Kindness and Words

Sometimes, I feel like I fall behind. There is so much to follow. But when I do find something inspiring, I share it, even if it’s not new.

Ellen Degeneres recently tweeted about meeting actor Josh Radnor and shared a link to a piece he wrote in the Los Angeles Times Magazine back in 2008. It was such a joy to read and an even greater joy to share.  If you haven’t read it, you can now. Here.

The piece speaks of kindness, by and for everyone but specifically in the entertainment industry. I couldn’t agree with it more and continue to practice kindness at every opportunity, even though I’m not a celebrity. What also “spoke” to me was a reference to the way we communicate, of course. 🙂

Radnor writes, “our thoughts and words are powerful far beyond what we suspect,” which I’ve believed for some time. It’s nice, though, to know that others concur. Do you?


Laying it on Too Thick

I received an email from a client in Los Angeles. “Judi, I have an audition for a Russian character for a television pilot. Do you have tips for a Russian accent?”  Always eager to help and loving my work, I delved into it, taking her lines from the audition sides and transliterating them with a heavy Russian accent. I sent her my Russian sounding version and told her we could practice together over Skype.  And then I reconsidered. I told her that if the audition notes didn’t specifically call for a heavy Russian accent, I didn’t think she should follow the notes I put together for her. Being able to do an authentic sounding accent can be wonderful, but it shouldn’t interfere with the overall performance.

I’m the first to admit that I am majorly impressed by actors who can master an accent that is not their own. Meryl Streep is a true accent powerhouse. You can hear her Polish accent in Sophie’s Choice and one of her English accents in The Iron Lady, roles for which she won Academy Awards. Matthew Rhys also comes to mind. He currently portrays a Russian KGB agent in the U.S. in the 80’s on FX’s The Americans, and he sounds completely American.  He also sounded completely American in ABC’s Brothers and Sisters. It’s always a surprise when people hear him in an interview, when he speaks with his native Welsh accent. If you’re a good actor, though, don’t compromise your performance by trying to include an accent that draws too much attention away from the role itself.  Have you ever watched a performance of someone trying too hard with an accent that just didn’t sound right? I know I have.

As a speech and dialect coach, I’m the last one who should be telling actors not to work on accents, I know. I do think actors should work on accents, absolutely. I do think, however, that it needs to sound as though it’s natural and not forced. Otherwise it’s a distraction. I also know that opportunities often arise quickly and without lots of notice. So how do you train long term to sound natural for an opportunity that may only present itself suddenly, if at all? Obviously, you can’t.  What you can do, however, is the following:

You can work with a speech coach on overall pronunciation skills and mastering of general speech sounds from various regions and languages. This will lay the groundwork for when you need to quickly adjust to a new accent. You will acquire the skills of “learning how to learn” the new accent.

You can also work with a speech coach on polishing your standard American English accent as a base for then tweaking it for regional dialects as needed. This is especially useful for non-native English speakers, but it can be just as helpful for native English speakers, too.

How do you find the right speech coach? I think that it depends on chemistry, and the connection you need to work well with someone, as you would with a personal trainer at the gym. It has to feel right, and it’s a personal preference. Each coach has their own style and approach, and you need to find one that works well for you. When you’re ready, give it a shot, and keep trying until you find what’s right for you.

Fifty Shades of Great

Yes, I did it. I made reference to the hugely successful trilogy written by E. L. James currently conquering the world.  But it’s not really what I’m addressing.  I’m addressing the superlative in English.  By now we know that there are many ways to say things.  I emphasize this to students, as I dissuade them from panicking when they forget a word.  I often reference the “basket of words,” we have in English to describe things. It’s a pretty rich language in that respect. Difficult? Yes. Replete with exceptions? Yes. But also rich.

 One student of mine would often use the word amazing when describing any number of things, ranging from a song or piece of music to how she feels when she has a novel idea.  Together we worked on alternatives to amazing. There’s nothing wrong with using that word, but I just wanted her to have some variety in expressing herself.  Non native English speakers often feel as if when they speak in English, they lose part of their personality, their style,  or their tone, and what’s left may be understandable English, but a part of them is missing from the communication.  Another example was when she acquired the word vast, which has a much richer and descriptive connotation than big, when describing the volume of something very far reaching.

