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Training Bulletin Issue 57
What do you sound like?
I think we all know that the way you speak influences the way you're perceived. No surprises for guessing that we prefer voices that reinforce sexual stereotypes such as bigger for men (better fighters) and younger for women (better breeders). Sorry, but millennia of evolution have wired us for those preference.
These findings come from a recent study carried out by the University of British Columbia. Scratch us and we're still cavemen underneath. Rather than shake our collective heads and try to deny this, though, we'd be better off considering how to use this information to help us communicate. The findings have implications both for the way we write and the way we present.
I'm one of you…
As well as the above, the study found that we like people who talk like us: “…we prefer voices that are similar to our own because they convey a soothing sense of community and social belongingness.”
This doesn't mean mimicking your audience but when writing or presenting, pay attention to the kind of language they use and incorporate their terms into your speech or document. Don't keep saying 'reference information' if they are talking about a 'knowledge base', or 'staff' if they call them 'partners'.
This does also apply to pronunciation but I suspect that deliberately adopting an accent might not be a good idea. However, to some extent we already do this unconsciously: my husband is always amused by the way my Australian accent temporarily becomes more noticeable when I've been on the phone to my brothers down under.
Special dispensation for exotic foreigners
The study did also theorise that a bit of a foreign accent was appealing because it may make a speaker sound novel and exotic. Again, we aren't suggesting adopting funny accents, but at least this means that those of us with accents needn't worry too much.
Do make sure, though, that you haven't unconsciously used any slang or terms that your readers or listeners may not know. Even different varieties of English have a lot of colloquial expressions that can be more restricted to a specific region than you realise. If your readers or listeners don't understand everything you say, or even if you use a lot of terms that they don't, it will undermine the impression that you're “one of us” and this may work against you.
This is especially important if you're trying to be persuasive, for example, presenting or writing a business case.
We like plain speakers more
Interestingly, the study also found a preference for speakers with a shorter average word length. Generally, shorter words are more familiar, simpler and easier to understand. Longer words are more abstract, generally less familiar, and can more often need the context in which they are used to be understood, requiring your reader to work harder to get your meaning. Would you more quickly grasp that something is easy to understand or that it's conducive to comprehension?
People who speak plainly are seen as more trustworthy. Long complex words suggest the speaker may have something to hide.
We associate clear speaking with attractiveness. Attractiveness has a host of other positive associations, including social desirability and persuasiveness.
Again, this is not advocating a rush to the plastic surgeon, but you can at least weigh up your choice of words and lean toward the simpler ones. After all, are you writing or speaking with the object of extending your audience's vocabulary and impressing them with your erudition? Or do you just need to get your point across and your proposal accepted?
Try telling your client that you plan to “expand their talent management agenda from a narrow and tactical focus on human resources activities around the employee life cycle, to a broad and strategic focus on highly integrated systems of capabilities fundamental to business strategies and operations.” This was something about changing the scope of HR departments: even if you could work out that much, can you tell clearly – or at all – what sort of changes the speaker meant?
So what can we learn from this?
Take time to learn as much as you can about your readers or audience. Listen to the way they talk, read their documents. Present your content in a way that's consistent with theirs, whether you are writing or speaking:
- Adopt their vocabulary if it's different from yours for certain terms – study their website, particularly press releases and the 'about us' page.
- If you have an accent, try to soften it rather than lose it altogether – a good way to do this is, when speaking, adopt the accent of your audience. For example, can you put on a French accent when speaking English? Most English people can. If they try putting on the same accent when they speak French, they do sound a lot more French. If I try speaking with what I think is a British accent, my Australian accent almost entirely vanishes.
- If you have the option of abstract, academic terms or simple, everyday ones, prefer the latter:
- Combine or blend, rather than integrate
- Explain rather than elucidate
- Avoid rather than obviate
- Careful or cautious rather than circumspect
If you think these sound like good ideas, but want more detailed guidance on how to put them into practice, look at some of our training courses on business writing and presenting. Contact Plain Words…
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