A conversation with Heather Hansen; Global Communication Consultant at Global Speech Academy
“So first of all, make very clear what the purpose of the team is, or the organization. What is it we’re trying to “Audiences don’t want to see you fail. They really are on your side. They want to see you succeed. When you get uncomfortable and nervous and start that spiraling, they feel embarrassed for you. They want to save you. They feel horrible, and it makes them very uncomfortable. If you think of any situation you’ve been in, I’m sure that you’ve … If you’ve ever seen a nervous speaker, you really feel for them. But when it’s us up there, we forget that. We think that everybody’s against us and judging us, and it’s not true. It really isn’t true.” –Heather Hansen
In this episode of Control the Room, I had the pleasure of speaking with Heather Hansen about her experience helping leaders speak up and build their communication skills. She shares a handful of the unique challenges of communication training in our globalized world. Later, she shares the two most important factors in developing as a communicator. We then discuss the role of listening in learning to speak up. Listen in for her predictions about the future of technology and communication.
[2:00] How Heather Got her Start As A Communication Consultant.
[13:20] The Role Of Tone In Communication.
[20:12] The Power Of Questions.
[28:12] The Future Of Technology And Communication.
[44:40] How To Measure Soft Skills.
Links | Resources
Heather on Linkedin
Heather on YouTube
Heather on Linkedin
About the Guest
Heather helps multinational companies enhance collaboration, innovation, and inclusion across their global teams through greater understanding and stronger, more efficient communication policies. She focuses on fostering unmuted communication cultures where every voice is heard, resulting in greater inclusion, innovation, and efficiency across remote and global teams.
Along with private leadership communication coaching, Heather facilitates group training courses and consults on a number of topics related to global communication. Heather is also an External Industry Expert for NUS Business School’s Executive Education programs, where she runs modules on communication, presentation, and storytelling skills.
About Voltage Control
Voltage Control is a change agency that helps enterprises sustain innovation and teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.
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Douglas: Welcome to the Control The Room podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures to the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes, while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all in the service of having a truly magical meeting. Thanks for listening.
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Today, I’m with Heather Hansen, founder of Global Speech Academy, where she helps top global leaders show up, speak up and inspire action in a changing world. She’s also the author of Unmuted, the must read guide to enhancing your communications. Welcome to the show. Heather.
Heather: Thanks so much, Douglas. Thanks for having me.
Douglas: Oh, of course. I’m really looking forward to the conversation. In the pre-show chat I got super excited. Really looking forward to digging in. But before we do so let’s start off with how you got your start. How did you get into this work of helping companies become unmuted?
Heather: Well, I think communication is somewhere in my blood. It’s always been a part of me. I started competitive speaking when I was 12. I did speech and debate all through high school. It’s a huge, huge thing in America, knowing how to speak up and speak in public. Then I thought I was going to go into law, actually. Then I met a wonderful man in a bar in Switzerland, who happened to be from Denmark. That took me a little bit off course. When I finished university, I moved to Denmark and I went into a masters of linguistics. Then, when I started my work, I went into translation and copywriting. Then we got the opportunity to come to Singapore back in 2006. Within a year of coming here, that’s when I set up my company as a corporate training firm, Global Speech Academy to focus specifically on communication skills.
As much as I do like copywriting and writing, in general, I am much more of a people person and I like to be speaking and presenting and teaching. So with a certificate in teaching English, I moved into the corporate training world, ran a very large program for an airline here, helping the pilots to do better public announcements. So that had to do with pronunciation and building empathy over the PA systems. Then when I started my own company, it just … The rest is history. Now, 15 years later, I work with a number of top multinationals, usually with headquarters here in Singapore for the APAC region and throughout the world. It’s just really exciting work that I love doing, helping global voices to show up and speak up and inspire their teams and create more open environments of communication in the workplace.
Douglas: Amazing, so much cool stuff in that story that I want to dig into. Maybe for starters, you mentioned speaking up as one of these things that you learned early. I find it to be one of the things that can make a huge difference in someone’s career. There’s lots of research that goes into women not being as likely to speak up. But even men that don’t speak up are going to be disadvantaged, if they’re not getting their points of view in front of others. So I’m just curious, what is some of your advice. As someone who learned this stuff at a young age, what is your advice to help people maybe learn to speak up or just get past some of their fears of doing so?
Heather: Yeah. That’s speaking up. Even when we have been conditioned from a young age to do this, it doesn’t mean that I’m not nervous when I do it. It doesn’t mean that my hands don’t still shake when I’m in front of thousands of people or really important people. It could be a room with only three people, but very important people, that will still make me nervous. So it’s about managing those nerves and recognizing that they’re normal. I think people get really nervous and they think they’re the only ones. It’s not true. We all do. I’ve had way more than 10,000 hours practice in all of this and I still feel the nerves. So it’s about getting those butterflies to fly in formation, a quote that I love, that’s accredited to Helen Keller, getting them to fly in formation and to help you because that adrenaline can support you in a very positive way.
