Public Speaking: Help! English Is Not My First Language
Jul 3, 2012 Speaking/Listening 3791 Views
English wasn't his first language. I was once coaching a young man of Chinese origin in public speaking, *Sam, who was extremely fearful of speaking before groups. Apart from the universal fears of 'being nervous', 'making a fool of himself', 'not being interesting' and 'being judged by others', his overriding fear was that of feeling humiliated in front of his peers because English wasn't his first language. 'The fact is I can't speak the language as fluent as others can' he lamented.
Mind you, as we spoke I was more than impressed with his competency in speaking the English language, but he didn't see it that way. As we conversed he had no problems finding words to connect with me and convey his ideas. Talking with me in a non-threatening, one-on-one situation he seemed just fine. All I had to do was safely lead him to see things differently so he could transfer this confidence to situations that now frightened him.
There was little room for failure. The first thing I did was take him back to the language he grew up with in Malaysia in his formative years - Chinese. Here he was fluent and at home in expressing himself in one-to-one situations but was never completely at ease if he had to speak before groups - which was rare. And there was little room for failure. His academic world was one where if you got less than an 'A' his parents and teachers would want to know what went wrong! So he had an innate fear drummed into him from a young age that the quality of whatever he was doing was always being watched and judged. By the time he was 30, by now a qualified engineer in Australia, his insecurity with English was just one more thing for him to be judged on. And English not being his mother tongue now occupied his thinking full-time and had become his number one problem.
One thing that really unsettled Sam was that he had a colleague at work, we'll call him *'Joe', also of Chinese origin, who had no such problems with his level of English competency. Now even though Joe was a departmental manager and senior to him, Sam readily admitted that Joe's master of English was nowhere near his level... and yet in his own expressive way, flavoured with his Chinese thinking and accent, Joe was very effective at holding his listeners' interest and getting his message across! He even seemed to enjoy himself! So what's going on here? What did Joe have that Sam didn't? Nothing really... once I'd led Sam to the following mind-opening realizations:
More open, accessible and less reserved. Joe knew the difference between an Anglo/Australian thinking culture and a more reserved Chinese thinking Culture: one was more open and lay back, the other was more formal and respectful towards those above you. So Joe had learnt that in Australia it was necessary to be more open, accessible and less reserved and treat everyone as an equal. This in turn stimulated lively interaction whenever he spoke in meetings for Joe had learnt that a question here and there to see whether they'd understood, not only kept them engaged it took the pressure off him and his 'shaky' command over English. This way his listeners hardly noticed his shortcomings for they were 'buying' into the ideas themselves.
He focusses entirely on the message he wants to get across. Joe also knew that no matter how much he learnt about English and how proficient he became, he would never be able to speak it fluently like a native-born speaker could. So it's certainly not an issue Joe would lie awake at night worrying about. He knows that he will always have a 'pleasant' Chinese flavour to the way he expresses himself - and he accepts this. So he focusses entirely on the message he wants to get across and does his best to involve others in helping him do so. With a little help Sam learnt that there are a couple of simple strategies that Joe uses to make him look as good as he does. Like approaching someone beforehand and asking them what a particular word or phrase means or finding out how to say this, that or the other. He then uses these ideas as if they're his own during his presentations and impresses people with his communicating abilities! Hey, don't we born-to-English folk use the same sneaky strategies when we're not sure about certain things or forget someone's name?
Joe keeps the heat on them. When asked, Sam agreed that Joe asks lots of questions during his talks like "Can anyone relate to this?" or "Anyone got any ideas why this might be so?" This stirs people from their complacency and gets them thinking. He keeps the heat on them! With Joe their thoughts never get a chance to wander for they are not allowed to just sit there bored out of their brains. In this involved frame-of-mind his listeners have nowhere to go but think: 'This guy is interesting and knows what he is talking about.'
But most of all Joe knows that it's not all about him and his 'poor' ability to express himself in English. He knows that it's all about what his ideas mean to his listeners and how these ideas will move things forward and make a difference! And by getting his listeners to contribute in the discussion by asking questions and getting them to come up with the answers he could have furnished himself, his listeners own these answers and perceive Joe as an interesting human being.
People want a real person to talk with them. Thanks to Joe's unwitting inspiration, Sam now knows that people want a real person who accepts who they are to talk with them. So rather than daunt him, Sam now keeps Joe firmly in mind whenever he speaks before groups. Like Joe, he steps forward with a firm confidence in who he is, where he's been, and what he stands for. His entire focus is now on how he is going to engage his listeners with questions and interactive comment and what his overall message means to them.
Above all, Sam is now aware that audiences have their own problems and aren't out to get him. The truth is they're not looking for perfection in his English, they're looking for connection in what he is saying! Although he continues to learn, Sam is now also aware that he is just fine the way he is and the way he speaks. He now knows how to make the most of the imperfect, unique person he is whether speaking with one person or in front of 500.
So whatever your first language may be, see that you do the same whenever you step forward to speak.
*Not his real name