unstressed syllables -- unstressed words may reduce and lower pitch and flatter in shape. In other words, you DON'T pronounce every word fully and clearly.
When native speakers hear second-language speakers of English give a presentation, we are quite tolerant of individual sounds that are not produced with 100% accuracy. We can still decipher the meaning. However, we are less forgiving when stress patterns are not followed. It can make it hard to follow and stay focussed.
Take these sentences, for example:
The door is open. The door was left open.
The door will be left open.
All these sentences take the same amount of time to say, but the last sentence contains most words. This means that many words have strong forms (when they are essential and stressed) and weak forms (when they are not necessary and squeezed into the rest of the sentence).
All of this to say that you can improve your impact and engagement in your presentations by learning more about, and practising, stress and intonation patterns and the elements of vocal variety to harness the full power of your voice.
What are the elements of vocal variety?
Volume / Projection (Loudness)
Pitch (Rise and Fall)
A strong voice conveys confidence. Speaking too softly, or trailing off at the ends of sentences can suggest uncertainty or timidity and impact your presentation's strength.
If you have ever had to listen to someone speak in a monotone, you may well have drifted off into your thoughts. This is why monotonous means (1) lacking variation in pitch and (2) dull. There is nothing that kills an excellent presentation in English more than a monotonous tone.
The speed at which you deliver your verbal messages is is another critical element.
If you speak too fast, your audience may struggle to keep up.
If you speak too slowly, they might drift off.
In my experience, speaking too fast is one of the most common side-effects of being nervous and lacking confidence. It's a give away in any presentation. So aiming to reduce your speed can have a dramatic impact on your confidence and keeping you calm.
Knowing when to hold pauses, is another essential element of vocal variety. They work because:
They give you time to think and stay calm.
Pauses give your audience time to digest your messages and assign meaning to your message to make it more memorable.
Pauses give your audience time to consider the answers to any rhetorical questions that you may have asked.
Which speakers do you admire who speak calmly and slowly? Keep these people in mind for a moment.
How can you practise all these aspects of speech variety to improve your presentations?
At the end of last year, I received an email from someone who found my resources and watched a video I made about reading aloud.
I don't have a lot of time for myself but I retained one thing from some of your advice : read out loud. Your advice was a kind of a revelation to me ! Effectively, why didn't I think about it earlier?
This simple strategy can help you train your mouth muscles and get you used to speaking and practising pronunciation. Another even more effective strategy if you want to work on pronunciation and rhythm of the language is Shadowing. It is a strategy for advancing your learning from audio or video to what someone has just said.
Now think back to that person who you admire who speaks calmly and slowly.
How could you practise shadowing?
Find audio such as a podcast episode or video with this person or a few others speaking.
Listen to the audio first.
See if you can identify some of the different elements of vocal variety. In particular, focus on pitch, pace and pauses.
Shadow the audio with a transcript.
Shadow without a transcript.
A new application I have just started using for my French learning is Airr, a podcast player for iOs (coming soon to Android) that allows you to highlight parts of the audio from podcasts. You can take a short audio snippet and use this to practice. The best part is, you can request a transcript for some of your favourite shows that might not even have a transcript prepared by the author.
Taking what you learn to practise your presentations
Once you've come to know some of the patterns, you've noticed, and you've spent some time practising the shadowing, try and incorporate some of the elements into your presentations.
One particular strategy that has helped many of my students is noticing when speakers practise chunking information and making a conscious effort to add more pauses. If you find it overwhelming to think of everything, try introducing just one element at a time rather than all the elements in one go.
Shadowing has several other additional benefits:
It helps to train your active listening. Many English second language speakers don't engage in focused listening practice. So by using the shadowing technique, you're training you're ear to listen sharply to notice patterns so it will help to prepare your active listening skills for work.
It allows you to practise varying volume, pitch, pace and pauses in a similar way to the person you're shadowing. So it makes sense to find someone who speaks in the way you admire.
Shadowing helps you to develop muscle memory for your mouth so you can better pronounce English words.
Shadowing is an excellent way to practice English pitch or musical sound because you mimic the words and the pitch.
You get a sense of which words are stressed or not and become more aware of weak sounds.
The benefit is you can also do this while you’re doing other things such as on your commute to work or while you’re walking.
How effective is shadowing?
Many studies have found shadowing is a highly effective way to improve speaking skills. In one experiment, researchers found that students who followed a shadowing technique significantly improved intonation, fluency, word pronunciation, and overall pronunciation.
According to other studies, shadowing is effective for
Developing active listening skills and listening comprehension
Improving oral presentation skills
Learning new vocabulary and expressions