But if it overwhelms you, that’s when you start to downward spiral into negative self talk and then it’s really hard to come back. But it has to do with that confidence, both your self confidence and that you believe you have something worth sharing and that your ideas are good. But also skills, confidence and that’s where training solutions come into play. If people really feel like, “But I just don’t know how to give a good presentation. I don’t have the skill set.” Then you can fill that gap with training. But if the self-worth isn’t there, you can get all the training in the world and it’s still up to you to press unmute and speak up in the meeting or stand up in front of your team to present and speak up for yourself, in general, in your life. But everybody deals with that problem. It’s not just one person.
Douglas: I love this advice, because focusing on the feeling and looking at it, examining it, and even maybe labeling it as a thing that’s okay goes a long way. Because I’ve got that advice pretty early on as well. I can work wonders to just sit with it versus, instead, as you say, spiraling out of control and thinking to yourself, “Oh, this is bad. This is bad. This is bad. This is bad,: versus, “Is this okay?”
Heather: Yeah. You see the guy in the front row yawn and it’s like, “He hates me. I’m so boring. Everybody hates me. This is awful. I can’t believe I’m up here. Why did they ask me to do this? Nothing I’m saying is making sense. They don’t understand me. They aren’t with me.” And it’s like, the guy just yawned. He has a newborn at home. He’s been up all night. You don’t know. It’s so normal for us to jump to the worst conclusion and that isn’t always what’s really happening. So it’s about managing those thoughts, managing yourself in the situation and believing in the best of you and of your audience as well.
Audiences don’t want to see you fail. They really are on your side. They want to see you succeed. When you get uncomfortable and nervous and start that spiraling, they feel embarrassed for you. They want to save you. They feel horrible and it makes them very uncomfortable. If you think of any situation you’ve been in, I’m sure that you’ve … If you’ve ever seen a nervous speaker, you really feel for them. But when it’s us up there, we forget that. We think that everybody’s against us and judging us and it’s not true. It really isn’t true.
Douglas: That’s such a powerful reframing as well. Just to remember that people, they’re rooting for you for the most part. Pretty much everyone is to be honest. I mean, there’s outliers, but …
Heather: Yeah. There’s the sour apple every now and then.
Douglas: Yeah, of course. But why are we going to over index on them? It seems like they get all the attention they never should.
Douglas: Let’s shift from thinking about presenting to big audiences and think about moments that we have with our teams where we might feel muted, or we might feel less inclined to speak up. I think some of these same emotions are running through our heads, right? Is the CEO going to judge me harshly?
Heather: Yeah. That’s always a consideration and a concern. It has a lot to do with the culture that’s been built in the organization. Is there a psychologically safe, trusting, open culture that is curious, that is not afraid to fail? That has to be looked at from the very top. It starts with the leadership and the type of culture they’re trying to design in this company. But that doesn’t mean that from the bottom up, we also can’t act. Because I think you can be a leader at every single level of the organization. By setting the example, by speaking up, by voicing your opinions, by contributing to the conversation, you’re setting a example for others to do the same. It’s also about knowing when to be quiet and listen and encourage others on your team to speak up and add to the conversation.
When we moved online, the only thing we ever heard on every single audio, video call was, “You’re on mute. You’re on mute.” I realized, at that point, that many of us were on mute way before Zoom calls. We were muted in our meetings, we were muted in our families, muted in our communities. I think it is time for us to all start taking responsibility for speaking up in the world and making this world a better place. We’ve been hearing from the same voices for so long, this small, small percentage of the world’s population that dominates the global discussion. We need everyone to start contributing if we’re going to pull ourselves off the ledge and change the direction this world is moving. So it really is important in our teams, now, that we encourage one another, we support one another, that we’re less critical and judgemental, that we’re being inclusive in the conversation. We can start creating cultures in our work environments that support that.
Douglas: I love that you brought up listening, because I feel that listening is such a critical part of speaking up, because if we truly listen, like truly, truly listen, that is a form of unmuting things, right? Because if our brain’s unmuted to what’s going on in the room, there’s no way we can connect, in a way that people are going to hear us. We could be shouting through a megaphone and it wouldn’t matter if we haven’t done a good job of listening so that we can frame our thoughts in a way that people are going to embrace them.
Heather: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It’s so, so true. It’s so true. I think that we all like to think that we’re good listeners. We really do. But many of us aren’t. We’re kind of fighting the way our brains function. We hear things and we immediately are thinking: How do I categorize that thought? How do I categorize that feeling, that idea? Do I like it? Do I not? Do I trust it? Do I not? What box do I put it in? Is it a good one? Is it bad? Is it positive, negative? We’re fighting this urge to categorize and make sense of our world and take that thought that we just heard further, instead of simply hearing it, digesting it and then responding when it’s appropriate.
Because a lot of us just speak to make noise without really having thought through what it is we’re trying to say or where we’re going. Yeah. That all comes back to that listening. How can you really connect with someone … As you say, you’re absolutely right. How do you connect with them if you aren’t listening to them, more than just the words, but the tone, the body language, the whole atmosphere of the room. That’s all part of listening and you are helping to unmute someone else by doing that.
Douglas: Let me just shift a little bit back to your story about the pilot training that you’re doing and the empathy building that could happen if they really kind of think about linguistics. I’d love to hear a little bit more about that. Were there specific things, devices or tools that you were kind of giving them to think about? Because that seems like a really powerful thing to bring into even just team meetings and the way we think about sharing information and inviting people into dialogue.
