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Dealing With Accents in Public Speaking - I

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My father was from Scotland; so naturally he spoke with a Scottish accent. In fact, it was a thick Scottish accent.

That wasn’t a problem in Scotland, but it became one in Toronto, Canada. As my father aged he developed a neurological disorder that among other things affected his speech. He began to slur his words.

With just his accent some people had difficulty understanding him; but for many, the additional slurring made him incomprehensible. Unfortunately, as a result of this, many people gave up trying to communicate with him. Others looked to his family members (such as me) to help interpret what he was saying.

I was fortunate in that I had always heard his accent. I was so accustomed to it that I literally did not (and could not) hear it. I simply heard my father’s voice. So when he began to slur his words I didn’t have the problem of the slurring on top of the accent. I merely heard my father’s voice slurred. As result, I was able to understand him more than most.

In my late teens and early twenties I knew another gentleman who grew up a few miles from my father and had a very similar accent (or so I was told). For me there was no comparison; his accent was as apparent as could be. It obviously wasn’t just the accent but the accent as part of my father’s voice that I was accustomed to.

I find accents very difficult to qualify. I immediately recognize one when I hear it, but what is it that makes someone sound different; at least different from what I am used to.

By the way, I’m always shocked when someone points out that Canadians have accents. Of course we don’t (eh?) We have the most bland and neutral voice in the whole world. We are also the most unbiased people in world… (That previous statement should be read with sarcasm). If a Canadian ever claims that they don’t have an accent just ask them what the largest city in Canada is. The answer will come out something like Tar-ranna – as opposed to Toronto.

The reason accents are so important is because individuals, including our audiences, often subconsciously evaluate someone’s intelligence based on their ability to communicate. Even more honestly, we judge someone’s intelligence on our ability to understand what is being communicated. If we want to have a maximum impact on our audience we have to look for areas that might impede our message's effectiveness; such as accents. This obviously happened with my father and his slurred Scottish accent. It frequently happens to others as well.

In my next post we will discuss what we as public speakers can do to minimize the impact of accents.

One final thought. Of course this article is not meant to focus on Scottish accents (or Canadian accents) any more than any others. I am simply using some specific examples from my own history to illustrate a problem that we all might encounter.

David Mudie

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