Four out of 10 Americans regularly worry about not having enough money for the future. And one in three fear the U.S. will be involved in another world war–just as many report concern over global warming and climate change. And more Americans (25.9%) are afraid of public speaking than are afraid of heights, devastating natural disasters, police brutality, and even dying?
Now, imagine what that experience is like for a non-native-English speaker who is, say, pitching her startup idea to a group of very white funders. That’s tough. The good news is, of course, that there’s an app to help with that.
Orai is the brainchild of Drexel University engineering students Danish Dhamani and Paritosh Gupta. The app provides written prompts that you read aloud, which it then processes to provide instant feedback on speech clarity, filler words, pace, and vocal energy to help you become a more effective communicator.
“The one thing we had in common is that English was not our first language,” Dhamani tells Fast Company. “Paritosh grew up in India. I was born in Pakistan, but my family moved to Tanzania when I was very young, so I was raised in Africa. When we came to the U.S., it was hard–from job interviews to networking events, talking in front of groups of people.”
To improve their communication skills here in America, both cofounders enrolled in Toastmasters International, a global public speaking club. But they came to the conclusion that most people can’t afford such programs, much less a private speech coach. If it’s not the cost (Toastmasters costs $65 for the first six months), it’s the time. “There had to be a better way,” Gupta said. “So we put techniques into a smartphone app that anyone can use anywhere to become a better speaker.”
Orai, in its current form, was finished just six months ago. And while it’s only been on Apple’s App Store for a little over a month, it already has more than 1,000 downloads (it’s not yet available for Android). Use Orai for a few minutes a day and you might start speaking more clearly (at the “ideal” 130 to 150 words per minute), use fewer filler words like umm and uhh, and improve your voice modulation and energy levels during a presentation.
Opening the app gives you a short menu of exercises. “Tongue Twister,” obviously, has you speak and record yourself saying a phrase three times quickly. “Elevator Pitch” gives you 90 seconds to practice presenting your million-dollar idea, and the “Um Challenge” asks you to speak for at least 30 seconds about your favorite TV show while intentionally saying “um” every other word. It sounds counterintuitive, but the challenge quickly makes you realize how useless and distracting filler words really are.
“Public speaking is like going to the gym. You can’t go once and get bigger biceps—you have to train on a consistent basis,” Dhamani says. To that extent, Orai creators say its algorithms are sensitive to the “nuances of human speech,” and the app’s reward system presents trophies and shout-outs for elocutionary excellence. You can also set reminders to practice and upload your own text to the app, so you can work on your specific presentation, and not need not rely on preloaded (regularly updated) text.
Reading a basic 30-second prompt, I received an 81% for speech clarity. Orai recommended I try adding one- to two-second pauses between sentences to improve comprehension. Turns out I was speaking at 176 words per minute. Orai let me know that was about 30 words too fast. “Try to calm yourself down before you start speaking. Then aim to distill your thoughts–not spill them, so ground yourself and proceed mindfully.” On top of all that, my recording was graded an uninspiring monotone–but, hey, at least I didn’t have any fillers.
My second test run was with the “My Favorite Things” exercise, which asks you to describe your favorite food, restaurant, or late-night haunt, and I performed slightly better. My average words per minute was down to 85, rated slightly too slow, but speech clarity, measured by AI voice-to-text comprehension–was up to 84%, I still didn’t have any fillers, and the recording was listed an ideal “energetic.” (The app said I’ll be hosting a TED Talk in no time.)
“This app can level the playing field,” Dhamani said. “Anyone can be entrepreneurial, get job interviews, get whatever thing they’re seeking–and I think Orai can really help with that by empowering every single person in any part of the world with the voice to unlock tons of opportunities.”
The experience does sound promising, and, even as a native speaker, Orai made me more aware of what I was saying and how I should be saying it. Dhamani and Gupta said they had plenty of Orai success stories, including a 13-year-old using the app to prepare for a class debate, which she won, and a college student leaning on Orai’s instant feedback in rehearsing the defense of his PhD dissertation.
The cofounders are fine examples, too. Over the past year, the well-rehearsed duo have pulled in about $60,000 in seed funding in business plan pitch competitions, and were named finalists in the recent Microsoft Imagine Cup in Seattle.
John Baugh, an expert in sociolinguistics and linguistic profiling at Washington University in St. Louis tells Fast Company he likes the idea. “To the extent that someone that moves to the U.S. who’s not a native speaker of English has encountered people who are critical of their speech, then any feedback that they can get that might help clarify their speech is potentially beneficial.”
But there’s another side of the coin. In these United States, nothing is certain except death, taxes, and discrimination. Baugh says bias toward or against a particular accent–which you’ll still obviously have after using the app–is almost unavoidable, and that profiling takes place whenever you open your mouth. So while Orai might help you land startup funding, crush your next performance review, or even help get your name on a lease, there are still many other obstacles to overcome.
Let’s just remember that bilingual speakers are by definition fluent in two languages yet are too often deemed uneducated or undeserving of opportunity simply for sounding not quite like the people we see on TV.
Orai is in its early days, and the app is far from perfect, but the cofounders continue to use machine learning to teach its AI to “understand the nuances of human speech.” That’s being done to offer more human-like feedback to users. Eventually, Gupta and Dhamani hope to introduce languages other than English to the app.
After no more than 20 total minutes on the app, I’ve already become more conscious about what I’m saying, and how I’m saying it–even in casual conversations with friends, family, and coworkers. I also can’t help but quietly judge other people’s speech patterns.
“Orai is not just a business for us. It’s our passion,” says Dhamani. “Orai has helped us become better at public speaking, and we want it to help other people, too.”