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Clarity in Speech for Important Information

© John Keith 2011

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Getting a flight confirmation number turns into a long and frustrating ordeal.

Clarity in speech is always important, but never so much as when you’re giving or getting important information.

Recently, I was out of the country on a holiday, and before I returned, I had to phone the airline company to confirm my flight back to Canada. What should have been an easy task turned into a frustrating ordeal. It was difficult in general for me to understand the airline clerk. Then, when she tried to give me my flight confirmation number, it was a struggle to get it written down correctly. The really sad thing was that my trip was to the United States and the airline clerk and was a native English speaker.

What was the problem? First, we were talking on the telephone, and it is always more difficult to communicate when speaker and listener are not face-to-face. A more significant factor was that the clerk spoke too quickly, but of even more concern was that she was only focussed on giving the information, and she was unconcerned about whether or not I was receiving it. Then, when she was reading me the confirmation number, she still spoke very quickly and she didn’t give me a chance to write down the letters. When I wasn’t sure of some letters right away –was that a “t” or a “d” or was that a “c” or a “g” – and I asked her to repeat it, she tried to be helpful, and she gave me a word that started with the letter and, then she quickly went on to the next letter. However, some these words themselves were unusual, so I wasn’t sure immediately what the word was or what letter it started with, or why she was using this strange word in the first place. By this time, the clerk had already gone on to the next letter or next letters, and I was lost again.

Finally, after much clarification, I was able to write down my confirmation number correctly, but the ordeal was really frustrating. And for all the speedy clerk tried to race through the conversation, it took much longer than had she just slowed down and made sure that I understood what she said the first time she said it.

What can you as an English as a Second Language speaker learn from this? First, remember even native speakers don’t always understand each other easily, and it is even more important for you to strive to be clear in your speech. Use stress, rhythm and intonation to make important words and phrases louder, slower, and clearer. Pause for emphasis and to give your listener time to understand important facts or complex ideas. As you speak, always make sure your listener is following what you are saying. Are they nodding or saying “uh-huh” or is their expression questioning – or worse, do they have a blank expression on their face or a worried one? One more thing to remember, any information that is new or unfamiliar or unexpected takes longer for listeners to comprehend.

And one final thing: if you are literally spelling something out for your listener, like your name or address, or if you are giving an important series of numbers and letters, like a computer password or perhaps even a confirmation number, try using the International Civil Aviation Spelling Alphabet. It uses the words Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and so on for to stand for letters. See my article: “Using the ICAO Spelling Alphabet” – and that’s “I” as in India, “C” as in Charlie, A as in Alpha, and O as in “Oscar” -- “Using the ICAO Spelling Alphabet To Spell Things Out”.

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