Heather: Yeah. That was one of the most exciting and fun projects of my career, even though it was way back in 06. I take no responsibility for how they sound today. But we trained 1800 pilots with this airline and it was amazing. I mean, this is a true safety situation, right? I mean, these pilots are responsible. They have an enormous amount of responsibility in the air. If they’re in a situation where there could be danger or something happens to the plane, an engine goes out, whatever it is, for them, they’re in engineering brain. They are in, how do I go down my checklist to fix this problem and for them … They told me this in every single class, “Ah. An engine failure. That’s a non-event.” That’s a non-event. It was no big deal, no big deal at all for these pilots. It’s like, “No, no, no. That happens. You go through the checklist. You just go down your checklist.” There is zero emotion involved.
Whereas, if you’re a passenger in that plane and an engine goes out, there is a lot of emotion involved. We are going through many emotions. It is not normal for us. It is not a non-event. It is our worst fear and nightmare, as we sit in an airplane and we find out that one of our engines is gone. We don’t understand what that means. So how does the pilot come onto the PA system and interact with the passengers? They cannot see the pilot. The pilot is flying the plane. How can he or she, although there were not many shes at that time, unfortunately, I’m not sure if there were any actually at this airline at that time. So in this case, he, how could he connect with those passengers, make them feel calm and speak to that empathy side?
It was a process of shifting out of the engineering, machine brain over to the human, emotional brain in order to connect, to use voice appropriately, to use tone appropriately. You can’t come on your first announcement, where they used what I call, the pilot, boring voice. The, “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. This is Singapore Airlines flight, 157, flying to San Francisco. Flight time today is 12 hours, 30 minutes.” You can’t do that. You can’t come on and be like, “Oh. Ladies and gentlemen, we just had a engine blow out. No big deal. Please sit back, relax, have a nice flight.” We can’t do that.
So it was about how do we shift from that mechanical brain into the emotional one to use our voice appropriately, to use tone appropriately, to feel what the passengers are feeling. That is incredibly difficult with that amount of responsibility and stress on the engineering side. That was quite fascinating, to work with them and try to work out those kinds of situations. But we were looking very much, as you said, at the linguistics of it, the articulation of the words, the slowing of the pace, the tone of voice used, connecting emotion to the tone of voice, even if they weren’t necessarily feeling those emotions and knowing how to calm people in a very stressful situation.
Douglas: I would imagine the stress of the situation, even if they’re calm and they’ve got a checklist, that’s a mindset or a mode they go into.
Douglas: So having the awareness to snap out of that, even if they get the training ahead of time, I almost wonder, did you do any simulations to kind of put them in kind of stressful situations or try to mimic any of those kinds of moments so that they could rehearse trying to snap out of it?
Heather: Yeah. A big part of their normal training is in simulators where they’re put through all the ropes of these, which is why they are so calm in these situations. What we were doing, in the course, was we were giving them very specific, emergency situations and having them record what their announcement would be. Then we would listen to those, as a group and in small groups, and give feedback from a more human perspective of if I were … For them, it meant, think of your partner, think of your child in that airplane. Not another captain, another first officer, think of someone that you love, who knows nothing about how planes work, who has no idea how we are suspended in the air right now. Pretend that they’re sitting in that plane. How are you going to speak to them? That was the way they were able to sometimes make that shift.
Even when they listened to other people’s recordings, to try to put themselves in that space, really talking about the depths of empathy here of trying to understand and experience it from a different person’s perspective. That was when they could start understanding that, “Oh yeah. Maybe that didn’t really make me feel at ease or safe.” For these airlines who are very, very concerned with repeat business, repeat customers, the upgrades and the business class passengers, and first class passengers, it is really important that they connect well with them and that the passengers trust them.
Douglas: Yeah. That also strikes me as being really valuable in the workplace. Because if we show up with more context and more empathy about how the message is going to be received, it’s only going to generate better results. I often see leaders assuming that people have more context than they do, because it’s really difficult. You might talk about the same thing 10 times in one day, because there’s 10 different people with different levels of access to information, different levels of experience on the job, et cetera. Have you done any work to translate the work you’ve done with the pilots into companies?
Heather: Yes. You’re so right about this. We speak and speak and speak without really thinking about the other side or the other perspective. Since I am working in such an international environment … I mean the whole world is global, at this stage. You could be sitting in your living room in my hometown in California and the world is coming to you. So you have to start understanding difference and cultural difference and understanding the perspectives of others, more than ever before. As we move to the future with Metaverse and more global technologies, we’re going to be interacting with people from everywhere, much more often than maybe in the past.
But in my work here in Singapore, especially, it is so incredibly international. We have a mix of cultures within Singapore itself, plus an enormous, international expatriate community that works in these organizations. So every single conversation, there are multiple layers of meaning that is being negotiated in that moment. We are thinking not only from a cultural perspective, we’re also thinking from a language perspective when we’re managing and simplifying our messages so that people with lower levels of English are understanding properly. We’re constantly checking for understanding. I want to be very clear. That is not, “Do you understand?” Some leaders will come in who don’t have that awareness and talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, everybody, got it? Good. Okay, great. See you next week. Come back next week. Nothing has happened or the opposite of what you wanted happened and you sit there saying, “Oh, nobody knows what they’re doing. Oh, they can’t speak English. Nobody understands me.” No, you didn’t check for understanding properly. You can’t just say, “Understand?”
