Accents in your presentations…

It’s sad but true, if people can’t understand you, they tend to undervalue you. That’s the rather depressing evidence I’ve included in the book…

The long and the short of it is that when people were given information by someone without an accent they valued that information more than when it was given by someone with an accent. What’s more, people went beyond that to (subconsciously) assume the person without the accent was smarter. Obviously there’s no evidence of this being true but it’s how people responded.

What’s more, presentations with background noise suffered a similar fate.

My interpretation of this is related to the Cognitive Load that your audience is under. They’ve only got a certain amount of ‘brainspace’ (thinking power) available and if they’re having to use a larger-than-usual part of that to understand what you’re saying because of an accent or background noise then they have less brainspace available for your content. (The rather unpleasant implication behind that is that they assume that if they can’t understand your content it must be your fault, but that’s a different discussion.)

So what can you do about it?  To be honest, it can be a bit tricky.

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According to the research the best thing you can do is not have an accent… but remember that your audience will have an accent too, so what that really means is that you shouldn’t have an accent in the ears of your audience. (Mind you, to further complicate things, there’s research that some accents are generally more trusted than others.) It seems a bit draconian to force presenters to get rid of their accents though.

wave formThe good news is that there’s something a little bit easier you can do which I’ve found to be remarkably effective for a the vast majority of my clients – simply warm up your mouth and face – pay particular attention to your lips. That way you can improve your articulation and thus improve the clarity with which you speak. You’ll still have your accent, of course, but remember that it’s probably not the accent per se that’s the problem, it’s how much harder that makes you to understand: by being more clearly articulated you help your audience quite a bit.

The best exercise I’ve found for this is to recite nursery rhymes or some such similar nonsense four times. The first time you do it ‘straight’ without messing around – the same with the fourth time around – but you do odd things the second and third times through. The second time through you put fingers into your mouth and pull it as wide as you possibly can! You’ll sound stupid, but it’s worth it. The third time through you put your fingers to the edges of your mouth and push your lips inwards to purse your lips and make your mouth as narrow as possible.

You’ll probably find that when you’re finished your lips are tingling. If not, consider the idea that you might not have pulled and pushed seriously enough! 😉


Background noise

This one is a simple case of dealing with the logistics and stage management. But just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. If you’ve got the full backing of a posh conference venue behind you you can make sure they don’t try and clear the drinks up while you’re speaking (good luck with that – you’ll need to explain in words of one syllable because a lot of people will think you’re just fussing).

But in the real world of business presentations life can be even harder. Open windows let in traffic noise. Phones and machines in adjacent offices hum and bleep. People’s phones and watches go off… and of course your own kit makes a bit of hum too. All in all it can be a bit of a pain. All I can say is that you should do everything you can think of to minimise background noise. And then some.

Something we’ve found to be handy is to have someone in the audience who’s job it is simply to jot down the distractions: at the end of your presentation they give you their list… and that becomes the starting point of a checklist you use before your next presentation…. and repeat! 🙂

Personally, I’m not above simply stopping in mid-delivery to let a particularly irritating noise pass by. So long as everyone is clear about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, your audience should thank you – or at least understand it!


Yes, I know – it’s rather depressing common sense in some ways (but if was such common sense, why don’t a lot of speakers and presenters do it?). On the other hand it’s surprisingly not so obvious. My (rather liberal) instincts are that people will make allowance for accents and so on and I like to think that rather than ‘punish’ people for presenting in English when it’s not their native language I’m actually rather impressed… but the research evidence isn’t quite as egalitarian, I’m afraid. Like a lot of the research about communicating and presenting what we like to think we know isn’t quite what the science is telling us.

It doesn’t take long to do something about it, and you never know – it might just make the difference you need.

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