Speech-language pathologists suit up for corporate consulting
By Marc Iskowitz
CORPORATIONS UTILIZE CONSULTANTS for employee training in a variety of areas, such as time management, stress reduction and job motivation. Executives also are discovering the value of communication skills training for businesspeople.
Poor communication skills can damage the reputation of a firm as well as its bottom line. Employees who cannot communicate properly may pose a financial burden to the company or cause clients to take their business elsewhere.
“If an employee cannot handle the big presentation by himself because of poor communication skills, you have to send someone with him or shift the responsibility to another person,” said Lorna Sikorski, MA, CCC-SLP, owner of LDS and Associates, in Santa Ana, CA. “That’s inefficient.”
It’s also not cost-effective to replace an employee who simply needs to improve their communication skills, she noted. “Going out and finding another person is a minimum six-month delay.”
Many clients need improvement in the area of corporate presentation skills, specifically the ability to speak with authority, to project and lower pitch, and to reduce stridency.
Kathryn Harlton, MA, CCC-SLP, recalled a client who had talked with a high pitch his whole life. The banker’s speech sounded as if it emanated high in the back of his throat, stated Harlton, owner of Corporate Communications Training, in Clarkston, MI. He benefited from exercises that helped him produce more natural-sounding voice tones and project his voice.
Breathing and relaxation techniques also contribute to a lowering of voice pitch (The Voice Companion: Strategies for Voice Therapy, East Moline, IL: LinguiSystems, Inc., 1999).
Other clients in the corporate setting require speech improvement to better their presentation skills, according to Katie Schwartz, MS, CCC-SLP, director of Business Speech Improvement, in Reading, PA. These cases represent 10 percent of her clientele. Schwartz noted that 50 percent of her clients want accent modification and 40 percent have communication disorders.
She may observe clients performing a typical work task, such as making a sales pitch, in order to identify areas in need of refinement. She looks for inappropriate changes in loudness or intonation and suggests articulatory adjustments to make speech more effective.
Some clients pronounce words incorrectly. For example, they may emphasize the wrong syllable of a word due to a regional dialect.
Others need to stress sentence endings more clearly, Schwartz observed. For instance, omitting the final /g/ in the suffix /ing/ “gives a very informal, possibly less educated, impression. We might work on making sure the person is aware of the impression he or she wants to convey in a formal business presentation. The idea is to draw attention to the message and not the pronunciation.”
Accents also can pose a career block to business professionals in the American workplace. When dealing with employees or their supervisors, clinicians must determine what it is about the accent that prohibits them from fulfilling their job requirements.
Harlton has provided accent modification services to people from India, China, Japan, Syria, Ethiopia, Germany and Columbia. Concerned about their command of English, many speak softly to cover up their accent.
During speech assessment, Sikorski examines communication habits and looks at practical applications. For example, a moderate accent heard over the phone will have a more severe impact on work than a heavy inflection heard in person because the phone distorts speech while face-to-face listeners benefit from visual cues.
She addresses these situational issues by creating practical applications of learning to speak in the work environment. Clients build a work-related vocabulary to match their daily needs and report back to her as they test their vocabulary in the workplace.
“In most cases our clients are competent professionals in the workplace,” Sikorski said. “What accented trainees need to do is apply the great organizational skills and logic they have for their job to language, something that, surprisingly, is often absent.”
She also teaches the “rules of the game,” the factors that color words and communicate subliminal messages. These are phrasing, inflection and intonation.
Tonal aspects of language are extremely important in business and often are the final elements learned by new English speakers.
“Intonation is at least 60 percent of the message in English,” Sikorski said. “Effective adult communicators can say what they want to in all situations and persuade people to their points of view. That’s not pronunciation; that’s persuasive speech. Most of that is done with your voice.”
Becoming more compelling requires speakers to improve the intelligibility of messages by stressing the right part of a sentence rather than uttering everything with equal value.
“Communication is more than talking; it’s body language and tone of voice,” Harlton said. “Your body language gives you away before anything comes out of your mouth. If you roll your eyes before saying anything, the listener can tell you are disgusted.”