Yes, of course, everybody’s going to say they understand, especially in an Asian context where losing face is a big deal. We aren’t going to just speak up and say, “Oh, I’m sorry. I must be the idiot in the room who didn’t get this because everybody else seems to have.” No, we, aren’t going to do that. So being able to say, okay, what’s your action item for this week? What are you going to be doing next time? How did you understand what I just said? Can you rephrase? What is our plan team? Get everybody rephrasing and restating what it is they are taking away from that meeting, so you’re sure you’re on the same page and you’re sure understanding happened. So these kinds of situations are much easier than the pilot situation because there wasn’t a back and forth communication. In our meetings, in our teams we have that opportunity to clarify, to make sure it’s understood, to summarize, to paraphrase. Those skills need to be used constantly.
Douglas: As I was listening there, I couldn’t help, but think to myself about how we talk about, are there any questions, is such a horrible question.
Heather: Yeah. Are there any questions? Yeah. Yeah.
Douglas: You pretty much get crickets always right?
Heather: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Douglas: As you pointed out, there’s, you’re modeling some really good kind of provocative prompts that might get people talking. I’m curious if you have any others up your sleeve or any that you coach on that you give leaders, just to connect and draw more out of people.
Heather: Yeah. I think questions are really powerful. Asking the right questions, asking open questions. I was just talking with a colleague the other day about a list of questions in the book. She said, “What’s really interesting is none of these questions start with why.” She goes, “Why is that?” And, and that was a really interesting observation that I hadn’t actually noticed, to be honest. As I thought about it, it was basically because yeah, when we ask questions that start with why they almost sound like you’re accusing. Well, why did you do that? Why didn’t you do this? Why did you do that first? It’s almost accusing them as if it has a negative spin or maybe it’s just the way that we hear it, as a challenge or an accusation. So questions that start with; what were you thinking when you did this, or ‘what was your reasoning behind this? Or when did you decide to make this change? How did the team respond to that? How are you feeling about this or that.
Using these kind of what, how, when questions instead of why can really bring out a lot more, without triggering people into thinking, “Oh gosh, I’m on the spot. They don’t agree with what I did. I need to defend myself.” That’s pushing them into a state that we don’t really want people to be in. We want them to just be having a curious conversation around, oh, that was an interesting thought process. How did you come to that decision. And not just, why did you do that? That’s a really big difference in the question. Why did you do that versus how did you come to that decision? Very, very different feelings to those questions. So it’s about getting in tune with how can we make people feel comfortable and open up to us by using our curiosity as a guide? I think that’s what’s really key, being curious about not just the results, but the process of getting there.
Douglas: Yeah. I love that idea of being curious or even starting with inquiry.
Heather: Yeah. That’s really what it’s about, in order to even understand others better as we’re working with people who are very different from us. I have a full time staff, assistant, finance, bookkeeping. She is a different generation than me. She is a different nationality, different ethnicity. We are incredibly different people. Different personality profiles. The biggest struggle I have with her is acknowledging her, because I come from my American perspective and my upbringing of giving gold stars and patting people on the back and making a big deal. That’s what I like because I like to be acknowledged that way. I like to be put on the pedestal and given the high five and, “Well done, Heather. Great idea. Aren’t you wonderful. This is fantastic.”
She is the absolute opposite. I want to send her flowers, buy her champagne, take her to lunch, acknowledge, acknowledge, acknowledge, put her on social media, talk about how amazing she is. That, for her, is like the worst thing I can do. So it’s about being curious. Okay. Well, how can I acknowledge you? How do you want me to show my appreciation towards you? It’s something as simple as that. When we have the absolute best intentions, where we want to honor and respect and acknowledge someone, and we can do it wrong, even in that situation. So imagine when it’s more of a negative conversation or situation. If we haven’t had these conversations around understanding each other and being curious about, wow, that’s really interesting that you don’t like that because I’d never thought of it otherwise. We have to be able to step out of ourselves, be curious about others, ask the right questions, get to know them at a deeper level so that we can build those stronger relationships and get the best out of our people and also offer the best of ourselves.
Douglas: Wow. Yeah. Even if we have shared values, at the macro level, we’re going to all value things differently. I agree, it’s really important to have these moments. If you can ritualize them so that we have very intentional moments where we come together and explore those conversations around, “Hey, what do you value around feedback? How do you like to get negative feedback?” Whatever it is, understanding people and documenting it so that we can know about each other more.
Heather: Yeah. You’re so right. We aren’t doing that in organizations. We don’t make time for that. We think, “We don’t have time. That’s not a priority. We need to get the job done.” But think how much faster and better we’ll get the job done if we build those relationships first. A lot of this should be built into the onboarding, I believe. All the way from the very started onboarding managers should be having these conversations, understanding their people so that they can build a strong team that connects. Then, I totally agree with you if it was normalized that we come together and part of our quarterly review is to have these discussions. We take time out for that, just as much as we take time out to check the numbers and set the goals for the next target. It’s also building those relationships.
