You don’t need big words or to speak like the queen – you just need to get the message across.
I was recently reminded of the first time that I coached speakers for a conference.
It was back in 2009, and the speakers were two of my junior managers preparing to speak at a major conference on some upcoming VAT changes.
Both were French, preparing their speeches in English.
They had prepared their presentations and then did a dry run of the event for the rest of the department.
Our boss sent the entire team out of the room, leaving just me and the rest of the senior leadership group with the two speakers.
And then he tore strips off the speakers – telling them that their English was appalling, their presentations even worse, and how dare they even suggest that they were ready to represent the department at such a crucial conference.
(Let me remain diplomatic rather than comment on his management approach or feedback techniques).
He told them that they had better do something major before the event took place or risk his eternal wrath – and he asked me to work with them and give them some English lessons.
I agreed to help them – but I disagreed with what he wanted me to do.
They didn’t need English lessons. They could already speak English well albeit with a relatively limited vocabulary compared to native speakers. What they needed was the confidence that their limited vocabulary was enough to get the message across. They didn’t need to fill their speeches with big, impressive words – they just needed to get the message across in a way that felt fluid and fluent.
During the week, we reworked some of the messaging and more than anything I got them comfortable with what they wanted to say. Not so much by learning a static speech off by heart, but by getting them at ease with the message, and comfortable that they could express it.
I turned the slides off and got them to tell me their speech; I blindfolded them and had them speak; I threw a tennis ball back and forth to them and had them speak.
And along the way they realised that they knew what they wanted to say. They could find the words and get the message across.
When they finally got on stage the following week, in front of 250 clients and the various representatives of the VAT authorities, they were at ease and relaxed. In their ease they then just spoke to the audience about the topic. They didn’t use big words; they hadn’t overhauled their accents. They just leaned into getting a message across.
And the boss was delighted. So too were the clients and the tax folk. The feedback was amazing.
I was called to remember this recently because I have been approached on separate occasions by potential clients who want to be taken more seriously when they are speaking in front of potential customers, investors or other stakeholders.
When I dig deeper with them into what they mean by “being taken more seriously”, they tell me that they want to work on the business vocabulary that will make them sound as though they are serious business people.
What I tell them is that they are serious business people – and that can be demonstrated by what they talk about, not by vomiting a bunch of big words into their presentation.
And so, I say the same to you, if you are worried that you don’t have a broad enough vocabulary or on the contrary too broad a regional accent. Your accent is part of who you are; your vocabulary is part of who you are. Find the words you need to get the message across and don’t get hung up on the big technical terms. No one cares whether you can recite the contents of a dictionary or speak like the queen – they care about whether you know your subject, and whether you can explain it in a way that they understand.
Just keep calm and keep it simple.
Hope this is helpful and above all – remember to breathe, we got this!