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by Dana Mattioli | March 10, 2009

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Can changing your accent advance your career? More non-native English speakers working in the U.S. are seeking help to reduce their accents in hopes of getting ahead.

Speech coach Jeff Jacobi, president of Jacobi Persuasive Speaking in New York and author of "How to Say It With Your Voice," specializes in foreign and regional accent reduction for executives.

CareerJournal.com spoke to Mr. Jacobi about the reasons professionals enroll in speech training and what it typically involves.

CareerJournal: Why do executives and professionals seek accent reduction?

Mr. Jacobi: The people I work with are smart and highly motivated. I work with investment bankers, management consultants, lawyers, accountants, etc., but their one roadblock is their accents. People are often judged by the way they sound. We try to help them overcome bias by reducing their accents and allowing them to be judged more on their intelligence, education and background.

I had a client who had everything going for him to get to the next level. He was told by his manager that he wouldn't advance because of his speech. I will have managers tell me that "Juan" has great analytical skills and is intelligent, but they can't put him in front of clients. So either "Juan" misses out on assignments, can be passed over for promotion, or, in extreme cases, can be let go over communication skills.

I try to move people more toward the standard American nonregional speech, which is the speech most widely used by educated U.S.-born speakers. This is the kind of speech you typically hear television news anchors use.

CJ: How can accent reduction help a career?

Mr. Jacobi: You sound more polished. You start to get invited to more meetings you were previously shut out of. You have the confidence to speak up more. Doors really start to open, and people take notice. You can be considered for more senior positions and have face time with clients.

The people I work with have a good command of the English language. There are subtleties on how they stress words that can lead to miscommunication.

There are native English speakers with good language skills and vocabulary that can be difficult to understand. Somebody from the South may have a mastery of the English language, but they can be hard for some people to understand because of the way they say their words.

CJ: What is your approach?

Mr Jacobi: I try to get the person to talk conversationally, and I record it. When I play it back, people will hear more of the accent than when they were speaking. When possible, I like to hear the person in action in a business situation. One client in the financial-services industry would let me listen in on his weekly staff meetings.

I identify certain things in the speech pattern, such as dropping the 'r' or the 'ing,' and we do some recorded drills. You need to train the ear as well as the mouth for the physical form of the words. At first, pronouncing words correctly feels very exaggerated to the person, because the mouth isn't accustomed to moving in certain ways.

CJ: Do professionals come on their own, or do employers send them?

Mr Jacobi: Most people are sent by the employer, and training is sponsored by the company. The companies that put a premium on effective communication have always made this available. People with accents may be difficult to understand and it can lead to greater incidents of misunderstandings. Typically, when I'm called in by a company, a person's career or promotion is on the line.

CJ: Many people view their accents as part of their identity, no?

Mr. Jacobi: It's a sensitive issue. I tell people early on that losing your accent doesn't mean losing your identity. You gain the ability to control your accent.

I will have clients say, 'I understand I need to sound a certain way at work but I also want to be able to go home to friends and family and not be scorned.' I just add the ability to control the accent.

Sometimes it can be an asset. You can use your accent if it helps build rapport. There may be times at work where you have to make a call to a Southern client, and it can help build a relationship if you have a Southern accent to use your accent. However, if the same Southerner wants to call a fast-paced New Yorker, that person may have to make an adjustment. You need to be flexible.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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