We do have offsites and we have team building days and we have … But is it really enough? Is it going deep enough? Going out and doing sports on the beach is one thing. But is that really getting down to the core, to have those deep conversations that really build trust and empathy and belonging in the teams? So not just going on the surface and giving things lip service, and, “Oh, we did a team building day,” but actually doing things that make a difference.
Douglas: 100%. Our belief is that if you take the time during the onboarding, it actually makes your life easier later.
Douglas: Because you think about how much time you spend when people are disagreeing and just getting in the middle of this stuff and how much it just gunks us down. It’s not that much effort to have someone fill out their user manual when they start. We actually love to send out a kind of intake form, as well, so that we can learn what kind of gifts might they like for their birthday.
Heather: Yeah, exactly.
Douglas: How can we celebrate them.
Heather: Exactly. Right. Because that was really my mistake, I think, bringing this person on board, who I work with, because I hadn’t had this conversations. I just assumed, of course she loves flowers and champagne.Nno, she doesn’t drink. She doesn’t want flowers. She certainly doesn’t want her picture anywhere on social media. So it’s very, very different. We should be having those conversations, even in small teams like mine. I have a lot of freelancers, a lot of contractors, I work with. Starting at the very beginning, I think you’re absolutely right there. It makes a huge difference moving forward, you can get the job done even better.
Douglas: 100%. I want to come back to something you said earlier. We’ve been talking about differences and these kind of macro values. You also talked about differences in social norms and language. Something else you mentioned in the pre-show chat was linguistic bias. I actually just was speaking with someone the other day at a conference about how they do accent training, which I had mixed feelings about, because, on one hand, you’re kind of trying to train someone’s innate, uniqueness, their oneness, their only-ness to be shaped towards something else. But in some ways it helps them be more successful in their career because their software development peers can understand what they’re talking about. In other ways, it strips them. So I’m really curious to hear your take on this because it’s not a simple … It’s a complex issue, I think.
Heather: It is. It is. I will try not to talk for another half an hour on this. I could talk all day about this. This is a topic really close to my heart. It’s my main specialty where I started my business was in articulation training. In the United States it’s referred to, primarily, as accent reduction. That’s where I already have a problem with it, because accent is not something that should be reduced. We all have accents. What we need to be focused on is accent recognition. From an American perspective, we are absolutely horrible at identifying accents, at understanding accents, simply because we haven’t had the contact with them. It’s not our fault. We just haven’t had contact.
The only contact we’ve had is in movies. It’s in stereotypical characters in film and things like the Simpsons and stuff that we grew up on. The villains, the Indiana Jones. I mean, who are the bad guys? They’re never the strong, American, male voice that sounds so wonderful. No, it’s a German. It’s an Eastern European. It’s an Arab. Depending on the geopolitical landscape at the time they are accented because that signals that they are other, that they are less than that, they do not belong, that they are a threat. So we grow up believing that accents could be a threat. That people with accents don’t have the same level of education. They don’t speak English as well. They’re different. They’re other. So what do we do when they come into our environment? We think, “You need to sound more like us.”
This is the hypocrisy of my entire business. I’ve built my business on this hypocrisy of exactly what you said, that they need this kind of training so they can succeed in their careers, but why do they need it to succeed? It’s because the majority accent that has the power in the situation is not allowing them to succeed because they sound different. So I sit here saying , you should not have to change the way that you sound. You should be met halfway native speakers should be learning to understand more accents and accented varieties of English. But at the same time, I know that when you go out to get a job or get a promotion, you will be overlooked because of your accent. So I will train you and I will help you to neutralize, to sound more like the majority of wherever you are working, because I do know, and we have studies that back it up, that people will be discriminated against in hiring decisions and promotion decisions. We know it is affecting people at work.
This is part of the reason we are not hearing global voices and other perspectives and other ideas, where the Western ideas of leadership, even of psychological safety. This is a very, very Western concept, that I’m not convinced will work in Eastern cultures, if we have to apply it in a very specific way. I still haven’t fully figured that out. I don’t think anyone has. So the Western world does dominate a lot of these discussions and the linguistic bias is at the core of this. It underlies racism, underlies gender bias. It works it’s way into everything because the minute we open our mouths, or we hear someone open their mouth, we’re already identifying and categorizing them male or female. We are judging their sexuality based on how they speak. We are judging their race based on how they speak.
A colleague of mine showed up for a meeting. The man looked at her and said, “Oh, you didn’t sound black on the phone.” What does black sound like? Right? Yeah, it’s shocking, shocking. But this is how deep this goes. So yes, accent reduction training, accent, neutralization, all of these concepts I am very, very much against. I did a TEDx talk on this called 2 Billion Voices: How to speak bad English perfectly. I was also on a very popular NPR podcast about this. So there’s a lot of places you can hear me talk about this and get on my soapbox. But the main message is that we must meet people halfway. We need to be aware of these biases that we have from our upbringing, our backgrounds, our culture.
