How can I help a speaker at my conference who’s speech is extremely hard to listen to? What can I do to help my live audience to understand to the speech? 

B.Wong – USA

It can be a challenge if you have a speaker at your English Language event who has a brilliant idea to share, but they struggle with speaking in English. A strong accent can make things very difficult to understand.

Perhaps you have a public speaker who has a quiet voice, a speech impediment, stutter, or perhaps a disability that makes it hard for the audience to understand them.

Or maybe your event is in English, but many of your audience members have English as a second or third language, and they may get confused by fast speaking, long words, or technical jargon.

You must balance the skills and abilities of your speaker with the needs of your audience. As a curator and speaker coach I am often working with speakers who have English as a second language. Here are some of the tools and techniques we use to help smooth things over. Making your speaker more confident, and their communication clearer.

Get your speaker on board

You will need to make sure that your speaker is co-operative with improving their speaking skills. They will need to dedicate extra time and effort, and that can be tricky for some.

You could approach it like this:

We want your talk to impact as many people as possible, but right now, it may not always be clear or easy for the audience to understand. I would like to help you illustrate your main points in a way the the audience can better understand it.

Our motto is ‘Ideas worth spreading’ and we want to make sure your ideas spread to the maximum amount of people, and that is why we insist on a strong level of clarity.

We have a whole team of volunteers working hard backstage to make your talk as perfect as possible, and we would be happy to help you with this. If we can’t get your talk to be understood by the audience then we can’t allow it on our stage”

Having an open discussion with your speaker will get them involved and improve their confidence.

Schedule extra rehearsals

A few extra rehearsals can really help. Make sure one of your speaker rehearsals is to work purely on pronunciation, and if there are certain words that your speaker cannot pronounce clearly, remove those words and replace them with other ones.

Consider Powerpoints

Normally I’m not a fan of Powerpoint, but in some cases it can be used as a great visual aide. It is also possible to put the entire speakers script onto a powerpoint and use it as subtitles, provided of course that your speaker can stick to the script. Make sure they practice a lot with their powerpoint.

Work with a language teacher or coach

A good language teacher or speaking coach may help improve the clarity of the speakers voice. If you have enough time before your event, consider enlisting a good speaking coach. They can work wonders.

Find an alternative speaker and pair them up

If your speaker is very unconfident in presenting in English, it may be worth asking if they have a colleague who is more comfortable. That way, the two can work together, writing the script. Then, perhaps, your unconfident speaker may mention the key points, and the more confident speaker may take the bulk of the talk. Teamwork makes the dream work.

Translate

It can be great to have your speaker present in their own language, and then use a translator. The translator can be live on stage, or you may want to have translation made possible through in-ear headphones to the audience.

Make sure that your speaker practices with the translator, to leave plenty of gaps in their talk for the translator to catch up. Also, make sure your translator has a full script in advance, so they can plan their translation and clarify any difficult words.

Arrange a “test run”

During your rehearsal process, consider asking your speaker to give a version of their talk to a small audience. (I find local schools or universities are often willing to help). At the end of the talk, survey the audience to see if they could understand the main points, and if there was anything that was difficult to understand. This can be helpful for complicated talks or difficult topics.

Work with your audio engineers

Always make sure that your microphones and sound set-up are the highest quality possible. Make sure that the room you are in has good acoustics, and any hiss, buzz, or other annoying sounds are not being picked up by the sound system.

Make sure that people do not enter and exit the room during the talk, as opening and closing doors can be distracting.

You may want to schedule your speakers talk away from any breaks, so the audience is not distracted by the clinking of coffee cups or water glasses on the tables.

Reduce the length of the talk

If all else fails, consider reducing slightly the length of time you ask the speaker to talk. If your audience has to sit though an entire hour of un-understandable public speaking it will leave them tired and drained, and at worst, your audience may emotionally check-out for the rest of the event.

But if the talk lasts only 10 minutes, the audience will find it a lot easier to tolerate and keep their energy up.

If you do reduce the time of the talk, consider giving your speaker the rest of the time in a location and environment that benefits their communication style. For example, you may want your speaker to spend only 10 minutes on the main stage, but to then spend then next 50 minutes giving an informal Q and A or more intimate discussion in an informal breakout area.

Change to an interview format

If the topic is very difficult to understand, consider bringing your host or Master of Ceremonies on stage to interview your speaker, to give it more of a discussion style interview format. That way, the speaker can feel more relaxed.

If the speaker forgets a particular word in English, the host can jump in and suggest the right word. The host can also summarise after each answer, or ask for extra clarification.

Use your Emcee to prepare the audience

Sometimes it can be good to be upfront with your audience, and acknowledge that they may have trouble understanding the speaker. This puts extra responsibility onto the audience to pay close attention to what is being said.

A great line for your Emcee to use is:

Some people have something important to say… but some people struggle with saying it…. our next speaker suffers from (CONDITION) and it can mean that her words are sometimes difficult to hear… but they are certainly worth listening to. Please give your full attention to the wonderful SPEAKER NAME”.

In summery

Whatever you do, remember, there is nothing to stop you speaking. A strong accent, speech impediment, language difficulty, or anything else should never stop your voice from being heard.

You should always make sure, no matter what, that the speaker is 100% comfortable talking, and the audience is 100% comfortable listening.

It may take a little extra work, but the event organisers and curators who put in the extra effort get the best results.


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