Accents and Public Speaking

Recently I was a speaker at a conference in Philly. As a native upstate New Yorker who has spent the last 30 years in Boston, I likely sounded a little different than the other (local) speakers. I don’t have what most people think of as the typical “New Yawk” – upstate, upstate. And I haven’t yet “pahked the cah” but neither do I say “Iggles” when referencing Philadelphia’s football team.

At the end of the talk, one of the women in the audience asked a question that led to a discussion on accents.

Event managers tell us that they love seeing videos from our speakers (a part of the Innovation Women platform). Why? So they can see the speakers in action!

Are they articulate? Do they seem knowledgeable? At ease? (Not sweating through a shirt and blazer like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News.)

And, do they have an accent?

As a company dedicated to more diverse speakers and panelists, that last question makes us squirm. To get more diversity on stage, we will likely hear more accents. Or will we? Do accents keep you offstage?

Yes, of course they do. But ONLY if the listener has trouble understanding what you are saying. It’s not just a strong accent that will keep you offstage – mumblers and whisperers, screechers and stutterers are also less likely to be chosen to speak publicly. If you are not able to easily communicate an idea so everyone in the audience can understand you, you are likely to spend a lot of time riding the bench.

The gatekeepers (event managers) are less likely to take a chance on a speaker with a “thick” accent. According to my friend Ina Ames, a semi-retired communications professor with more than 30 years of experience, accent “bias” is everywhere. “Internationals (anywhere, not just the US), with “heavy” accents are considered less intelligent and therefore have less credibility. As a result, they make less money and in spite of their actual intelligence, have less successful careers.

“Good pronunciation is very important to being understood and respected. The ability to produce proper syllabic stress is an extremely important part of being understood properly. So anyone studying American “Career Speech” needs to be taught phonetics – both written and spoken – and syllabic stress to be understood.”

Ames concluded, “So, the long answer to your short question is that it is very difficult for anyone with a heavy accent to get public speaking engagements. However, if they can pronounce enough sounds correctly and with good syllabic stress, a light accent is actually a bonus!”

Bobbie Carlton

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