Because it’s not just native, non-native, it’s also … Think of someone from the south. Think of someone from Boston. Think of someone from New York, New Jersey. We have immediate, immediate ideas of what these people are like and where they belong in our society. So it’s also happening where we do it to ourselves. Happens in the UK, happens in Canada, lots in Canada, also with the French speaking parts. So this is happening everywhere, and it’s not just in English, either. It’s in every language. This is built in and ingrained in us from the very start.
Douglas: It’s really fascinating listening to you speak about this because I was kind of sitting with my own experience as well. Reflecting on what that meant for interactions I’ve had. The thing that popped into my head was, where I struggle is not with the accents, because actually like I’m always fascinated when someone has … To me, it brings their heritage, their background. I’ve always been interested in people coming from all sorts of places. Where I struggle though the enunciation or the pronunciation is warped by the accent, so that it’s actually hard to distinguish the word. Because sometimes the emphasis is put on a different syllable, or it things get smushed together in a way that my brain is literally … I can’t even understand it. So that’s really fascinating.
It seems to me that there could be opportunity to have training on both sides.
Douglas: I wonder if there are more fundamental … It reminds me of how people learn, how to mimic a language. Actors will learn how to speak British or speak whatever. There’s some very distinct rules. It’s like, oh, you do this with the E or you do this with the W. If you know that there could be some simple, potential, maybe complicated rules, but it’s not impossible. You don’t have to memorize a bunch of things. It’s just rules that you’re applying. Once you rehearse them, it would translate to many, many, many words.
Heather: Yes. Yes. That’s exactly how it works. I mean, when I’m working with someone on the accent side, I look at it from a global perspective. I look at global linguistics research, which has shown us that there are very specific sounds that, when articulated clearly, will make the biggest difference in understanding. We know, for example, a stronger R sound, which is very normal for us in North America, but not so normal in a lot of parts of the UK, for example, where they drop the R’s. For them, adding a little more strength to the R is going to help even the native speaker in a global environment.
Also our Ts. This is what’s difficult for us as, especially Americans, Canadians are a bit better at this, but really having nice crisp T’s. We say international internet instead of internet and international. Clarity, right? Clarity. Clarity. Have the Ts sound like Ts because if you think of someone who maybe has a lower level of English, or if you’re just listening, you’re listening for those sounds. Whereas what you were saying, when you’re on the receiving side as a native speaker, we tend to listen a lot more to the stress and the intonation. When you say the inflection and the word stress is in the wrong spot, that’s totally normal that would throw you.
Even coming to Singapore. I remember one of the first misunderstandings I had was someone, totally in context, says, “I need to check my calender.” I’m like, “A calender? What’s a calender? A colander?” Or they’ll say like, “Oh, my colleague.” Your cholic? Colleague?” Colleague and calendar. Those little word stress shifts would really mess me up until I understood why it was happening, where it was coming from. That’s why we can tune our ears to different accents, to different pattern styles.
A lot of people have issues with Indian English and they say, “Oh, they just talk too fast.” It’s not that they’re talking any faster than us. It’s that their patterning is different. They go up and down in different places. When we go up with our voices, we’re normally emphasizing or stressing something. They go up on words that we would not normally go up on. So we hear them go up and we think, “Wait, did I miss something? Was that important?” It wasn’t important at all. It’s just the pattern of their speech. We get stuck there and we’re still thinking about that and they’ve moved on and it’s like, “Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Slow down. You’re too fast. You’re too fast. You’re too fast.” They aren’t too fast. We’re too slow in processing because they’re speaking in a way that we aren’t familiar with.
If we can learn how they speak, why they speak that way and what we can expect, then it’s so much easier. It’s simple tuning of listening to that type of speech more often, getting more comfortable with it. If you have a person on your team who is from a different place and speaks differently than you, in the beginning, yes, it’ll be very hard. But within a month, two months, three months, pretty soon, your ears tune. It’s like, “Oh yeah, I don’t really have a problem speaking with that person anymore.” As long as you’ve taken some interest and had some curiosity in what they’re saying and really listening to them, you will get it. You will catch on.
So yes, you’re exactly right. It’s about training from both sides. That’s something that I’ve started bringing to the table much more often. If HR says, “Oh, this Frenchman, we can’t understand a word he says.” It’s like, “Oh, I find that hard to believe. He’s worked all over the world for 25 years in London, in Asia, in Hong Kong and Singapore. I think that the American team should be able to understand him.” Maybe the American team also should have a little bit of training in tuning their ears to accented varieties, because then they will be able to understand him because I understand him just fine, because I’ve had a lot more contact with that accent. It is very deep. There’s a lot of linguistics involved with it. But it’s very, very possible to bridge those gaps in our global teams. Very possible. Very doable.
Douglas: Wow. It’s so amazing. I think, to your point reduction seems a bit wrong and maybe it’s like, how do we meet in the middle? How do we align on a place where it becomes easier for us to all to understand?
Heather: Yeah. Because it would be very hard for me to live in Singapore and speak Singapore, English. If I was expected to completely change the way I speak. My three year old came home from daycare, ” [inaudible 00:38:34], mummy. I forgot my water bottle.” She was so upset. She forgot her water bottle and spoke full on Singapore, English to me that she picked up from school. If I needed to change the way my American … This is me, this is my identity. I had to suddenly speak with a full on Singapore accent and Singapore variety of English. I would feel completely inauthentic every moment of the day.
