Spotlight - "Eileen"
A "menu" of voices gave her choices
I took time off in August to move, unpack, and get settled so now I’m getting back to my routine. It’s been a while since I’ve shared some memorable experiences I’ve had in my private instruction for accent modification. As always, the people’s stories that have made the biggest impact on my life make it easy for me to remember their names but for their privacy, I’m changing the names in these stories.
Spotlight on: “Eileen”
Eileen continues to inspire me to this day. When we met in the consultation, I was immediately struck by her poise, grace, and confidence. Yes, she had an accent, but it was minimal. The things I noticed about her speech were features that are common to all speakers, not just non-native speakers of English. Pace, pitch range, and volume are features that can interfere with communicating a message effectively and those were making the biggest impact on Eileen’s speech. By the end of our lessons she had learned how to control each of these and use them in a way that helped enhance her meaning rather than distract from it. She created different styles of speaking that gave her a “menu” of voices to choose from for any situation.
Eileen worked in biotech and although she had a good position in the company, she was planning ahead and looking towards the next step in her career. She felt that she wasn’t always taken as seriously as she would like and thought improving her speaking style would be helpful. She didn’t know what influence Mandarin had on her English, but she was already aware that she would speak too fast sometimes. Instead of a consistent pace, she spoke in “bursts” of speech which means she had a fast pace for a short section of speech, then took a pause, then another fast section.This style of speaking can be perceived as a result of being nervous or not knowing what to say next and saying it quickly as it comes to mind. This is the opposite of the calm, knowledgeable, fluent speaking style she wanted to achieve. Additionally, the influence of her dialect of Mandarin added some extra volume when she emphasized words. In English, there is a little extra volume involved in the emphasis of a word but too much volume can be perceived negatively as assertive, annoyed, or bossy - that’s the opposite of what she intended. She wanted to be perceived as approachable, sincere, and confident.
The areas we focused on:
Control of pace. Speaking too fast and in “bursts” can have a negative impact on being understood because it makes the important words hard to hear when they are going by so quickly. This also means there isn’t time to stretch the vowels longer in the stressed syllables of those important words so the rhythm can sound “choppy.”
Control of pitch range - avoid going too low. She went so low in pitch that she was no longer producing sounds that could be identified as vowel sounds. She consistently went down in pitch to 57Hz and that resulted in what’s called “vocal fry” or “glottal fry” because the vocal folds aren’t being stretched to create a specific vowel sound, but are kept loose and vibrate randomly. This can be a controversial topic because it happens more with female speakers than male and has negative social perceptions. It can be viewed as a characteristic of younger speakers and that brings with it the associations of being immature, lacking confidence, and credibility. When I asked her if she was aware of this, she wasn’t aware that she was producing this sound, but she said that she had been purposely trying to make the overall tone of her voice lower so she would sound more professional in her work environment.
Control of pitch range - avoid going too high. In addition to going very low in pitch, she would also jump up in pitch suddenly and reach very high frequencies, in the 400Hz range. This would happen when she would emphasize a word or felt very emotional about a subject so the drastic contrast between going so low that it was beyond her minimum range and so high that it was above most people’s maximum range was distracting to me as a listener in-person and I thought it must be even more distracting on the phone when someone would be surprised by the high tones and couldn’t hear the low tones. We needed to find a balance between these extremes and gain control of how to use her fantastic range to create and emphasize the meaning she intended instead of conveying one that she may not intend.
Control of volume - avoid adding extra volume for emphasis. Adding too much volume when emphasizing words can give the impression that the speaker is annoyed or angry. A little extra volume is used, so we needed to practice controlling how much volume is good for emphasis and how much is too much.
It wasn’t the speech features that Eileen needed to work on that stand out to me as memorable, those are common features for many people to improve, it was the way she approached and achieved her goals that were effective.
How She Practiced
Eileen sent me audio recordings weekly and we met for lessons to learn and practice something new only about once a month. Between each lesson, she practiced at home by recording herself, analyzing her recordings, identifying where to make changes, and then sending me recordings to get my feedback. I gave detailed feedback on every recording to help her focus on the right things and improve her own analysis so she could begin to trust her ears to notice how her speech sounded on the recordings and in spontaneous speech.
She made recordings of herself practicing at home but also in her daily life. She recorded presentations she gave at work, her side of a phone conversation (I could only hear her, not the other person, but that was enough for me to give feedback about how she sounded to me as someone unaware of the complete context), and conversations with friends that she had permission to record and share with me.
She recorded vocabulary frequently used at work and for social conversation, scripts of set speech that she needed to say to her clients at work, imitation of speakers that were good examples (from Ted.com presentations and movie clips), and different lengths of introductions of herself that she could use in professional settings. She immediately applied everything we practiced to her daily life and speaking situations.
Eileen improved her pace by practicing taking pauses between groups of information and keeping a more consistent pace between pauses. Focusing on stretching the vowels longer in the stressed syllables of all words and stretching even longer in the emphasized words helped slow her pace and helped the important words stand out to the listener. This created a rhythm that is characteristic of American English, less “choppy” and more “musical” (as many of my clients have described how English sounds to them).
She improved her overall speaking tone by controlling her pitch range. She found a good range that didn’t dip too low or jump up too high but still used enough higher pitch to emphasize words. Instead of trying to make her voice sound deeper by going lower in pitch, we worked on using more breath and projecting her voice so the sound had more resonance from her chest rather than coming out louder from tension in her throat and extra nasality from her nose/face. By changing the focus to using pitch for emphasis rather than using some extra volume, she basically eliminated the negative effect of too much extra volume that sounded too assertive or unfriendly.
Created a “Menu” of Voices
She called the variety of speaking styles that she could use as “the menu” - choices for how to sound in different speaking situations.
In her own words:
“I now can decide from the menu which voice I’m going to use and what’s the pace and what’s the impression that I want to give and I know how to do that.”
“In a teleconference, I thought about how do I enter, use a voice without being very abrupt, so I think a little bit more about how do I take a deep breath and say something.”
At our last meeting together, she had a new hair cut and style and appeared very confident and polished in her look and her speech. It was a good reminder that it’s never just about the speech. It’s about having choices and having control over the impression you want to make.