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Accent got you down? Here’s how you can conquer public speaking

By Vikas Jhingran Email By Vikas Jhingran
April 2014
Accent got you down? Here’s how you can conquer public speaking


VIKAS JHINGRAN, an Indian-born engineer trained at MIT, was so poor at public speaking that his supervisor wouldn’t let him present his own work to clients. But following years of work to conquer his fears of introversion and being a non-native speaker of English, he became the first Indian-American to win the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking. Here he shares eight powerful tips from his book, EMOTE: Using Emotions to Make Your Message Memorable.

At a fundamental level, verbal communication is a back and forth of emotion and information.
Research has shown that people all over the world, irrespective of their upbringing and environment, feel similar emotions. Emotion has no culture or language. It is a human quality. This simple fact can help immigrants believe that they, too, can be outstanding communicators. By employing an emotion-based approach to verbal communications, immigrants can go past their perceived handicaps of pronunciation, grammar, and diction.

People only remember how you make them feel—so bring out the passion.
A few years ago, I heard a passionate appreciation by a colleague for his parents. He talked about their struggles as they lived as illegal immigrants, only to ensure that their children had more opportunities than they did. His speech was powerful, emotional, and impactful. My colleague’s speech had many long pauses while he thought for words, his choice of words could have been better, and his grammar was awkward on occasions. But his emotions came through loud and clear. Those emotions are the only thing I remember today.

Maya Angelou, author and poet, once said “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Immigrants should draw great strength from this remarkable observation because it emphasizes the importance of communicating with passion to make the audience ‘feel.’ After all, that is the only thing they will remember.

The exact words are not important. Perfect grammar is not necessary. The only important thing is the flow of emotion.
Many immigrants fear that they will use the wrong words or incorrect grammar when they communicate verbally. Thus they tend to memorize speeches and spend their time recalling the exact words during the speech. This is a futile exercise. Dale Carnegie, a public speaking pioneer, wrote in his book The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking, “The man who writes out and memorizes his talks is wasting time and energy, and courting disaster. All our lives we have been speaking spontaneously. We haven’t been thinking of words. We have been thinking of ideas. If our ideas are clear, the words come as naturally and unconsciously as the air we breathe.”

When people think about the words and grammar during the speech, they forget about the most important part of communication—the back and forth of emotion. Words and grammar are only tools used by the speaker to deliver an emotional experience to his audience. As long as the words are able to convey the emotions of the speaker, they have served the purpose.

An accent can be an immigrant’s greatest asset, if their words are understood.
First, it probably is not prudent for a non-native speaker to speak at the same pace as a native speaker because, though their audience is enjoying their accent, it is also taking a little more time to comprehend what they are saying. This is because they pronounce the words differently but also because they use different words than those commonly used by native speakers.

Second, some languages do not have all the letters of the English alphabet. Sometimes, they have more. In either case, what comes out of the mouth when you pronounce words with these characters will be difficult for a native speaker to understand. It is useful to be aware of these words and either slow down when you say them or use a different word instead. I consider my accent to be an asset.

I never try to “put on” an accent to mingle with the crowd or be perceived as a native. I would rather be very comfortable when I am communicating than be stressed while trying to say things in a way that is not “normal” for me.

That being said, I have understood that my accent makes it difficult for me to do certain things, like talk fast. I therefore work within this framework, always keenly aware of the expressions of my audience to make sure that they understand what I am saying. If I do this, I usually enjoy the benefits of having an accent—immediate interest in what I am saying.

Their culture and background will make their stories unique.
A distinct advantage that immigrants have is that their stories are different. What immigrants should understand is that though their experiences are different, the emotions that they felt will be similar to the emotions others feel when they share their stories. Immigrants should thus embrace their cultural past, and bring their diversity of thought and experience to their communication. They will still connect with their audience because of common emotions.

The appropriateness of communication tools, like use of gestures, eye contact, and physical contact during conversations, differs across cultures.
An inappropriate gesture can throw a speech or conversation off track. Immigrants have to be particularly sensitive about gestures since they may not be aware of local nuances to their gestures. For example, the gesture made by using the forefinger and the thumb curled into a circle, commonly used in India and the USA to signify everything is well or OK, is interpreted differently in many other countries. Colombians put this circle over their nose to indicate that a person is homosexual, and the Norwegians and Spanish consider this gesture insulting or rude.

It helps to clarify the topic or question either beforehand or at the start of the conversation.
Non-native speakers often use different words to say the same message as native speakers. This sometimes could lead to non-native speakers misunderstanding the question being asked of them. There is great value in anyone, but particularly non-native speakers, clarifying the question or requesting that the question be repeated. This will ensure that their response or talk is on the right topic.

It is useful to seek feedback after the speech on specific words or phrases that were not clear or understood.
One of the best ways to improve verbal communications for non-native speakers is to seek feedback on specific words or phrases that are not clear in a speech. Immigrants should ask a few friends who are natives to carefully listen to their speech and note down any words or phrases that are awkward or not clear. When the audience hears these words or phrases, they spend the next few seconds trying to figure out the meaning and disengage from the speech. This is why it is important to seek feedback so that these words or phrases can be avoided the next time around. 

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