Yet, we expect that of Singaporeans if they move to America, because we have a globally dominant variety of English. That’s why I’m allowed to live in Singapore, speak perfect American English, and I’m put on a pedestal for it because I have the power, globally. I am born into that privilege. That’s a privilege that we forget about when we go out into the world. It’s a massive privilege that we have, that we’re immediately seen as eloquent, as leaders, because we falsely correlate eloquence with competence, which isn’t necessarily the same thing. But the non-American would always be forced to make changes to their accent, to their identity, to who they are, in order to fit in and get respect, the respect they deserve, without having to change the way they sound.
Douglas: Wow. The other thing I was thinking was that this kind of framing, this orientation, can help us be better listeners too, because to your point, if someone’s speaking at a different cadence and it’s making us stuck and we’re losing track, how much information are we just throwing out, just so that we can even attempt to be there with them? This kind of training could be really valuable for facilitators and other people who listen for a living.
Heather: Yeah. Yeah. Our brains get tired. That’s the big problem. You hear an accent or a style of speech that’s different from yours and you’re struggling with it. Eventually, you tune out because you decide, this is just too hard, I’m so tired. Your brain is tired and lazy and it turns off. You miss the message simply because they sound different. That’s the real loss of potential in the organization if we aren’t really listening to everyone. So you’re right. It goes completely back to what we were talking about around listening, as well.
Douglas: I want to shift here as we’re kind of coming to the end. We had talked a little bit about tech and the pre-show chat. I wanted to kind of maybe look a little bit toward that. You had mentioned AI, as well as the Metaverse. Kind of starting with AI. It definitely struck me that, especially with this linguistic stuff, and now even digging in deeper with you on the accent stuff, it seems like there could be some really powerful tools around just giving us tips and even kind of listening in on us and giving us advice and nudging us in ways that might help us be more aware of what we’re doing.
Heather: Yeah. AI technology, I think, is absolutely fascinating. I think we also, from a development side, need to be very conscious and aware of how we are building it. Because the majority of AI, when it comes to speech recognition … For example, when the iPhone came out, Siri was built into it. Siri could not understand a single Singapore speaker. Siri could understand American English and British English, and that was about. It could not understand Indian English, could not understand Singapore English because the AI was not built to recognize it. The AI is only as good as what it is fed, and it was not fed multiple accents. It was fed general American and the most common RP received pronunciation, British English. So even people in the UK with very regional accents had trouble with Siri. Irish had trouble with Siri. That was because the AI was non-inclusive.
So, first of all, the one point that I think is really important is that in development, we need to make sure that we are feeding these systems, that the machines are learning all different varieties of English, that it can understand everyone. Because already we know, for example, if you do a YouTube video, Western American man will be better understood by that AI technology and the subtitles will be more accurate. It will always be more accurate than even a female voice or an ethnically diverse voice. That’s even with a more American accent, variety accent, not even a foreign accent, right? So already there, we’re seeing privilege, we’re seeing this bias play out in the AI itself. So that’s just one note I want to make there about the future of AI and where it’s going, is that I really hope developers are thinking about this.
On the other side of that, when we begin using the AI and it is beginning to get so much better. There’s a lot of deep work in Singapore, specifically, around building AI databases for Singapore, English and so on. But some of the tools I’m using now, which I’m so excited about, it’s a complete game changer. I’ve partnered with a startup in the US, in Seattle, who has put together a program online where you go in, you record yourself giving a presentation, and then it does AI analysis on everything you said.
Counts every single [inaudible 00:43:44], which I can’t do as a coach. I can say, “Oh, that sounded a lot better. You’re doing much better,” but it’s all subjective. Maybe they weren’t, maybe I wasn’t right now, we have numbers for it. It will create a full transcript of what they said, assuming it understands them. I have had clients with specific accents that the AI is not catching as well, but there’s even learning there to say, “Okay, the computer is not understanding you, would a human understand you? What was it about the way you said that word that maybe could have been unclear? Was it the AI’s fault? Was it your fault?” We can talk about that and have conversations around it.
But it’s also looking at inclusive language. If you say, “Hey, you guys,” it will flag it and say, “This might not be totally inclusive. Even chairman will come up as non-inclusive. Here in Singapore, we have the Ministry of Manpower. They handle all the work permission and all of that. It highlights manpower. My C-suite leader goes, “Well, as long as we have a ministry called that here, I think we have a long way to go with inclusivity.” So it is looking at much more than just like the uhms and ahs. It looks at your keywords to see are you on message. Now, they’re working on gaze. So how much eye contact are you making with the camera? How much do you look to the left or look to the right? It’s starting to look at tone. It’s looking at volume.
So we can get so much information. We can finally put numbers on soft skills, which I love, because it’s so difficult for me to say, “Yes, this is improving. Yes, we can measure it.” It’s hard to measure something that’s so subjective. Now, we can look at the numbers, get a baseline from day one and say, “Look. You started with 8% fillers, now you’re down to two. You started with your keywords being primarily you know and right and like, and these other style, filler words, hedging words. We’ve been able to reduce that. We’ve reduced your words per minute, from 180 to 150.” I worked with a person in one session and was able to do this in live time and get him from 183 a minute to 152 a minute. It was amazing. We couldn’t do that before. So I think if we use the technology, appropriately, there’s a lot we can do.