 We’re not aiming here to transform these people into highfalutin, over sophisticated speakers who sound affected.  Actually, over-stuffing your speech with over-the-top vocabulary can work to your detriment.  Psychology professor Daniel Oppenheimer, in his study “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long words Needlessly,” indicates that clear, simple, and straightforward language is often the best.  So why am I promoting the use of words beyond amazing and big? It’s not to make you sound smarter.  Although, I know that many non native English speakers complain that they feel like they sound dumb when speaking in English, while in their native language they feel like they sound intelligent.  My purpose here is to help people to be more descriptive.

 When I helped prepare with an actress for interviews and press conferences in English about a Hebrew film in which she plays the lead role, I wanted her to be able to explain what makes the film so great.  Incidentally, what we decided upon was not to express how great the film was, but that it was groundbreaking.  This was a much clearer indication of the fact that the film was the first of its kind in Israel.  It was distinctly different from the films preceding it.  I don’t consider groundbreaking all that fancy of a word.  I do consider it descriptive.  So why all this word play and analysis? I see it as all being connected to better communication.  Being clearer helps us to more effectively transmit our message and connect to people, even across vast distances.

 I’m not the only one who thinks about variety.  Paul Simon does, too, in his famous 1975 hit, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. There are so many ways to say things. Enjoy them.

 This is also true for native English speakers. How often do you use the word amazing? Is it indeed what you mean?  And then there’s great, which is also fine to use.  I have nothing against these words. However, exploring the possibilities of how to best to express yourself gives you so many more options.  When we describe something, there’s always that gray area. It’s up to us to provide the vivid description and bring some color into it.

Say My Name

Do you want to earn points and make a good impression with someone?

You might want to connect with the person to whom you are speaking, perhaps an interviewer. Here’s a simple measure that goes a long way- say that person’s name.

I’m a pushover for people who say my name during a conversation. That small gesture makes a conversation, an interview, or really any communicative interaction that much more personal.  And whether it’s a presentation, a performance, a joke, or any other expression, our goal is most often to connect with our audience.

So what’s in a name? Well, our name is generally how we identify ourselves, and when you refer to someone by name during an exchange, you’re communicating to them that you are in this conversation, and you know to whom you’re speaking. You’re paying attention and trying to connect on some level. You want to share something specifically with them. And most of all, you’re validating their existence.

Some people often feel invisible for  a variety of reasons. When you use their name in conversation, you’re showing them that you’re not just thinking of yourself and what you want to say, but you’re listening to them, you’re communicating with them, and you’re engaging them in conversation.

Pay attention to your next conversation. See how it makes you feel when someone  refers to you by name, and try it out yourself when you speak with people.

Good Vibrations

It’s the first day of the coldest month of the year here in Israel, and there’s lots of hot frenzied activity! Can you feel it?

I am sending good vibrations to all my clients, and a special dose of good energies to those with whom I’ve been prepping for job interviews and film and television auditions, and whose bios and c.v.’s we have been translating and polishing.

2012 will be a year of big, beautiful, and bountiful breakthroughs.  And the best way to ready yourself for these blessings- focus and preparation.  Who’s ready?  And who’s ready to get ready? Let’s boogie and get your best you out there!

I’ll See It When I Believe It.

I don’t claim to be a self-help guru.  I do claim to help people express themselves well and be better communicators.  But sometimes, the road to improving your communication or your language can seem impossible. And that’s where we turn to self-actualization and basically believing in yourself and believing in the process. I often find with students that it’s not the language that’s keeping them from progressing.  It’s their confidence (or lack of confidence). And this gave me a thought.

There’s an often used expression, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it,’ which generally refers to not believing something will really happen until we see it with our own eyes.  An example of this notion could be when asked about an upcoming vacation trip to Hawaii, someone responds by saying, “I’ll believe it when I see it.  When I’m actually on the plane, I’ll know that it’s really happening.”

But what if we were to switch the order of the words to this expression? I’ll see it when I believe it.  To me, this makes a lot of sense.  If you don’t think achieving something is possible, chances are that you won’t achieve it. Now think of the converse statement- if you believe it’s possible, then you can actually visualize achieving it.  And only then can you set realistic goals and a plan for making it happen and be on your way.  

