Sometimes I’m asked by presenters “What should I do about my accent?” or “Should I lose my accent?”
My view, as someone who trains people’s voices and helps them to speak in public, is that the first rule of presenting is to be heard and understood, in every sense of those words. Accents can make us sound exotic and interesting or can sometimes impede understanding.
But let me make it plain at the outset. I LOVE accents, I think they are hugely important aspects of who we are. We sometimes have to accept that they need modifying, but never eradicating.
Accents tell us all sorts of things about where a person is from; as accents change over time, they can hint at the age of the speaker etc etc. They are tied in with a person’s character and personality. In the past, schoolchildren, public speakers, actors et al were often encouraged get rid of their accents. What a ridiculous concept.
There is no such thing as ‘no accent’
There is no such thing as a person without an accent. Standard English, or RP (received pronunciation) is as much an accent as any other.
Scottish theatre blossomed when it came to realise that it could speak in its own accent. The first production of Liz Lochhead‘s ‘Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off‘ was a seminal moment for many. The first play I directed in a Scottish drama school was Macbeth or ‘The Scottish Play’ to the superstitious. My cast of young actors were hugely relieved when I stopped them in the first rehearsal to ask why they were trying to speak in English accents? A previous teacher had told them speaking in their own accents was unacceptable and inauthentic. Huge relief all round when I blew that myth smartly out of the water. (Our Macbeth was all the better for being truly Scottish.)
How boring it would be if we all sound the same! It is only when your listeners are unfamiliar with the sounds your voice makes, because they are different, that problems may arise. If people can’t really understand what we’re saying, then our communication is suffering and we should do something about it.
How to help your listeners understand you, when your accent is different to theirs
- Slow down. Especially slow down the connections between the thoughts you are expressing, to give people time to take in and perhaps translate what you are saying. (See my previous post about the Three Chairs Exercise to help with this)
- Moderate your accent a little. This does NOT mean get rid of it. It’s more about observing what people find difficult and smoothing your accent out a little. Do not try and squash it or adopt a different voice, as that never comes out sounding really true and authentic.
Getting used to hearing an accent
Once listeners get used to an accent, they can usually understand what the person is saying. In Britain, most of us are used to hearing ‘standard English’ via radio and television so we can understand it fairly easily. (However, accents are constantly changing – listen to an old radio broadcast and you’ll hear a very different ‘standard English’.) We’re also fairly used to London accents because we hear them so often on television nowadays – EastEnders etc – although only ‘posh’ accents were heard in early broadcasting days.
When I first moved to Glasgow I encountered some accents – sometimes mixed with dialect words too – which taxed my understanding. I particularly remember Mr McIntyre, who came to clean out all our tenement apartment chimneys. He had an accent which, to my ears, sounded like a richly resonant cement mixer: lyrical but impenetrable as gravel. Luckily Mr McIntyre had a great sense of humour and thought it incredibly funny when I stood before him with my bemused expression. Fortunately we shared a great fondness for strong coffee, so after an unsuccessful attempt to unravel something which sounded to me like “Grrrrrusthusssawhatchureftr?”, I’d pause and say, “Shall we have a cup of coffee?” “Grrrrthaudutgoodnweeel”. After a few sips “Right Mr McIntyre, shall we try again?” And bit-by-bit the light began to dawn. (Billy Connolly tells the story of bringing his young children back to Glasgow and being asked, “Daddy, why are all these people growling at me?”)
Some odd observations about accents
- I recently visited the Evolving English – One Language, Many Voices exhibition at the British Library in London. One of the fascinating things I found out was that there are ‘accents’ in sign language which reveal the home region of the speaker.
- Charlotte Bronte spoke with an Irish accent despite being brought up in Yorkshire and never having visited Ireland. Her father spoke with broad Irish accent, which she presumably copied. (It’s very common to copy volume and rhythm from close relatives.)
What are your views on accents? What stories can you tell?
Loved this post. I often feel my accent acts as a barrier to getting my thoughts across, especially when talking with people who are not from the West of Scotland. It is heartening to read that I shouldn’t soften my accent but slow down – one of the biggest public speaking ‘sins’ for a lot of people, I suspect!
You’re not wrong Linda – slowing down makes a huge difference to how easily people understand you, strong accent or not. Thanks for your comments.
Great post Dilly. I have a couple of stories to share.
When working with 2nd year school pupils in Shetland last year it was a joy to see that they are encouraged to use “the dialect” in school – written and spoken. They really got what was needed in terms of moderation of how they spoke so that their -very important – words and messages could be received by a wide audience.
On another occasion I was asked to work with a young man from a Glasgow scheme who had very intereresting and important stories to tell to persuade youngsters to stay away from gangs. When he slowed down and directed what he was saying toward the people who were listening ( instead of to his feet!) the difference was amazing. His message was all the more powerful by still being told using his accent to full effect.
And isn’t the Shetland accent worth listening to Jackie? One of my very favourites.
And, again, slowing down, not trying to stifle your accent, was the answer to how effectively the young Glasgow man could communicate with his listeners. And aren’t they are far more likely to take him seriously when he sounded like he came from the same place and knew what he was talking about?
