When I was a producer at NBC and MSNBC, I did a lot of pre-interviews over the phone. The purpose of these interviews was to gauge if the person with whom I was speaking was a good fit for a story or an on-air debate segment I was producing.
No matter how knowledgeable or charismatic a potential guest was, if he or she had a thick accent, I regretfully had to pass on them. If I had a hard time understanding them, I knew my audience would as well.
Many spokespeople have accents, and not all of them are so significant that they prevent the audience from understanding. Sometimes, accents are even considered charming. However, researchers at the University of Chicago found in a 2010 study that when people have to work harder to understand a heavy accent, they regard the speaker as less credible. The study concluded:
When people listen to accented speech, the difficulty they encounter reduces “processing fluency.” But instead of perceiving the statements as more difficult to understand, they perceive them as less truthful.
“There are some people out there who try to do accent elimination,” says Judy Ravin, president and founder of the Accent Reduction Institute. “I think that’s pretty impossible. I think that some people do take offense at that, and I have to say, for good reason. An accent is part of our unique cultural identity.”
Still, if you’re a spokesperson with an accent, how do you assess if it’s taking away from your message? Ravin says there are two simple ways:
- 1. You are consistently asked to repeat yourself.
- 2. You get the feeling your audience is nodding in agreement but not understanding your message. A good way to confirm this is to ask someone to echo something you’ve said. If they get it wrong, you’re probably not getting through.
Ravin offers these easy ways to practice your English pronunciation:
- 1. Speak slowly. Everybody’s pronunciation is better when they speak slower.
- 2. Read out loud and practice saying the last sound of each word. English grammar depends heavily on how words end, which sets it apart from many other languages.
- 3. Make sure your intonation goes down before a comma or a period as you’re practicing reading aloud. This signals to the listener the end of a sentence.
- 4. At minimum, nail down the most pervasive sounds in the English language: “th,” “v and w,” “r” and the letter “o.” The letter “o” has many different pronunciations, the most common being “ah” as in prophet or option. The least common is “oh” as in no.
- 5. Practice at least 15 minutes per day five days a week. You acquire these techniques experientially.
It’s worth repeating that Ravin stresses that accent reduction isn’t accent elimination. Rather, the idea is to teach the English language sounds that don’t exist in other languages. “The objective is to maintain the cultural identity but to add to your cultural repertoire of sounds…People will still have an accent — what they won’t have is a communication barrier.”
For more free resources on accent reduction, the Accent Reduction Institute has posted its “Five Essential Techniques for Clear Speech” here.
Christina Mozaffari is the vice president of Phillips Media Relations. She tweets at @PMRChristina.