Being taken seriously is a serious issue. It is mostly about respect and treating people equally. But sometimes we don’t treat people seriously for a number of reasons, objective and subjective. Maybe we do not want to be taken seriously. But what if we do and we fail? Seriousness is in the eye of the beholder. The way you look, the clothes you wear, your haircut.
How you sound? Yes, being taken seriously is also a matter of how you sound. More so in English than let’s say in Spanish. How you sound is a very wide concept, so let’s have a look (I will try and make it quick) at the factors that make you sound serious.
If you mean business, act the part. Sound the part.
It goes without saying that what you say is important. But the way you sound is part of your sales pitch.
First of all: the individual sounds. Pronouncing clearly and correctly the individual sounds is important to a great extent, because it is the base of what makes us understandable.
Let’s say you arrived to your hotel room and found the bed sheets have not been changed since the last guest’s departure. You call reception and you politely ask “could you please change the bed shits?” Chances are you will hear a stiffled chuckle and sooner or later someone will come to your room and change your sheets. However you may become “the guest who asked to have the shits changed”. Quite likely they understood you perfectly because of the context, but still, what they heard was shit, and not sheet.
Lesson #1: individual sounds can be the difference between two words. If you make mistakes with that in a professional context you may give off an aura of amateurship. This happens to native speakers too, because being a native speaker is no guarantee either.
Let’s continue: We do not spell words sound by sound, and we don’t say words in total isolation. Our brains do the work of cutting up the pieces when we hear them, because we recognize when and where to cut. However you need to train your brain – not your ear as people would expect – to make these fine distinctions. This is called “connected speech“. Chopping everything in discrete pieces as you speak is tiring and confusing on the listener, specially if they are native speakers and they are expecting you to connect the sounds and the words.
Lesson#2: sounds and words do not happen in isolation and when we speak we connect them constantly rather than finish one and start the next. It is important to learn to do this confidently because your listeners’ brains are expecting you to do it. Otherwise you are puzzling and annoying them one word at a time.
Finally (for now), we need to discuss intonation. Intonation patterns, the “ups” and “downs” in every sentence are not a whim or a choice for the speaker. They have meanings like the difference between questions and statements, or the difference between being “neutral” or expressing sarcasm. Your audience will probably be more understanding of mistakes with this if they know you are a non-native speaker. Or they may be thinking “he’s been here for five years and still speaks like this?”. Or you might be sounding offensive without noticing.
Lesson #3: intonation is like the icing on the cake. But a rather important icing. There may be more pressing matters, such as the two above. However, mastering it will still make a huge difference in how effective or confusing your communication efforts are. In reverse, pay attention to people’s intonation when they speak to you: they might be saying more than words alone can express.
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