And then on other sides of communication, as far as bots go, chat bots and websites, we’re going to see much, much more content on the internet that is written by AI. A lot of AI technology can write essays better than humans. Sometimes, the logic isn’t there, but it’s getting there. It’s a little bit scary when you think about that. Also, our human capital, what makes us human? I think podcasting, for example, what you are doing, is going to become even more important because we want to hear real voices and want to know and trust that it isn’t a bot that wrote that article with my name on it. Right? So AI technology and communication is huge. I think we’re at the very, very beginning of it. It’s only going to get better and deeper as we move forward.
Douglas: Another thing you brought up was the Metaverse. I think when we look at more and more immersive experiences, and what it means to communicate in those spaces, it’s going to become really fascinating, because it’s not sitting in front of the video wall of little squares of people. It opens up a whole new paradigm. I’ve been dabbling with it a little bit, and really excited to see where the future takes us, in that regard. I’m curious, have you done anything there? Is there anything on your radar, in regards to kind of communicating in these immersive spaces?
Heather: Yeah. I’ve started dabbling in it. There are companies out there who are already designing presentation skills training, empathy training, soft skills training in the Metaverse and those programs are amazing. They run on the same kind of AI technology as what I’m using in my presentation skills training, but it’s a fully immersive experience. So you are standing in front of the room. You have people sitting in front of you, who are nodding their heads and making little movements as an audience would. Then it is measuring, where was your eye contact. It’s measuring all the same things that the AI was measuring, but now you’re actually feeling like you’re in the experience. That’s why we’re seeing soft skills training … The confidence that people have when they come out of the Metaverse training is much higher than normal classroom training, because it’s not just; okay, let’s pretend this and that.
It’s no, we’re going to put you in the board room and we can even do your board room. We can take 360 video of your actual board room and create that space and have you stand in it, or on that stage at the convention that you hold every year. So you have actually been there and done it. It’s not just hypothetical, you’ve done it already, which immediately shifts the nervousness and helps you to perform better. More than the training side, looking at just general Metaverse. I have my VR headset and I’ve gone into a lot of these worlds. A lot of them, right now, are behind kind of cartoony avatars, so there are no facial expressions, there is no eye contact.
But I do know of virtual worlds that are creating avatars that are based on, for example, a picture of our faces so the avatar actually looks like us. They’re starting to work in facial recognition and technology to make the face move almost like deep fake videos, right? That when the voice is put on, you can actually see. We think that going into the Metaverse, we’re going to be at a loss when it comes to visual expression and visual feedback, but it could end up being a lot more human than we think, because the technology’s already moving in that direction. I’ve been kind of preparing myself, and others to think, okay, you’re going to need to use your voice in a very specific way. But now I’m watching the technology around avatars and they look like us and they can look very human now, as we go in. It’s a little scary in a way, knowing where is the line between this virtual reality and real reality.
Douglas: I know. It even makes me wonder, when you think about Google translate and that being five generations forward and married into the Metaverse and someone speaking in Cantonese, and I’m hearing it in English.
Heather: Yes. Yes.
Douglas: It’s all real time. You would imagine that will happen at some point.
Heather: Yeah. I wonder how that will shift things, because right now, remember, we are so privileged because the world speaks our language and our variety is put on the pedestal. What happens when everybody gets to speak their own language, express themselves from their core, choose the words that they really want to use, not the word they’re forced to use, because they aren’t sure … When I speak Danish, I’ll use a word and I’m like, “Oh, that’s not really what I want to say, but it’s the closest word I can find right now.” So how is that going to completely change our relationships, the way we interact, the way we respect each other, when suddenly we’re on an even playing field, when it comes to language? I think that will revolutionize our relationships, globally.
Douglas: Certainly, will be a fascinating journey for sure. We’re kind of coming up on time here. I want to wrap us up. As I do, I want to make sure to give you an opportunity to leave our listeners with a final thought.
Heather: Oh, I just hope that if anything I’ve said or written about can inspire someone to share their brilliant ideas with the world, then that would make me happier than anything. I just want to see people, especially voices that are not typically heard, to start speaking up in the world, to press that unmute button and to show up and speak up and start inspiring those around them. We all have our own stories to tell, and they all need to be heard. They all add something to our world. I want to hear more of those stories. So definitely I hope that people will reach out to me. I’m easy to find on LinkedIn. They can go to my website, heatherhansen.com to learn all about my new book, Unmuted, to learn about all of these things we’ve been talking about today. If they’re interested in my corporate training and courses that I provide, globally, the website for that is globalspeechacademy.com. I’m really looking forward to connecting with your listeners. I hope that they’ve taken away something from our conversation today.
Douglas: Absolutely. So much to take away. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you, Heather. Everyone, please do reach out, check out our website, the book, et cetera. Looking forward to talking to you again, Heather.
Heather: You too. Thanks so much for having me.
Douglas: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control The Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. If you want to know more, head over to our blog, where I post weekly articles and resources about radical inclusion, team health and working better, voltagecontrol.com.