Will my audience understand my accent during my presentation?
This week I worked with Lesley, a Glaswegian about to present to 17,000 delegates at a Las Vegas conference.
As a presenter, it’s an understandable fear that your accent will get in the way of your presentation.
You’re ready to take the stage.
The speech is written.
Your slides are in place.
And you’re well-rehearsed.
But that one question is still to be answered.
How easily will they understand my accent?
It’s a comment we hear regularly on our presentation skills and media training courses.
“I just hate listening to my thick accent.”
But the truth is somewhat different.
We often dislike hearing our voices played back.
Because it sounds different when we’re hearing through our ears rather than our heads.
Our course participants protest:
“I just sound so Glasgow/Liverpool/Birmingham.”
So I ask:
“Where are you from?”
Let’s get this straight.
Accents are like sun tans.
They just demonstrate you’ve spent time in a certain place.
In 2013, a Daily Mail test found that Glaswegian was the most recognisable of all UK accents.
Devon accents were the friendliest, with an Edinburgh accent considered the most intelligent regionally.
Personally, I find some French accents difficult to follow.
Many sound like my Longman’s audio-visual lessons I had at school.
Crystal clear with every word completely understandable.
But others sound like a tune being played on the piano, with everything just slightly out of key.
And some Americans I’ve met believe they were born without an accent.
My wife was once complimented by a Texan on her Scottish accent.
He told her:
“You have an accent.”
My wife replied:
“Yes, it’s from Scotland.
“And where’s your accent from?”
He replied – in all innocence:
‘I don’t have an accent.”
Of course, he did. It was Texan.
Wherever we come from, the big question remains:
“Will the audience understand my accent during my presentation?”
Here are my top tips on helping everyone follow your every word.
The biggest reason we struggle to follow an accent is speed.
When presenters on stage or in meetings are a little nervous, they speed up.
Any hint of a tricky-to-follow accent and the audience struggles to keep up.
So channel your inner Barack Obama, speaking slowly for his global audience to understand.
If you want precision, slow down to the pace of a BBC news-reader.
That’s three words a second.
That also means you can time your speech or presentation to make sure it’s the length requested.
It takes time to slow down how quickly you speak.
So write “slow down” on every page of script.
I did across 25 years reading the news on radio and TV.
Until I finally did.
Back to the big question.
Will the audience understand my accent during my presentation?
Slowing down is the first step towards doing that.
When I started to listen back to my radio recordings in the 1980s, I got a shock.
Several phrases stood out.
When I mentioned the law enforcement agency, I was calling them “Strathclyde Pleeece”.
So I started practising calling them “Strathclyde Po-leece”.
Strathclyde Police now sounded correct.
I had been unaware of dropping some t’s and d’s.
For those listening to my bulletins, the town south of Glasgow sounded like ‘Eas Kilbride’.
That’s until I took my time to put the ‘t’ back in East.
To this day, my son still chuckles at my pronunciation of my place of birth.
I sound it as ‘Glaaass-go’.
While most from the city call it ‘Glaz-go’.
I wanted a UK-wide audience to understand every word I said when presenting from London.
Indeed, in the less-inclusive 1980s, it was essential to make small changes to accents to be understood.
But some will ask:
“Should I change my accent at all?”
If it helps the audience further understand my accent during my presentation, then yes.
Even when we slow down and make small adjustments to our accent, some will still struggle to follow.
So take pauses.
A pause gives the audience time to take stock of what you’ve just said.
To digest the word and absorb their meaning.
Another step for the audience to understand my accent during my presentation.
So instead of filling the silence with ‘ums’ and ‘errs’, just pause.
Back to Lesley and her Las Vegas speech.
When I first met her more than a decade ago, she was a very fast speaker.
But she made changes.
She slowed down.
Lesley grew up in Glasgow and has an accent that drops t’s and d’s.
Instead of asking her suddenly to put them all back into her words, I asked her to speak normally.
Only refer to “my business” rather than “ma business”, as we sometimes do in Glasgow.
The changes in pronunciation aided the audience’s understanding.
And her pauses gave the audience time to absorb everything.
If we attempt to change too much at the one time, it can put us off.
I’m expecting her to come across loud and clear in the MGM Arena.
And even with a Glasgow accent, I’m expecting the audience to follow every word.
Bill McFarlan is co-Founder and Executive Chairman at Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.
You can read his full profile here.
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