Verbal communication is, for most, a common activity in academia. We talk to colleagues, students, parents of students, staff members, members of the community, potential employers, potential employees – the list goes on and on. Most of the communication happens without much thought. We just talk. But it’s worth the time to record yourself so that you can be sure the end product is what you want it to be.
This semester I have a student who has a class conflict and needs to have our class sessions recorded. I’ve been trying out different methods of lecture capture, which is fun in and of itself. But part of that process is double-checking the files for quality and usability – which means that I have the chance to listen to myself speak. It’s a somewhat painful process, because most of us don’t sound to others as we sound to ourselves. All but the most poised of us have less than perfect speech habits.
And yet, it’s critical to catch awkward speech habits early and deal with them. I once attended a conference in which a speaker, Diola Bagayoko of the Southern University of Baton Rouge, described his work with underprivileged youths. He has a fantastic training program for developing these young people for higher education and work in the sciences. The program is a great success, with many of the students going on to college in the sciences at highly competitive colleges and universities. Bagayoko’s most memorable comment, to me, was his statement that if you encounter a student with a bad habit that would in some way hinder that student’s performance (or perceived performance) in a professional setting, kindly but firmly point it out as soon as possible, for you may be the only person they ever meet who says something about it, and the correction of it could change their life. Bagayoko gave an example of correcting the written word of the students he works with, but I think speech would fall into this category of correctable behavior.
But why wait for someone else to correct you? There are a few simple ideas for recording and assessing yourself, often with equipment that you already have.
- Consider using a smartphone or other handheld device with a microphone to do the recording. The new iPhone 4 and third-generation iPod Touch has a built-in microphone, and I’ve written before about how you can upgrade a second-generation iPod Touch for recording capabilities with an inexpensive add-on microphone and free software.
- Record yourself in different contexts. For example, if you anticipate having a phone interview, set up recordings, as heard from a second phone, of yourself talking through a landline phone and a mobile phone. Chances are, you’ll hear that mobile phone interviews are usually of less than admirable sound quality than those using landlines. Having been on both sides of hiring (as separately the applicant and the committee member), I can assure you it’s usually well worth pursuing a landline location to take that important call, even if you have to arrange driving 15 miles to a friend’s house to use her phone while she feeds her toddler and infant lunch in the next room (speaking from experience.) Record yourself speaking both directly into the phone and via the speakerphone. The results are likely very different. You might also try recording yourself giving a traditional lecture. Speech patterns change in context, so your phone voice might be very different than your classroom voice.
- Listen carefully for distracting speech patterns. Do you constantly end your sentences with increasing pitch, even if you aren’t asking a question? Do your sentences run together? Do you sniff a lot? Do you have a very odd awkward laugh? Be as critical of yourself as possible.
- Ask for a second opinion. Find someone who can be brutally honest with you and has your best interests in mind. Give them the recording, which will be easy to do since you now have a digital file of your speaking. Ask them to give you their true assessment of your talking habits. A second opinion can be especially critical if you have any hint of a regional accent, which is likely undetectable to your own ears.
- Finally, truly endeavor to take the assessment seriously. Your speech habits really matter to your audience and affect how you are perceived. Make a list of what you want to address, and check up on yourself in a few months by doing a follow-up recording. Note what has improved and what hasn’t. And repeat the process.
Continuous improvement is not just a catchphrase for business and industry. It’s important for academia – even in something as simple as the way we talk. What has your experience been with awkward speech habits, either your own or someone who you wish had corrected themselves? Do you know of situations where speech habits made the difference, perhaps in a hire or a teaching evaluation? What advice do you wish someone had given you about your speech habits? Let us know in the comments.
[Opening image "His Master's Voice" is in the public domain.]Return to Top