Tag Archives: pauses

Still from The Kings Speech with Colin Firth

Confident speaking and the ‘correct’ way to speak English

Which is more important, confident speaking or accurate speaking – getting the accent ‘right’?
I gave a talk on this topic earlier this month to an audience of Chinese and British-born Chinese (BBC) professionals in London.

‘if I just get the accent right I’ll be good at speaking’.

When it comes to confident speaking, especially if English isn’t your first language, some people see accent as a shortcut: ‘If I just get the accent right I’ll be good at speaking’.

It doesn’t really work like that.
Correct pronunciation is important for making yourself understood, of course.
But the thing is, as long as the speaker is communicating effectively, most listeners can cope with a bit of an accent. What people find difficult to listen to is someone who doesn’t sound confident.

Someone who mumbles, or speaks too quickly, or hesitates a lot. And a flawless English accent won’t cure you of any of that.

And while we’re on the subject of ‘getting the accent right’… which accent?

What is the correct way to speak English anyway?

Confident speaking for non-native English speakers
Does it matter if non-native English speakers don’t master ‘the accent’?

There’s still an assumption that there is a ‘correct’ accent, a sort of official form of English. You know the sound I mean? It’s not exactly ‘posh’: it’s not the Queen’s English, but it tends to be spoken by middle- or upper-middle class people in the south of England. Linguists call in Received Pronuncation or RP. It’s the kind of accent you hear from most BBC newsreaders.
As for whether that’s the correct way to speak, it’s interesting to look at the question in the context of English as a world language.
Heather Hansen, a Singapore-based voice and speech coach, uses some cold hard figures to get a sense of perspective:·

Worldwide number of native English speakers:         400million

Number of non-native English speakers:                    1.4billion

English speakers in the UK:                                               57million

Native speakers of RP or standard English:                1 million

RP English is native to a tiny fraction of English speakers – even within England itself! Only a tiny, tiny fraction of the English spoken in the world at any given moment sounds like this – and yet all those other billions of English speakers across the globe, despite having the ‘wrong’ accent, manage to get by somehow!
When you look at it like this, it doesn’t make sense to think of RP, or BBC English, as ‘correct’ English.

As long as English is clear, consider it correct.

This was an especially relevant issue for a lot of the audience at this event: all fluent English speakers, if not bilingual, although most of them – whether Chinese-born or British-born –  that I met spoke with a Chinese or Asian-sounding accent. Some of them talked about wanting to ‘improve’ or ‘speak with a better accent’.
Should they strive to sound more English? Hmm. There are around 300 million people in China alone who are learning English – five times the population of the UK (thanks again, Heather). Maybe it’s us Brits who should be learning a Chinese accent!
Instead of a crash course in how to do an English accent (see a previous post if that’s what you’re after) I took them through the first steps of my Effective Speaking program – simple techniques for for confident speaking, including how to use vocal tone, rhythm, pace and pitch to make your speech easier to listen to.
These techniques inspire confidence because they’re practical: if you understand HOW to speak effectively, you feel more in control of how you communicate, and that confidence will spread to your listeners. They’ll be more inclined to listen to someone who sounds confident in what she’s saying, and do you know what’s interesting?
The more confidently you speak, the less we hear the accent. The less trouble we have understanding you.

So I would say to anyone wondering about whether they need to get the English accent ‘right’ – what do you want? Do you want to sound English? Or do you want to really communicate?
I can help you to do either. But however you choose to sound, make sure you speak with confidence.
Contact me to find out more. Thanks for reading!

Filler words: how to avoid ‘um’, ‘er’ and ‘buffer’ speech

“Um, like, Taylor Swift is like, um, so awesome…”

New research conducted by Edinburgh University has found that English speakers, especially younger ones and especially women (like, um, Taylor Swift) are tending use more ‘um’s in their conversation than ‘er’s (or ‘uh’s if they’re from North America), which tend to be used more by older, male speakers.

There are some interesting theories about why that might be, but I’m more interested in why we use filler words in general, and how we can avoid them. Because, um, I think they’re, er, best avoided, y’know?

Most people get annoyed, to some degree, by the overuse of filler words or ‘filled pauses': usually by other people doing it, but often when they do it themselves. I have lots of clients who want to deal with their habit of ‘um-ing’ and ‘er-ing’ constantly.

Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift: big fan of ‘um’ and ‘like’

Often it’s the older generation who get grumpy about youngsters like Taylor Swift and their fondness for ‘like’.I spoke to a woman recently who wanted to find a way to stop her ten-year-old daughter saying ‘…though!’ at the end of every sentence, like Lauren the ‘am I bovvered’ girl from The Catherine Tate Show. She thought it was a sloppy habit and, worse, made her daughter sound unintelligent.

It’s because filler words are an unconscious attempt to keep the other person engaging in the conversation, even though you can’t think of what to say: ‘listen, there’s still noise coming out of my mouth, keep listening and it’ll soon turn into meaningful noise’.

Fillers are a substitute for genuine engagement: they’re the conversational equivalent of a webpage that keeps buffering every few seconds. Very difficult to stay focused, as a listener, when the speaker is constantly putting you on hold.

But come on – hardly anyone speaks in complete sentences. Even very quick-witted clever people need time and space to find the words to express themselves. The trick is to do that without the bursts of conversational white noise that put listeners off and make you seem lazy or dim in your speech.

So, how can we avoid using fillers and still give ourselves time to find the words?

It’s much better to use PAUSES and ENERGY to hold people’s attention while your formulate your thoughts.

Pauses are really useful, for the listener and for you the speaker. For you, it’s a brief moment to think what you want to say next, and for your listener, it’s enough time to take in what you’ve just said, before you move on. As long as you pause BETWEEN thoughts, not in the middle of them, it won’t break your flow.

But if you keep pausing, how do you stop people from losing interest – or cutting in, before you’ve finished what you want to say?

This is where ENERGY and INFLECTION come into it. If you can have confidence that the pauses will give you time to find the words, then what you do actually say can be full of vocal energy, rather than trailing off while you think of what coming next. And if you’re speaking to someone in person, you can still engage with them using your eyes and facial expression, even though you’re momentarily silent.

It’s when the energy drops, that people lose interest – not just because there is no noise issuing from your mouth!

And you can use a bright, rising INFLECTION to convey that you have more to add (not a questioning inflection – a blog on ‘upspeak’ and ‘question intonation’ is coming soon!).

The important thing is to use the WORDS, and the PAUSES between thoughts, to keep people engaged – then it won’t matter whether you’re ‘um-ing’, ‘er-ing’, or ‘whatever-ing’. And Edinburgh University will just have to find something else to spend their time studying…

Check out the info on my Effective Speaking coaching on the main website, or get in touch with me to find out how you can improve your speaking skills. Until next time!