When I first began coaching executives nearly 40 years ago, I was surprised–as a Canadian–to find that so many leaders from the American South worried about their accents. Later, I had the chance to see former President Jimmy Carter speak at the Minneapolis Press Club, approached him, and pointed out what I’d noticed.
“What do you think about having a Southern accent?” I asked.
He flashed a big smile. “Well, it got me elected president!” he said.
Carter was obviously proud of the way he spoke. But no matter what your accent sounds like or how you feel about it, there are a few techniques to speak with more power and clarity in just about every situation–in meetings, on conference calls, in front of large crowds, or just with a colleague or two in the hallway. And the typical advice to “just speak slowly” won’t cut it.
Some people feel a lot of pressure to ditch or dull their accents, which can make them feel self-conscious. First of all, stop that. Not only is that just plain unnecessary, but researchers have found that it’s actually incredibly difficult to do.
I worked with an executive from a nuclear power company who told me he spent a year just trying to say “speaking” instead of “speakin’.” Think about that for a second: Why would an executive with huge responsibilities at a nuclear facility spend so much time trying to coach himself into one particular change in pronunciation? The answer is simple: because he wanted to project more sophistication.
But I reminded him, “You need to think of sophistication as a whole, not just as sound parts.” In truth, sounding sophisticated has nothing to do with your accent (or absence of it–which, by the way, is always relative, depending on your audience). It comes from your ability to be in the moment and express your ideas easily and with precision.
So your first step to communicating more effectively is to stop sweating your accent. Relax–you don’t need to change who you are to be a great speaker.
One of the next things you should focus on is improving the clarity of your sound.
I was once asked by a major aerospace company to help one of their Scottish executives speak more effectively. His global team was struggling to understand him, especially on conference calls. As soon as we met, I noticed his Scottish accent was indeed pretty strong. After we worked together for two days, it wasn’t any less strong, but you could understand him much better.
What changed? We’d focused on stretching out his vowel sounds as opposed to articulating his consonants. For example, instead of saying “bus stop,” with the ‘b’, ‘s’es, and ‘p’ enunciated, you’d say “busstop,” stretching out the ‘u’ and the ‘o. Don’t get me wrong–it won’t feel natural at first. Stretching out your vowel sounds takes practice, but you’ll notice a significant difference in clarity one you get the hang of it.
One of the most common pieces of speaking advice for people with accents (as well as one of the top requests by listeners who are struggling to keep up) is, “Slow down.”
But while it’s true you need to focus on your pacing, that isn’t the same as speaking more slowly. Obviously, you don’t want to speak too quickly, but you also don’t want to speak ploddingly, dropping small pauses in between your words. That can be excruciating to listen to, not to mention inefficient.
Instead, you want to pause only in between phrases–meaningful groupings of words supported by breaths. You need to sustain your sound (and pace) throughout the phrase, rather than breaking it up in between words. It’s like stretching out a piece of gum as opposed to cutting it into pieces. When you speak in phrases, you’ll get into a rhythm–one that you can actually control. And the more you get into a rhythm, the more at ease you’ll feel as a speaker.
Finally, if you have an accent because English is your second language, you’re likely going to mispronounce words every once in a while—and that’s okay! Many people with accents get hung up on mispronunciation, but that’s rarely the thing that throws listeners off.
I’ve worked with many Mexican business leaders for whom English is their second language, and while they speak it fluently, many occasionally get caught up on certain words. The Spanish word for “portfolio,” for example, is “portafolio,” so since the English version is so similar, they often revert to the Spanish word while otherwise speaking English. But while the error may be noticeable, it doesn’t get in the way of comprehension or undercut their credibility.
So while you may feel self-conscious about mispronouncing words, just remember that under pressure, everyone’s brains go back to early learning. Most of the time people will understand what you mean. Keep the big picture in mind. Your job is to show the power and relevance of your thinking, not the perfection of your pronunciation.