When well-known speakers mispronounce words, it quickly becomes prime material for late show hosts, comedians, and news media. But you can’t be a speaker for long without mispronouncing a word or two. Mispronunciations, though embarrassing, are part of public speaking. Think of all the resources available to those who hold the office of the President of the United States. Even with a full team dedicated to making their speeches flawless, they make mistakes. A simple web search can turn up hundreds of mispronunciations in presidential speeches.
Quite frankly, mispronunciations will happen. So we’ve compiled 4 tips to help you avoid them when possible and handle them properly when they do.
Some mispronunciations occur because you’ve learned to say or become accustomed to saying a word incorrectly. We probably all have friends who say “melk” instead of “milk” or “expresso” instead of “espresso.” Just yesterday at lunch, my friends and I pointed out that another friend was saying “sauce-a” instead of “salsa.” Many times our individual mispronunciations will get ironed out through the good-natured ribbing of our friends. Take a look at some of the more commonly mispronounced words here and test your pronunciation prowess. As soon as you become aware of a mispronunciation, work to correct it. During everyday conversations, they don’t matter much, but when we are presenting, they can become distracting to our audience, or even affect the audience’s opinion of us. That’s why tip number two is so important.
Look through the text of your speech to make sure you know how to pronounce the words you’ll be using. If you aren’t sure if you are saying a word correctly, consult an online dictionary. Click on the speaker icon next to the word to hear the word’s correct pronunciation. The time it takes to check pronunciations is worthwhile, because you don’t want to risk your audience thinking you aren’t credible or knowledgeable. Genova and Miller studied the correlation between mispronunciations and audience perceptions of the speaker and found that “as quantity of mispronunciation increases, audience ratings of source credibility decrease.” In addition, they found that mispronunciations don’t just affect “the competence and dynamism dimensions of credibility, an effect on trustworthiness was also observed” in the study. So multiple mispronunciations in a presentation might lead the audience to believe you can’t be trusted. All the more reason to be intentional about looking up and studying the correct pronunciations for difficult or unfamiliar words.
If you’ve done all the work to correct and weed out mispronunciations prior to getting up to speak, that’s great. But remember, many mispronunciations simply arise as part of the nature of oral delivery. Either we get talking too fast, or we are thinking about something else, or we simply misspeak. These can often come out in the form of malapropisms, mistakenly using a word that sounds like the one you intended to use. For example, you might intend to discuss the company emergency evacuation plan, but instead, you reference the company emergency evaporation plan. When that happens, hopefully you catch your mistake. If you do, don’t apologize or draw more attention to it. Simply repeat the word correctly and move on. If you aren’t aware of saying something incorrectly, the audience’s feedback might clue you in that you said something you didn’t mean to. Pay attention when you see people whispering or exchanging glances, and try to figure out if you made a mistake. If you can’t figure it out quickly, it’s probably best to simply move on.
Sometimes we might mispronounce a word and we don’t realize it until someone brings it to our attention following the presentation. This can be an uncomfortable scenario. In her book Rising Strong, author, researcher, and speaker Brené Brown (you might also know her for her recent Netflix special or for having one of the most popular TED talks of all time) tells a story of when an audience member confronted her about a mispronunciation. Following a presentation, she received an email that said, “Just a bit of friendly feedback: If you’re going to position yourself as an expert and scholar in your area, I think it’s important that you pronounce your colleagues’ names correctly. When you quoted Pema Chödrön, you said ‘PEE-ma CHO-dron.’ The correct pronunciation is Pim-a Cho-dron.” The correction sent Brown into a spiral of emotions. She felt embarrassment and shame and anger. But ultimately, she decided not to respond out of any of those emotions. Which is great advice. If someone corrects you, it’s best to accept the correction with as much humility and grace as you can muster and move on.
Use the 4 tips above to help you mitigate the risk of mispronunciations in your presentations. But if you happen to mispronounce something during a presentation, don’t let it consume you. You aren’t a computer, you aren’t a robot, you are a human speaker. And with that mispronunciation, you’ve joined the ranks of many great human speakers like American presidents and the incomparable Brené Brown.
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