Speaking Clearly: A Presenter’s Burden

The broad disciplines of public speaking and presentations each encompass a variety of ancillary aspects, both assumed and otherwise. Presenting is properly understood to be so diverse that it conceivably includes concepts as disparate as digital typography and fashion. The presentation cottage industry has rapidly outgrown its cottage and, as a beneficiary of its amorphous and platform-agnostic nature, has seen its influence skyrocket in recent years.

The increasing visibility of public speakers has itself been a marked trend, one that has ascended part and parcel with the technology industry, in particular. While public speaking has its own share of familiar offshoots and associations, it would be fair to say that more often than not the term conjures up, simply, someone speaking in public. That clear evocation belies the temptation to forget altogether perhaps the most central tenet of public speeches: the act of speech itself.

Whether it’s silly made up words in a sing song voice or a crucial investor pitch, when we speak up we (generally) want to be heard. And unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, whether or not our utterances follow through on their intended purpose is not just a matter of volume. No, the type of hearing we want our audience to participate in is equally dependent on volume and clarity.

Marketer Troy Fawkes, author of The Conversation Handbook, offers up this advice on speaking clearly with respect to the meaning of our words:

“Clear speech is direct and takes responsibility of its meaning.

Understand this: your meaning is going to be the same whether you obscure it or not. The only thing obscuring your speech does is make you harder to understand and make you look scared. Be direct.

And more importantly, be responsible. Don’t say, ‘It wasn’t appreciated.’ Say, ‘I don’t appreciate that.’ Even better, don’t say, ‘we’re not sure what to do.’ Say, ‘I’m not sure what to do.’”

That’s all true, and sometimes, especially when American English speakers are presenting in a room with people unfamiliar with the litany of idioms in our particular dialect, our words can’t get out of their own way. But there are also times where it’s not just what we’re saying that trips our audience up, but what we’re using to say it. Sometimes our own mouths betray us.

It doesn’t always have to be so dramatic, either. A simple flub or minor mispronunciation can be as damaging to the clarity of our speech as a full-blown impediment. As Charles Harrington Elster writes in The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations,

“In this book, beastly means glaringly wrong, wholly unacceptable, odious, repugnant. A beastly mispronunciation is a pronunciation that flouts established usage, one abhorrent to the ear.

[M]ost of the pronunciations labeled beastly here occur in educated speech[…] Beastly mispronunciations may be the result of laziness, carelessness, pretentiousness, or affectation.”

It should go without saying that those are things we should strive not to be.

But there is a fate worse than negative perception awaiting the unlucky mispronouncer — one related to the advent of new technology. Just this week, Google has (among other things) announced that it will be adding voice recognition technology to its ubiquitous Google Docs suite.

From Forbes,

“Not only can you speak what needs to be typed, Google can translate what you say into 40 languages. A caveat: ‘We’re not sure it can handle the Boston accent yet,’ said Ryan Tabone, director of product management for Google Docs.”

This new “Voice Typing”, as Google has branded it, seems sure to have a significant impact for the search giant’s users, especially at the younger end of the demographic. But it will have to show a forgiving capacity for children’s voices and background noise, as the highly fun and experimental Amazon Echo does, most of the time.

Perhaps “speaking clearly” is not just a burden for speakers and presenters, but for all of us. Especially as technology continues to evolve, it will become more and more important for the everyday person to enunciate their words, use simple, accessible language, and be loud enough for ears and microphones alike to pick up our voices. Until technology gets good enough that it doesn’t matter anymore, that is.


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