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Fresh News: How Americans can instantly improve their speaking skills
How Americans can instantly improve their speaking skills
by Philip Yaffe
Let me confess that I am an American and l used to speak very badly. Now I speak very well, at least that is what everyone tells me. The fact is, my change from being a poor speaker to being a good speaker happened virtually overnight. Here's the story.
I was a student at UCLA in the 1960s. After graduating, I spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania, East Africa. When I got there, of course everything was quite different from anything I had previously experienced. For one thing, I was posted to a tiny bush village next to what was supposed to be a major north-south road. Anything beyond 20 cars per day passing by was considered to be heavy traffic; in Los Angeles, less than 20 cars per minute was considered to be abnormally low traffic.
Perhaps the biggest surprise occurred when I turned on my shortwave radio. I quickly found the frequencies for both the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) and the Voice of America. The difference was astounding.
Listening to the BBC, I heard cashiers, janitors, parking attendants, etc., speaking as if they had graduated from prestigious universities. By contrast, listening to Voice of American, I heard people at the top of the educational and social ladder speaking as if they had never even graduated from primary school.
This was no chance occurrence; it happened every time I turned on the radio. "How is it that high-level Americans seem to speak less well than low level Brits?" I kept asking myself. And found no answer.
After a few weeks I came to a startling conclusion. The apparent superiority of the Brits had nothing to do with either intelligence or education. It was in fact physical.
If you pay attention, you will notice that the British, particularly the English, tend to form their words on their lips, while Americans form them in the throat. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable among males, whose deep, gravely voice is considered to be masculine, virile and seductive.
I believe that forming words in the throat puts abnormal strain on the larynx, which is why Americans so often tend to stumble over their words. They frequently interrupt their speech by interjecting "ah" or other irritating hesitations. This is not because they don't know what to say next. It's because they are giving their vocal cords a momentary chance to recover.
To put the idea to the test, I consciously began forming my words on my lips rather than in the throat. My own irritating hesitations (I was notorious for this) vanished almost overnight. Suddenly I could put together a sentence that flowed fluently from one end to the other. In fact, I could put together whole series of sentences that flowed fluently from one end to the other with hardly hesitation in sight.
Having tested this discovery over several weeks, I decided to purposely redesign my articulation. It wasn't easy. I had to consciously think about how I was forming my words virtually every minute of the day. However, after a couple of weeks it began feeling more and more natural, until finally it was.
All this happened 40 years ago. During the intervening four decades, I have gained somewhat of a reputation as an entertaining and provocative public speaker, not only in English but also in French (I live in Belgium).
In short, redesigning my voice has worked extremely well for me. I don't know it if would work for anyone else, but I see no reason why not.
But a word of warning. If you do decide to make the change, you are likely to develop a pseudo "Oxbridge" English accent. This is quite normal; forming words on the lips naturally gives rise to this type of accent. However, out of context it can be rather embarrassing.
Since I was living with a lot of British expatriates in Tanzania, my new way of speaking didn't seem particularly odd. However, the minute I returned to Los Angeles, people began commenting on it, including my mother. "Where did you pick up that snooty accent? Get rid of it." So I did.
It is not all that difficult to find a middle ground between the two accents. You will still sound like an American, but without constantly tripping over you tongue. Why not give it a try? The results might amaze you.
Philip Yaffe is a former writer with The Wall Street Journal and international marketing communication consultant. He now teaches courses in persuasive communication in Brussels, Belgium. Because his clients use English as a second or even third language, his approach to writing and public speaking is somewhat different from other communication coaches. His new book The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional will be published in March 2010, and will be available from Amazon.com and other online booksellers. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
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