Accent is one of a number of factors people use to size each other up. It’s by no means an infallible guide but it gives us a few clues as to where a person is coming from, both literally and metaphorically, and thereby plays a part in the swift initial assessment we all make when encountering someone for the first time. This is a fact we have to accept, but it is frustrating when the way we speak carries such overtones that people can’t seem to get past it. When I lived in Milan, this used to happen to me a great deal. Although I speak good Italian, my accent betrays my Englishness and I found it intensely irritating how often what I wanted to say was drowned by enquiries about where I come from and what had brought me to Italy.
Whether foreign or regional, if you have an accent that tends to be distracting in this way, or one you feel elicits negative prejudice, it need not be a hindrance to your success in public speaking. In fact, believe it or not, it can be easier to put yourself across in a speech or presentation than it is in daily life. When you’ve been asked to speak, the floor is yours and you have the opportunity to explain yourself without interruptions that take you off course. If your accent gives rise to erroneous preconceptions, you have the chance to confound them.
What’s crucial is that the audience be able to understand you without having to make an effort. To facilitate this, I recommend you:
- rehearse and polish your talk until you’re confident with it, since nerves are the enemy of clarity
- speak slowly, enunciate well and make sure you’re putting the emphasis on the right words and syllables
- repeat and, if necessary, show written any words or names the audience needs to know but might not get clearly from your pronunciation of them
- pause frequently, to allow anyone struggling to decipher a phrase to catch up with you
- give your talk a little introduction, to allow the audience to tune into your way of speaking before you say anything important.
As I’ve said before, an audience will take you at your own valuation. If you feel one down about your roots, you will, consciously or unconsciously, convey it to those listening and this in itself will distract them from what you’re saying. If you find public speaking scary, the prospect of it is bound to exacerbate any insecurities you’ve got but, as you prepare for your speech or presentation, please remember that your accent is an integral part of your identity and there is no need to be ashamed of who you are or where you come from. Be confident, do a good job and the audience will soon get involved in the content and forget about your accent.
Actually, as long as you’re clear, sounding a bit different can be an asset. If where you come from is relevant to what you’re talking about, your accent will reinforce your authority. If it isn’t relevant, it can still make a change for the audience and help them to remember you and your message – it will only undermine your authority if you allow it to.