Many years ago, my friend Greg told me how he had given a keynote speech in Paris. I asked him did he speak French well? He laughed and showed me his wonderful French-style body language! He was so convincing – words were unnecessary.
If you use English as a second language – or even third or more?
Currently, and this could well change, most international research is communicated in English so for now at least, all international researchers need to be proficient at delivering a talk to an English-speaking audience. Using interpreters at conferences is truly difficult and a great deal is lost in translation. Nevertheless, you can succeed if you have critical words and information on slides and you use the right body language!
Now it is well known that for many people, public speaking is a great fear, second only to death; so clearly it is usually extremely frightening to have to give a formal presentation in a language other than your mother tongue? And this fear WILL affect your speaking technique.
It’s not the accent, it’s the fear!
Many years ago in the 1970’s, I attended international conferences at which most of the non English speakers were Japanese males. These men were great researchers but I found it impossible to follow their talks. They did have strong accents, it’s true, but I don’t think that the problem was their accents. Rather, it was that their body language was at odds with what they were saying. I felt at the time that I would have understood them better if they had spoken in Japanese because then they would have been a great deal more confident and their body language would have matched their talk.
Much more recently, I worked at an Australian University, where my job was training postgraduate students in how best to communicate their research. During this time, some PhD students undertook some special training for the 3MT©(Three Minute Thesis competition) and as part of this training, we not only worked on the students’ scripts, but had an expert give a workshop on 1. voice projection, 2. poise and 3.presence (or PPP).
Some weeks after attending this PPP workshop, one European student, who had a very strong accent, asked if she could present a 30-minute seminar to one of my workshops for new PhD students? I said ‘yes’ and she came and gave a powerful and exciting talk. All the new students admired her confidence and thought her presentation was great.
I was overwhelmed by how enjoyable it was to listen to her speaking now that she was no longer embarrassed by her accent and was projecting her voice fully. Her accent was still very strong, but her confident voice projection fully engaged us. Her overall presence was now so powerful that her sometimes poor grammar, mis-pronunciation and mis-use of words no longer mattered at all!
Fear makes many people swallow their words so that the audience can neither hear nor understand what they are saying. But if they can learn to speak out, whether, or not the language and actual words are correct, the audience will still usually be able to understand and enjoy the talk. Communication is far more than words. Certainly, the actual words are very important whenever someone is trying to explain detailed and important research but props like diagrams and figures can be used to fill in some of the details.
It is actually much more important to have great projection and appropriate body language than to have the exact words and pronunciation.
Can you be over-confident? Strong English accents, dialects and speed
Lacking confidence is not the only problem in clear communication in English. Some ‘native’ English speakers who have strong dialects and accents are often extremely hard to understand. If you have a strong accent, even if English is your first language, many people will simply not understand you. You must slow down and if at all possible, reduce your accent.
People who speak too fast can also leave most of the audience bewildered. Since the speed of speech tends to be cultural, you might not be aware of your speed, unless you really stop and take notice. And – even if your accent is clear, if you speak too fast, you are likely to leave your audience behind!
Always remember that as well as hearing you speak, your audience needs time to process the information you are presenting. You are no doubt extremely familiar with your own work but for most of the audience, it is the first time that they have heard it. Even the sharpest minds need a few seconds to process new information. Speaking too fast is a poor quality in any presenter.
Difficult, unusual or critical words need to be displayed visually
One very simple way to ensure that your audience understands your key message is to write it down or display it in some type of visual image. You should adopt this habit regardless of whether, or not English is your first language.
Don’t ever run the risk of your audience thinking that you are speaking about anything other than your key topic! You might be surprised how often people come away from a talk with completely the wrong message.
Make sure that this never happens to you.