Aretha Sang About “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”: Show It To Your Audience

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Effective public speaking for business communicates a respect for the audience’s intelligence, professionalism, sophistication, and diversity.  Word choice, speech patterns, and the way we use our voices are all important aspects of public speaking that contribute to our success or failure in front of an audience.

I recently observed a real estate expert conducting a seminar for a Manhattan business association.  While John certainly knew his material thoroughly and presented important ideas, his word choice, speech, and voice detracted from his presentation success, because he failed to consider three important tenets.

  1. Enunciate with clarity and a pace that is respectful of the audience and appropriate for the complexity of ideas being expressed.  The voice should be used with a pace and level of clarity that are appropriate for each specific audience and for the complexity of the ideas being expressed.  Obviously, the audience must hear a presenter’s words clearly.  John, however, took this to the extreme.  He over-enunciated, spoke too slowly, and placed overly-long pauses after many points.  Perhaps he had heard the standard recommendation to pause and then slow your speech when making important points, but John’s pace was far too slow, because he was not expressing complex ideas.  His lethargic pace and deliberate enunciation could easily have been perceived by his listeners as condescending.  Imagine John’s audience hearing his slow and labored speech.  His listeners may well have been impatient for each sentence to end, or may have been finishing John’s sentences in their minds as he spoke.  They may even have felt insulted, hearing the overly–precise speech often used by elementary school teachers.  One surefire way to alienate an audience is to communicate doubt about their cognitive abilities or sophistication.Use a “baseline” speaking pace that is close to your natural conversation rate, and a bit slower.  One excellent way to test your own pace for a presentation is to do at least one of your rehearsals in front of a trusted colleague or friend who knows little or nothing about your presentation topic, or play a tape recording of your rehearsal for this person.  Ask for feedback:  did your listener feel any impatience with your pace, or express a need for more time to process your ideas?

    Remember, too, that variety is important:  your pace should vary throughout the presentation, depending upon the nature and weight of each idea, the emotional tone of each moment, and your choices regarding dramatic effect, etc.

  2. Use a speaking style that communicates respect for diversity:  your authentic speech at its best.  The second tenet that John failed to consider is that successful speaking communicates a respect for all regional, cultural, and ethnic groups.  While this should be obvious in today’s global arena, business speakers often fail to be sufficiently vigilant about the subtle ways that their speech behavior can be misconstrued (even when the audience appears to be homogeneous or from the speaker’s own “group”).  John made the mistake of imitating the speech patterns of others, perhaps in an attempt to strengthen his rapport with the audience or stress his points.  At one moment in his presentation, his speech patterns “became” “Brooklyn-ese”.  He “laid it on thick”, pronouncing [d] instead of [th] and using Brooklyn regional pronunciation for the vowel sounds.  At another moment, he imitated the speech patterns of what some linguists have controversially called “Black Vernacular English”.  When characterizing a situation where company management made decisions that later proved to be misguided, John “became” Italian.  He said, “At home, we say…” (Here he inserted a word from an Italian regional dialect that means ‘stupid’).Were these moments designed to help the audience identify with John, or see him as a “regular guy”, or view him as savvy or “hip”?  There are certainly many ways to accomplish these objectives.  While each of John’s “transformations” contained no discernible overtones of ridicule (and whether or not John’s audience included Brooklyn-ites, African Americans, Italians, or Italian Americans) his choice to imitate the speech patterns of others may well have projected a lack of sensitivity.Consider the business audience hearing John change his speech in the ways described above.  Was he suggesting that all/most members of those groups speak in that fashion?  What was he implying about people who do speak in those ways?  What did John feel about this audience that led him to believe that adopting different speech patterns would help him achieve his presentation goals?  These are questions that the audience may have been silently wondering about:  questions that may well have distracted the audience from his business message.

    Speakers who imitate regional/cultural speech run the risk of offending their listeners, even when the speaker is certain that the entire audience is part of her own cultural/social group. You never know how individual audience members feel about their own speech patterns, about being associated with any given group, or about the image that might be projected when speech patterns are associated with any specific group, etc.

    Save your imitations for moments when you can make a point by imitating yourself!

  3. When referring to the audience or to third parties, choose words that honor their professionalism and sophistication.  The third problem with John’s delivery style was that he repeatedly referred to his corporate audience and to third parties as “puppy dogs”.  Perhaps John thought that this would help him project a relaxed, “folk-sy” image.  Unfortunately, it did not.  When preparing a presentation, every speaker should consider how much disparity in status or lack of common ground there might be between him/herself and a given audience.  While you should help your audiences identify with you, referring to the audience and others with diminutive names is an unreliable choice.  In a business presentation, it often presumes a kind of familiarity that is not based on reality and can therefore cause resentment toward the speaker.  Certainly, the use of animal names does not project a respect for the audience’s sophistication.  Demonstrate respect for your audience.  Use (1) appropriate pace for clarity, (2) your own authentic speaking style at its best, and (3) word choice that honors your listeners.  These three strategies communicate respect and will help enhance your professional image.

Copyright © 2013-2015 Maria Guida

Maria Guida  is an executive speaking coach/trainer, professional speaker, and Broadway actress.  With her experience on stage, TV and film (working with Paul Newman, James Earl Jones, and  Kevin Kline), she helps savvy executives in all industries enhance their credibility and generate business by speaking with poise, passion, and persuasive power.  Delighted clients include American Express, JPMorgan Chase, and Johnson & Johnson.  Maria travels extensively to deliver interactive and entertaining keynotes and workshops.  She can be reached at 718-884-2282 and; or visit

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