Relating this to the goal of breaking a language barrier or becoming a better public speaker, I see it as a switch you need to make. One student told me when I met him that he had a block against English- some kind of learning difficulty, which kept him from being able to speak the language. The more we met, discussed, read, reviewed song lyrics, watched films- all in English, the more he was able to express himself in English.  He then told me that I helped him break down the wall that was keeping him from English. The truth is that I didn’t break down the wall. He did. He did it by talking about his English goals, believing that it was possible, visualizing himself speaking English, and then working to make it happen, jumping right in and speaking.

I was working with another student, an actress, who had an audition for an English language feature film and wanted to make sure she had a good grasp of the scene and pronunciation of the lines. When we first took a look at the scene’s script, she said, “oh, I can’t do this in English.” We visualized her in the role, speaking in English, pronouncing each word clearly and with her interpretation of the character, and then we jumped into it. We practiced and practiced until she felt comfortable with the lines.  And then I reminded her that she had originally said she couldn’t do it. And we laughed. I want to tell you that she got the part, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that she believed it, saw it, and did it . As for the casting of the role, we’ll have to wait and see. What is important here is that she is now taking the steps to believe in, visualize,  and then prepare for her breakthrough to an international career.

Whatever your career, once you believe it’s possible, which I know is often the hardest part, you can then see it and then make it happen.

Get it Wrong to Get it Right- vowels

Many of my clients tell me they want to speak English like an American. They want that standard American English accent.  They want me to correct them, and they want me to tell them how to pronounce the words correctly.

Here’s the irony- would you believe me if I told you that in order to sound right, you need to mispronounce some of your speech sounds?  Seriously, if you want that natural sounding accent, and you want to minimize that foreign pronunciation, you must mispronounce some sounds. That will make you sound right.

Allow me to explain.  When a non native English speaker tries to speak English clearly, he will often try to emphasize every syllable in a word.  We know, however, that multi-syllabic words contain one syllable which is more emphasized.  It’s the one that has the accent.  And if you emphasize one syllable, then the others should be de-emphasized.  What happens when you de-emphasize a syllable with a vowel is that usually, that vowel loses its correct pronunciation and becomes almost inaudible.  You barely notice it.  That barely noticeable vowel becomes a sound which is actually the most common sound in American English, although it’s not an official English letter.  It’s called a schwa. The schwa is a character in the International Phonetic Alphabet, and it looks like an up-side-down and backward e– ə. I don’t recommend learning the Phonetic alphabet, but I wanted to demonstrate the sign for this sound, so you can see when to use it.

Here’s an example.  Say the word banana.  Do all three a‘s sound the same? They shouldn’t. The first a in banana should sound almost undetectable, as if it’s not there, and you’re saying bn, without the a.  The second a should be emphasized, as this is the syllable within the word which is accented. This second a should be pronounced like the a in the words bat or at. (The a in bat or at can be difficult, as this sound does not occur in several languages, such as Hebrew or Spanish.) And the last a in banana? This one should also be de-emphasized, as if it’s hardly there. It also becomes a schwa. Think of a schwa as the sound you make when you say uh. You don’t specially shape your mouth or lips for this sound. You just relax your mouth and let out a short flow of air and voice. Uh.

So, instead of trying to sound right and pronouncing banana with an emphasis on every sound and syllable, we pronounce it as bə n΄a nə, with an emphasis on the middle a. And the other a‘s become “mispronounced.”

Here’s another example. Say the sentence, Here’s a thought.  Did you pronounce the a in the middle? Or was it reduced to a schwa (ə) sound, as it should be? What about Nine o΄ Clock?  That middle o should be pronounced like a schwa (ə). You can think of it as nine uh clock.

These have been examples of correctly incorrect vowel sounds in American English.  These small changes can help your spoken English sound more natural. There are other sounds we mispronounce in normal, natural spoken English. Next time, we will examine those.

Pronunciation, especially in English, can be challenging and confusing.  It can also make the difference in sounding as intelligent in English as you do in your native language, especially for meetings, presentations, and media appearances. For questions, or to work on it with a coach, contact me via email for more information at:  jsrebro at gmail dot com.