Clear Speech – Improve your Chances for Promotion
By Heather Chetwynd, president of Voice to Word Consulting Inc., a Toronto-based company which offers customized training and seminars to support the needs of clients who are not native English speakers.
Do people seem to find it difficult to understand you when you speak? Do they often ask you to repeat yourself? Do they look like they are really concentrating to understand you?
Whether your perception is true or not, being able to participate comfortably in a conversation depends upon both language skill and context. Understanding the culture, being familiar with the topic and concepts being discussed, knowing the idioms and vocabulary being used – all these increase the ease with which communication takes place. But if others find it difficult to understand your pronunciation, they may lose interest, get frustrated, misunderstand and, unfortunately, misjudge you.
Expectations regarding appropriate communication skills and their importance vary wildly between newcomers and their potential and actual employers. According to research*, employers and newcomers value language and communication skills quite differently. Whereas 95% of employers consider these skills to be very important, only 27% of newcomers do.
There are many reasons for this. Internationally Educated Professionals have often worked in English speaking environments for years with few language or communication issues. They have come to Canada with the understanding that their professional experience is in demand and, consequently, the expectation of quickly getting a job in their field. Most come with appropriate soft skills from their country of origin and view technical skills to be of higher importance.
It is only after endless applications and rejections, or years in a position with no promotion that they start to reflect on what may be the cause.
And what is the cause? Simply stated, “there’s a requirement in the job which they are not able to fulfill due to a communication limitation,” says HR Professional, Nicole Stuart, CHRP.
The first step is to identify where the communication limitation is. If it is related to accent, don’t expect to be told. Being open to accepting that your accent may be causing a communication gap is very important in an environment where managers are often nervous about pointing this out.
“At the end of the day, if your employee has a performance gap, it needs to be addressed,” says Stuart. “You can open the door and try to give the employee the chance to self-identify… A manager would never be coached to say, ‘You’re not clear in your communication because of your accent.’”
Many managers are nervous about pointing out accent issues since this can often be interpreted as discriminatory. And in many cases it might be. But often the concern is very real and inhibiting easy communication. According to Stuart, a better approach would be to say: “‘The delivery of that communication was unsuccessful. What do you think are the reasons?’ Get the employee to self-identify.”
Anyone who has an accent very different from the dominant accent in the region should be open to concerns about clarity. If you believe this may be an issue, the next step is to explore the issues in more detail. Let’s look at a few scenarios I have experienced with my accent clients:
Dev had worked on his presentation all weekend. He was careful to fit in everything he wanted to cover but, as time was tight, he would have to speak quickly. While presenting, his clients seemed distracted. At the end, they asked a few questions which he had already covered quite extensively. They said they would get back to him and never did.
ISSUE – speaking too fast with few pauses makes it difficult for us to accommodate for accent differences since we don’t know where an idea starts and finishes and we have no time to figure out any words pronounced differently.
Canada had just signed a free trade agreement with Colombia. When I asked what Canada exported to his country, my client said “weed.”
ISSUE – We actually export wheat. ‘Weed’ is slang for marijuana. The difference between those two sounds is primarily in the vowel length which should be very short before the voiceless T and longer before the voiced D.
Ricardo had just received a document but there were some serious mistakes in the data calculations. It had to be fixed before they could move on. He approached his manager with the page in hand and said: “This shit is all wrong.”
ISSUE – the long and short “I” vowel. For the long vowel (‘sheet’) we hold the tongue high at the back, sounding more like ‘iy’ than ‘I’.
Most people will never be able to completely eliminate a foreign accent and this should never be a goal. But with some time and commitment, it is possible to moderate your pronunciation enough so that you can be easily understood. The speed with which you improve and the degree of improvement depends on several factors:
- The quality of instruction
- Your openness to change
- Your desire to improve
- The time you spend in focused practice
- Your innate ability
So what is the first step? Be open to the possibility that clarity may be an issue. But explore other aspects as well. I have had people come to me, concerned about accent, when the issue was really that the person talked too much so people would cut her off. In another case, the client acted insecure by waving her hands around too much when really she needed to remain more still so that others would consider her to be more authoritative. There are many reasons why people will disregard, question or interrupt you. Self-awareness is very important in all aspects of communication.
If you have determined that your speech is unclear, decide to work on it. Classes can be a good starting point and there is a lot of material available on the internet. But as many people have difficulties with identifying the issues, refining your accent may require private instruction. Either way, you must be open to change and willing to put what you learn into practice. Moderating your accent may involve adjusting your public image, your self-perception and your personality. Be open, use the tools and be patient – your pronunciation can and will improve.
* Report: Perceptions of Employment Barriers and Solutions, (from ALLIES, undertaken by R.A. Malatest and Associates, funded by the Government of Ontario;) taken from HireImmigrants.ca newsletter, March 2015.