What can the scientist who presents learn from Churchill (Part 2)

Are you frightened to speak because you have an accent or a speech impediment? Consider Churchill’s problem, as described by his granddaughter Celia Sandys in the book “We shall not fail”.

“Churchill had to overcome a speech impediment that might have silenced many prospective public speakers.[…] Churchill spent countless hours trying to get his tongue around sentences featuring the dreaded letter s. […] Fortunately, he did not entirely succeed and the defect became his oral signature”

What struck me in that last sentence was the word fortunately. We think that our accent should be completely eradicated, but it the end, it reflects who we are, and testifies to our origins. I have a French accent and will always have it. It is not so strong that people can’t understand me. Sometimes, I even “turn it on” and slightly increase it because people find it charming.  Accent is good. It provides identity, and even charm. But if your accent is heavy, if it gets in the way of people understanding you, like Churchill, you have no choice but to practice and practice some more to lessen your accent. I often observe that researchers with a strong accent tend to speak their native language in their research lab, as well as watch TV programs and read newspapers in their native language. This prevents them from making rapid progress in their spoken English. Practice reshapes your mouth, lips, and jaws to make your foreign sounding English words sound English. Correcting an accent is done through speaking, and comparing your sounds with those of a native English speaker. Do not be fooled by the fact that your lab colleagues understand you. They have had months or years to get used to your accent. The audience you will face during your presentation will have had no time to get used to your accent.

“He began pacing about. Inspiration came and he began dictating, voice rising and falling, hands gesturing as if making the actual speech.”

Rehearsing your talk is never done silently in front of a computer screen. I witnessed ex-Apple Chairman, John Sculley, rehearse a talk in his Cupertino office. He was speaking aloud, gesturing, walking back in forth, stopping now and then only to press the spacebar of his Mac keyboard to go to the next slide. Words come to you in action. Speaking aloud with intonation and gestures helps you anchor your words to your body movements and convey your conviction and your passion. Rehearsing aloud, you create a path for the words to travel from your mind to your lips. Later, once the path is set, the same words will easily return and travel on the same path back to your lips.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Author: Jean-Luc Lebrun

This century: Writer on Scientific writing skills and scientific presentation skills, MC for scientific events, Podcaster, Radio Consultant, Trainer for Research Institutes in Engineering and Life Sciences, Singapore, and in European doctoral schools, as well as in South East Asia Universities.
Last Century: Apple Computer, Advanced Technology Group, Technology Information manager. Then Director of the Apple-ISS Research Centre – a joint venture between Apple Computer and the National University of Singapore. Producer of TV program on IT for Singapore Channel 5.

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