Great stories – thank you!
My mum has a gentle Scots accent which, in England, made her class-less. People in the Home Counties didn’t know if she was posh or not, so everyone just got on with her, assuming she was like them. It was a great asset as a gift shop owner 🙂
Hah! Great story about your Mum, Heather. Goes to show that people do often try to judge people according to their accent – or not in your mother’s case!
What an interesting and informative blog post.
I also work with my clients to develop their voices and help them with their public speaking and totally agree with you. I also love accents, and would never encourage someone to get rid of theirs.
I particularly like your advice to “slow down the connections between the thoughts you are expressing”. So often nerves can make us speed up our normal speech, so I think this is a great way to make the speaker more conscious of what is coming out of their mouths as well as the speed of the speech.
I also like your point about moderating an accent, particularly if it’s a strong one. I’m a Londoner (on the ‘posh’ side!) who was married to someone from Aberdeen. I always loved his accent, and hadn’t fully realised just how much he must have been moderating it most of the time; the first time I heard him in conversation with a fellow Aberdonian, I couldn’t understand a word!
Over time, my ear became attuned to both the words and the accent, and I learnt to decipher some of those conversations, though it would probably have been very tiring to have to do that constantly.
So if as a public speaker we are putting ourselves in the shoes of our listener, and the primary objective is to be understood, clearly some ‘smoothing out’, as you put it, may be necessary. However, as accents play such an important role in any country’s cultural heritage, as well as our individuality and personal identity, I passionately believe they should be celebrated!
Look forward to reading your future posts, Dilly.
Many thanks for your comments Lynda – great to hear another trainer on the same wavelength!
What a great post! As someone who is paranoid about people not understanding me because of my accent, I now realise that slowing down would be an enormous help! My accent is Northern Irish but it’s more the speed at which I speak that causes a problem rather than the accent itself.
Off to work on speaking more slowly and hopefully become more confident that my speaking voice isn’t horrendous to listen to after all!
Many thanks for a great thought-provoking post.
Thank you Katherine. I love a Northern Irish accent too. Never lose it – but do try slowing down!
I was brought up not to have the regional accent of Nottinghamshire where I lived (If you don’t know what that sounds, like, and you are old enough to remember Hi-De-Hi, Peggy the shaley maid had one), I had to speak “properly”, without an accent so people could understand me. Once I moved away and lived all over England, and then Fife and Stirlingshire, I was always told I had an accent, just never one that people could identify, which tends to confuse, rather than enlighten people I find. Different accents are like the music that we sing to. Better than none.
Fascinating insight Wendy. People are confused when they can’t ‘place’ your accent. I sometimes spend ages (silently) trying to work out where other people are from, by their accent.
When I auditioned for drama schools, I found the panel would often ask me if I’d lived in the USA or Canada, but I’d never even been there at that point. But I did come from Suffolk, where lots of the early US settlers came from. How accents develop is a fascinating subject.
Many thanks for your contribution Wendy.
This is a very interesting topic for me, as I have an accent which is considered a “wrong” accent to have in the west of Scotland. I have definitely experienced having my potential being rejected because of my accent/nationality, as if the concepts I am trying to get across are simply not valid when delivered in an American accent. I have also experienced people laughing in my face – in a rude, cruel way, not a jokey one – because I inadvertently used an American English word and not a British English one.
The only thing worse than having an unpopular accent, though, is to try to “lose” that accent or to pretend you have a local one. You end up sounding like Mel Gibson in Braveheart with all due mockery from those around you.
Sadly I’ve come to terms with the fact that my accent will automatically cause a large chunk of my audience, network, or potential clients to “switch off”. It’s just one of those things, I suppose.
So sorry to hear your comment, Heather. I’m very shocked actually, to think people can be so shallow.
Hmmm, interesting take on ‘it ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it’ – but here it’s the accent alone that people are hearing.
I do hope things improve for you and thank you for sharing this experience with us.
Great advice Dilly.
I love accents too but the best advice I ever got (working in a local radio station) was, “if you want people to listen, they have to understand what you’re saying.”
People need to think more about who’s listening and how they want their message remembered, and that’s not just about accents!
Good point, thank you Amanda.
(You might be interested in this post about how we are responsible for the message we get across.)
I admit I have to get used to accents. When I went to the Dutch equivalent of highschool in 1975, an accent was considered a very poor asset. It made you a ‘boer’. I.e. uneducated etc. It’s very tough to overcome this mindset. I try as hard as I can but it ain’t easy. Indeed in my opinion for as long as people speak loud and clear it doesn’t matter or not whether they have an accent. But then again I do note I did gigle when I met for the first time a colleague of my wife. Of Moroccan decent but as she was raised in a town in the South-East of The Netherlands, she spoke Dutch with the local accent. Something one simply doesn’t expect and sounds very out of place although one could also view it as a compliment on how well she had integrated! To summarize, it’s all perception whereas it should be mind over matter!
Thank you for your interesting comments Louis. I like your point about how startled we can be when hearing an unexpected accent!