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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Cheryl Cole and her accent. Does how we speak have any relevance to success in business?

The recent controversy at the X Factor and Fox TV over Cheryl Cole, Simon Cowell and Accentgate, gives visibility to a topic which rarely tops the headlines. Rather surprising in the age of mass communication, celebrity and the mediafest.

In 2011, we are obsessed with lifestyle, perception and image, but somehow this stops when it comes to our vocal dexterity. Perhaps it’s the equivalent of not looking after our teeth.

At school, we get qualifications in reading and writing and later we add business, professional and technical skills. The poor relation is our elocution for which we receive no qualification or training. It is a skill acquired on the hoof, if at all. A couple of hours with a voice coach might be a no-brainer.

How often have we seen a snazzy PowerPoint delivery brought to its knees by poor speaking skills? Makes one realise how good the voice-over artists are on the television documentary.

The debate can be held as to whether Ms Cole should modify her accent – the downside is that she may lose character and become contrived – something out of Pygmalion perhaps.

The casualty of using certain accents is a lack of clarity and diction, and if this goes alongside other deficiencies such as variability, phrasing and volume, then the communication cycle is broken. The punchline is to make oneself understood.

The cut-glass accents of the aristocracy with their emphasis on consonants have largely gone, but the broader vowels of the regions stay in place. People from abroad seem to like an accent which is a downplayed version of received pronunciation (RP), delivered thoughtfully, confidently and with character.

A strength of British culture is the variety to be found amongst its component accents. Whether it be Cornish, Scouse, Estuary, Geordie, Midland or whatever, we have our own views of what is easy on the ear. Irrespective of accent, a criticism of many people is that they talk through their teeth, don’t open the jaws and ignore breathing.

As we record our personalised voicemail salutations or listen to our voices elsewhere, we know what we like. If the answer is a no, then we must spare a thought for our customers and do something about it. Networking, tendering and negotiating count for little if what you say grinds on the ear. Clients will just go elsewhere because they tend to buy from people they like. Accent may be one of the most obvious barriers to business and yet one so easy to rectify.

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