Public Speaking with an Accent

A few months ago I had the pleasure to speak at the local Women in Architecture of AIA New Orleans event. Afterward, two women from the audience approached me about a specific concern, public speaking with an accent. Being in New Orleans I understand their concern. In the city, you will hear a distinctive local accent that many call “Yat”, as in, “Where Y’at?” (Where are you at?) that is different from the stereotypical Southern drawl heard in more rural areas. When traveling, I’ve been mistaken for a New Yorker and a Chicagoan because of my accent, but it is just my New Orleans accent.
These two ladies had the same concern about public speaking with an accent but came at it from two different aspects. One of them was from the Midwest and recently moved to New Orleans; she had the classic Minnesota “don’t ya know” accent that I hear from my husband’s family. The Midwesterner was concerned that she’d stick out in a bid presentation for not being a local. The second lady that asked me about accents was not from the United States originally and she had a think Latin America accent. She worried that her audience would not understand her and recently her boss asked her to start speaking more to bring in potential new clients via thought leadership presentations.
web_offer_banner_3_contentmarketingThey both cited the vanilla accents heard in the media. In journalism school, most students are taught to speak without an accent so they are understood universally and so they can go to a different market without it being noticeable. If you think back to the classic news anchors like Walter Cronkite and Peter Jennings, they were nearly emotionless and had no distinctive accent when they spoke. Today, we see news anchors being less formal and they share more of their personalities, even more so thanks to social media. That combined with the “world getting smaller” thanks to the internet and real-time global news, I see the vanilla speaking going away in the near future.
Speaking with an accent is still a legitimate concern when presenting for business. The great news is your audience adapts to your way of speaking within 3-5 minutes and I remember that happening when I was in college. Many of my math and science professors were international and had heavy accents that were had to decipher early in the class, but it got easy as class went on.
Also, your accent is part of you and one of the best aspects of public speaking is sharing part of your personality. I always suggest that presenters embrace their personality, including their accent, and use it because it is part of them. I do have a few suggestions to help you be more easily understood if you have a strong accent.

Slight Adjustments for Public Speaking with an Accent

  • Fast-paced speakers – If you naturally speak fast and string multiple words together, then I suggest you be conscious of your speaking rate and slow it down slightly. I suggest this to all fast talkers (including myself), even those without an accent. The pauses in your presentation allow your audience to think and remember what you’re saying. Speeding through your message can make it hard for them to understand and recall what you said at a later time.
  • Slow talking presenters – Contrary to fast-paced speakers, many slow talkers are easily understood. However, some audience members may take your slow speaking rate as lacking excitement or interest in the subject manner. Make sure you talk at a comfortable pace and show some energy; smiling helps too.
  • web_offer_banner_3_contentmarketingMuffled speakers & mumblers – People from some regions of the world do not open their mouths much to speak so their voice does not project well. Mumbling, especially combined with fast-paced speaking, can be difficult for your audience to hear and understand you. Open your mouth more and project louder than you’re comfortable doing (at first). Watch the people in the back of the room and see if they are engaged. If they are not watching you speak, then they probably can’t hear you and have given up straining to hear you. Your audience wants to hear what you have to say, so speak up.
  • Your words have different pronunciations – If you naturally say a word different than the region you speaking in (like caramel or tomato), then just go with it. You may joke with the audience that you say “tomato” and they call it “tomato” so they’re on the same page with what you’re talking about and it could be a way to engage them on a personal level.
  • Your words have different meanings – If you travel abroad to speak, you need to be conscious that some words have different meanings even if you’re still speaking the same language. The United States, Great Britain, South Africa, and Australia all speak English, however, have wildly different words for some things. Take a look at this long list of different British and American terms in the Oxford Dictionary. Make sure what you’re saying is even relevant and feel free to joke about it a bit if you’re not doing a super formal presentation.
  • You use words unique to your culture – Even though I’m from New Orleans, it sometimes feels like we’re a different country than the United States because of the way we say and do things here. For example, I can’t go to New York or Seattle and expect those audiences to know what making groceries or lagniappe means. (FYI – buying groceries and something extra, respectively.) Just like words that have different meanings, you may know what words are unique to your culture and you need to explain them. Sometimes you’ll be surprised that is a regional term, so watch your audience for clues that they don’t understand. (Another reason not to read your presentation.) If they look puzzled, pause and explain so they are up to speed with what you’re sharing.

Keep in mind when you’re speaking with an accent, to share your personality and be comfortable being you. Watch your speaking rate and the meaning of the words you’re using, and remember to articulate your words. These slight adjustments when public speaking with an accent will help your audience to understand you without sounding vanilla.

Additional Resources

How Speak Simple Can Help You

Win more work, increasing your billing rate, and prospects coming to you are all results of being an excellent presenter. Erica Olson created Speak Simple to help technical professionals to become comfortable presenting and excel at each presentation, whether a bid presentation or an educational, content marketing presentation. Learn more about Speak Simple’s flagship program is SpeakU, a self-guided presentation training program.

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