My son is prepping for the SAT. His mother is preparing for a Mystery Book Festival.
While he is practicing his vocabulary list I am revising my presentation.
My book Trapped in Paris and I are invited to an author event hosted by a local bookstore. So unlike my son who has to memorize the spelling and meaning of many words, I should relax. Misspelled words and grammatical errors, which are the weaknesses of most people writing in a foreign language, aren’t my immediate problem.
Yet I worry.
In an ironic way, an oral presentation can be worse than a written test for a nonnative speaker.
When I write I can take all the time I need to polish a piece. I can use the dictionary if I don’t know the spelling of a word. Beware of spell checkers! I can e-mail my 100% native speakers daughters and ask for advice. Besides, I have my own system, not really a cheat sheet, but pretty effective. When I can’t find the exact English word I’m looking for, I write it in French. So in the end, with a lot of work, I can pass for an English speaker when I write.
But no such chance when I speak.
I sometimes joke with my friends – none of my closest is a nonnative English speaker – that some day accents will enter the category of physical characteristics.
In the same way it is now totally unacceptable to question someone’s weight, skin color, or any other physical features, which are rarely the full responsibility of the body’s owner, commenting on someone’s way of speaking will be as inappropriate. After all we don’t pick where we are brought up.
In all honesty I don’t care that much. The curiosity creates impromptu conversations with total strangers, which occasionally lead to friendships.
The only occasion where my accent becomes as visible as a full body tattoo is when I am in the spotlight.
Then I need to turn my accent into an asset and not a distraction.
Over the last months I have introduced my novel Trapped in Paris in schools, libraries and bookstores. Unlike the recording of my stories with Valley Public Radio where I am allowed as many mistakes as I want since the talented radio technician can cut, copy and paste, I don’t get a second chance when I meet people who have decided to spend some time in my company.
I always consider their choice a gift. And in response I owe them a professional presentation.
In order to be as flawless as possible I go through a pre-event training:
1- When I write my presentation I avoid the words that are the most challenging for me. For example I try to stay away from words with too many Rs. The letter R is the trickiest to pronounce for most French people.
2- I practice my presentation out loud but alone so I will only embarrass myself.
3- To appear as natural as possible, I read my prose until I have memorized the most important points of my presentation. Better than a teleprompter.
4- Instead of picking long excerpts from my novel, I slip shorter passages through my presentation to illustrate specific aspects of the writing journey. Nonnative speakers are better entertainers when they speak than when they read.
5- I start my presentation by introducing myself. Again because my accent triggers natural curiosity I tell right away about my background so people will focus on what I have to say more than on the way I speak.
6- If it is possible I add visuals through a Power Point presentation or a slide show. In a bookstore, visuals are rarely an option so I use examples and tell of brief but specific anecdotes, which trigger vivid images. When I explain how I trained myself to read, speak and write in English I use my mistakes to illustrate my journey. The list is long so I have ample material if the audience is receptive.
7- I leave enough time for Q&A and I also prepare a short presentation of my future projects. Sharing a few words about what I’m working on gives me direct feedback from potential readers. This tip works for native or nonnative speakers alike.
8- For signings, I have a note pad so people can write down their name or the book recipient’s name. My name is often misspelled so I want to avoid the embarrassment. And I have a ready-made signature. For Trapped in Paris it was easy: Welcome to Paris!
9- In the week following the event I mail a thank you card to the school, library or bookstore that invited me. E-mails are great for the back-and-forth before the event, but most people appreciate a handwritten card sent with a good old stamp. And they love a card that says Merci instead of Thank You.
So if like me you come from another place and speak funny, don’t freak out. Like any other trait of character, your accent defines you. Use it as a plus. But don’t overlook the fact that it can be in your way, too. To keep your accent from becoming an obstacle, be very prepared and as professional as you can be. But don’t forget to be you.
P.S. I’ve accompanied my son along his SAT journey, subscribing to Question of the Day and religiously answering each and every English question. I got plenty of As.
Not sure though my SAT prep will help me much next Saturday at the Mystery Book Festival. But I trust my checklist for keeping me focused.
So that day I will feel as safe and as proud as when I stood on this rock on Elizabeth Lake last weeekend.