Like body language, inflection can communicate more than the verbal message. Speakers who allow their voices to trail up, as if uttering a question, might send a cue to managers that they are unsure about a subject.
“Speech with an upward curve lends the subjective impression that you do not know what you are talking about,” Sikorski noted.
She also addresses cultural style issues, forms of communication that are acceptable in one language but not another. For instance, American speakers would rather not be told, “Get this done by Friday.” They would prefer to hear, “It would be nice if you could get this done by Friday.”
Non-native speakers also should be made aware of the high priority American companies give to time and deadline requirements.
“Vocal volume and use of gestures differ from one country to another,” Schwartz pointed out. “A soft voice may indicate respect for supervisors in one country and lack of self-confidence in another.”
However, such cross-cultural differences are not the “be-all and end-all,” Sikorski said. “Too much is made of cultural differences in the workplace. If someone were to work on general intonation rules, a lot of those cultural style problems would go away.”
The style of business in a particular company also affects interaction. This can vary from extremely formal to laid back.
In addition, an unspoken company code may dictate if people prefer to be addressed by their job titles and whether it’s acceptable to criticize coworkers in meetings.
Much of corporate voice training involves discussing psychosocial aspects, according to Harlton. Many clients seek out her services because they’re embarrassed by the way they speak but are afraid to change. Once her techniques elicit progress in the clinic, she counsels clients on using their new voice in public.
When clients have been living with a particular voice their whole life, change can be a difficult process, “but they gain a lot of self-confidence,” Harlton noted. “They are more understandable. People take notice of what they say and not how they are saying it. That is important to them.”
While carryover is a major concern of the speech-language pathologist in traditional therapy, it’s “an absolute obsession” for people working on accent, Sikorski said. Instead of waiting until the end of training, she constantly offers clients opportunities to practice their voices in real-life situations.
“The more you can give them small successes, the more liberated they will feel in trying these things out in public and the better your long-range success will be,” she observed.
Most of Harlton’s clients are motivated to change and work hard at it. Only one client, who was forced by management to attend her program, had an unproductive attitude.
In the American workplace it is not always acceptable to tell people they have a weakness, and an accent that is interfering with job performance can be considered a weakness. It may be hard for a corporate trainer to break the ice with an employee.
Some of Sikorski’s clients come to her on their own volition, but many businesses retain her services because a worker cannot fulfill his or her job requirements. If the request comes from management, she establishes initial contact with the client in a group introductory meeting. She uses non-medical terminology, such as “language difficulty” instead of “language disorder,” “trainer” instead of “speech-language pathologist,” and “teaching” instead of “therapy.”
Sikorski tells clients receiving accent modification services, “You are capable individuals. Unfortunately, people cannot focus on what you are saying because they are getting sidetracked or distracted by how you are speaking. Any work we do will get listeners to focus more precisely on what you are saying and give you more control over a situation.”
Also, speaking with an accent can add undue stress to conversations by requiring the listener to concentrate in order to understand what is being said. She tells clients her training will offer them a more relaxed approach to various communication situations, including meetings, participatory team management and telephone conferencing.
Corporate clients must set practical goals. Voice training can lead to changes in some aspects of speech, such as pitch, degree of stridency, tone, rate, rhythm, inflection and intensity. Improvements in these areas can make people feel more comfortable about themselves.
However, no degree of counseling on the speech-language pathologist’s part can change a person’s personality. While some clients strive to become dynamic, outgoing speakers who make people sit up and take notice, this probably is not a realistic prototype for a timid, soft-spoken person.
“Most people are relieved at this,” Harlton said. “They want to be believed but would not feel comfortable if they had to change themselves to someone they are not.”
For More Information
Kathryn Harlton, Corporate Communications Training, 7386 Deerhill Dr., Clarkston, MI 48346; (248) 625-7944; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Katie Schwartz, Business Speech Improvement, Inc., 24 Craig Dr., Reading, PA 19606; (610) 779-6322; e-mail: email@example.com