Speaking Skills in Academia
How to Help Listeners Follow Your Ideas
This is the last article about speaking skills in different professional careers and stages of careers. I’ve made a list of topics that I’ll focus on each month for 2023 and January will begin with my favorite, prosody, with tips and examples.
I have the most insight into the requirements of the academic world. I was a university student for a very long time and then a professor. I have been the one interviewing for faculty positions and have also been on a hiring committee doing the interviewing of people applying for faculty positions. Many of my clients for speech coaching have been professors. These experiences have helped me understand what international doctoral and postdoctoral students are anxious about when interviewing, what the interviewers are hearing, and what surprises new professors the most when they begin their new teaching positions.
As a post-graduate student, the majority of your time is spent researching a topic deeply for a dissertation. You present that information repeatedly in different situations such as guest lectures, conferences, and job interviews. It gets easier each time because you’re very familiar with the concepts, content, and vocabulary.
As a new professor, your time and attention is pulled in many different directions. You may be teaching classes with topics that you know but maybe haven’t talked about in a long time so there’s a big stretch for vocabulary that’s different from what you’ve been focused on for the past few years. There’s never enough time to prepare in advance when you’re making all the content for a new class from scratch.
As busy as new professors are in their first two years, when they make the time to meet me for speech coaching, I’m always impressed by their dedication to build a strong foundation for their whole career (even if they don’t realize that at the time). Just as in the corporate world, the higher you ascend in position, the less chance there is that anyone will tell you when you’re mispronouncing any words.
Of course international professors will speak with a foreign accent and there’s no problem with that when they can be easily understood. Most professors are very proficient in English and have been speaking it for years, most have been going to school and living in the US for many years. However, they have been studying subjects and talking to people who also study those subjects for many years and have been in a communication bubble.
When professors teach students who are new to their field of study, they are now interacting with people listening with ears that are unfamiliar with the content language and who may also be unfamiliar with the accented English of the professor. This presents the listeners with a double challenge that some don’t have a tolerance for and just give up but they blame it on the professor. This is unfair since anyone can become acclimated to a different way of speaking it just takes time, repetition, and practice.
The Brain Finds Patterns
The brain is always looking for patterns and the influence of another language is following the rules/patterns of that other language and they happen at every level of speech. There are consistent substitutions of sounds such as /b/ for /v/. There are consistent differences in word stress such as French putting more stress at the ends of words than English. There are differences in the direction of intonation at the ends of sentences, such as Mandarin ending on the same or higher pitch than the whole sentence. The listener doesn’t have to identify what is happening, the brain will do the work and start picking up on these patterns and create meaning from them. It just takes time, repetition, and practice.
What Helps Listeners Understand
All the speech features mentioned above are ones that professors can learn how to modify to be more easily understood by unfamiliar listeners:
pronunciation of individual sounds,
placement of stress in words,
placement of stress in sentences (intonation),
and the overall change in pitch and timing (prosody).
Focusing on the vocabulary used most often in their courses is a great place to start. Just putting stress on a different syllable of a word can distract listeners and cause them to miss the following words, even if every sound in that word was pronounced correctly. There’s also the incorrect assumption that if you can’t pronounce a word well then you must not understand it well. Everyone, not just professors and teachers, may lose credibility in the minds of their listeners if they are mispronouncing an important word.
Prosody Helps Students Take Better Notes
A benefit of using prosody to emphasize the important words and make them stand out to listeners is that it helps students take better notes (yeah, this assumes they’re taking notes). When long stretches of speech are divided into smaller thought groups by pauses and there is a fall in pitch at the end of the complete idea, that makes the information easier to understand by the listener. It is much easier for the brain to take in small groups of meaning because it doesn’t have to hold so much information in short term memory.
Emphasizing important words in thought groups with higher pitch and stretching the vowels longer in the stressed syllables of those words makes the words easier to notice. Those are the words that will stand out to the listener to create more meaning than the less important words. Students now have a better chance of noticing and remembering the important words long enough to write/type them in their notes. Better notes can help students study and do better on tests which can lead to better grades. If students feel more satisfied with the class they are more likely to give higher ratings and course and teacher evaluations.
As the speaker, you just have to trust what you know is important and want the listeners to understand. That’s what will guide you to which words to emphasize.
How to Help Listeners Follow Your Ideas
Emphasize transitions between concepts or topics and use transitions that show the relationship:
“..that brings us to the impact this finding had on…” and “Now that we know the basic elements, we can combine them…”
Emphasize lists and begin with a heading:
“There are three main reasons why…First, the conditions….”
Emphasize where the new information is coming from:
“In this week’s supplemental reading material, the idea of “linking” was described in detail.”
Emphasize information you’re repeating from previous classes and where it came from:
“As we discussed last week in the ‘Basics’ chapter…”
Emphasize the question after you’ve answered it:
“Why was this an important development?”….”This was an important development because it….”
Most university students are busy with finals at this time of year and soon professors will be busy with grading and submitting final grades for the semester. I hope this information will be helpful for the spring semester (starting in January), but until then, take a well-deserved break!