Tag Archives: voice

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!

 

Speak with a ‘proper’ British accent – in 3 minutes!

How to speak with a ‘proper’ British accent – in 3 minutes!

No, I haven’t truncated my coaching into a 3-minute express course – of course there’s so much more to it than that. But Prof David Ley from the University of Alberta has some short, snappy, and quite entertaining tips about how to get the right feel for an educated neutral British English accent. I’m not sure if the end result is anything like how 98% of speakers with this accent actually sound, but his process is pretty bang-on!

Politely disregard the hammy rep-theatre versions of Irish, Southern States and Scottish that he does at the end – don’t call us, we’ll call you, professor :)

barmitzvah celebrations

Mazel tov! Brushing up on your barmitzvah speech

I was in the north London suburbs recently with a group of lads preparing for their barmitzvahs next year.

My Hebrew’s a bit rusty, but luckily the religious element of the ritual, which involves learning to recite passages from the Torah, is supervised by a rabbi. I came in to help with the less formal, but equally daunting element: the barmitzvah speech.

Imagine a cross between an Oscar acceptance, where you thank everyone who helped get you where you are today, and a best man’s speech, where you to acknowledge the solemnity – and joy – of the day, while keeping the party guests rolling in the aisles with your perfectly-judged witty remarks. And you’ve just turned 13.

No pressure, then.

With younger clients, I always start with the basics: what is communication and why is it important? Most kids are used to being told to stand up straight and ‘speak up’, but we talked about what effect it has on your audience if your physical presence – posture, facial expression, eye contact – and your voice – loud enough to hear easily, not speaking too fast, and with expression and clarity – convey to all the people listening how much you value what you’re saying, and how much you value them.

And of course, it’s always easier to make your point to 12-year-old boys if you throw in the odd impersonation of characters from South Park. Bet you didn’t know my vocal talents stretched that far…

For kids of 10 and up, I can offer a tailored program of coaching that can help boost confidence, and draw on the natural interest in words and sounds that most of them already have, to overcome selfconsciousness and be assured articulate speakers. Email me at anthony@anthonyshuster.co.uk to discuss what we can do.

grime mcs and djs

Being ‘for real': accents, authenticity and urban music

I don’t usually listen to BBC Radio 1xtra for the documentaries (ok, it’s an urban music station and I’m 35 – I don’t usually listen to Radio 1xtra at all). But the other day I stumbled upon a great hour-long program called Speak Britannia, about accents and dialects and how they feature in contemporary UK hip hop music and youth culture.

It was fascinating – especially when discussing the link between accent and authenticity, or being ‘for real’.

There’s nothing more important in hip hop – being true to your roots and the people you grew up around, rather than pretending to be something you’re not.

In terms of how you ‘spit’, or express yourself verbally in your music, that means rapping or singing in your natural accent. Not an issue if you’re from east or south London (“safe, blud”), where grime and other urban music genres first emerged – those accents are the signature vocal sound of UK urban.

But what if being ‘for real’ means spitting in a Scottish, a Bristol or a Yorkshire accent? It turns out there’s a real contradiction in urban music between being authentic and having the right sound for the mainstream.

One section of the program focused on a Scottish MC who was laughed offstage at a contest for rapping in his native accent.

Getting a foot in the door with a Glasgow accent proved so difficult that he went as far as developing an alter ego, an entire fictional persona, who performed in an American accent – and was an instant success. (He later dispensed with the act after losing the will to continue faking it). It seems that urban music, like many cultures, can be deeply conservative about what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

Grime MCs and DJs are in a uniquely tricky position, where the sound of the vocals isn’t just about clarity but about whether you  are reppin’ the ‘real’ voice of the streets. Think of the radio DJ Tim Westwood, the vicar’s son with the infamous pseudo-rudeboy drawl. It’s a cultural issue, not just a vocal one.

This issue of authenticity comes up a lot with my clients, when I try to describe how accent reduction and speech training fit into a contemporary world where you’re constantly reminded to ‘just  be yourself’.
When I meet clients for the first time, they usually start by saying ‘I quite like my accent’. It feels dishonest to try and suppress their natural sound, because it’s part of who they are and where they’ve come from.
They’re right to feel this way. I don’t teach people how to ‘put on’ a British accent, because how are you meant to be confident and speak from the heart in your professional and personal life if you feel like a fake?
Thankfully, I can’t think of many professions where it’s still considered essential to speak with a flawless English accent (actors in Downton Abbey, perhaps?) The British have generally become more accustomed to different accents from their newsreaders, their doctors and their bank managers. Regrettably some prejudice still exists: I shared an article on social media recently about how ‘accentism’ is still prevalent in Britain. I don’t feel that individuals should be expected to pander to these prejudices, but I think it’s important to remember what I say to most clients: that a good communicator doesn’t make her listeners work too hard to understand her.
I always reassure people that accent reduction is about clarity:  finding a sound that is still ‘you’, but that most people can easily understand. Most English speakers, especially in London and the bigger cities, can cope with different accents, but the easier it is for them, the more likely they are to get what you’re saying, and not be distracted by how you say it.

Then you’ll not only be ‘for real’, you’ll be live-o fam, y’get me?

No, didn’t think so…