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Introduction

The other day, I attended an onboarding session that teaches new hires the history and structure of the company, and also a high-level overview of product architecture, pricing and support contract types. This event happens several times a year and is always held by the same colleague; let's call her Alice.

All in all, the session was okay. Alice has a lively, engaging style of presenting that involved anecdotes and the occasional gag. She also tried to inject some interactivity to avoid a boring, teacher-to-pupils like lecture atmosphere.

The Problem

Alice is mumbling. She speaks loud enough, but she doesn't drop her lower jaw enough to articulate the words very clearly.

I know that this is a problem because in casual conversation among smaller groups during breaks, several other attendees mentioned it. Yet in the session itself, nobody ever asked Alice to repeat something, or indicated they could not understand her very well.

Maybe people (new hires & existing colleagues) don't really tell Alice there is a problem because of these facts:

  • Alice is the head of the sales department
  • She was with the company nearly from the start, more than a dozen years ago.
  • Up until recently, she was the wife to one of the CEOs (they parted amicably). Her last name hints at it, so she even mentions it briefly in the onboarding session.

Also, as Alice has a very strong personality, people may simply not have the guts to tell her.

My Question

I really want to do something about it because I feel that the situation is bad for the company. However, Alice has just met me, so I don't want her to remember me as the guy who was nitpicking/critizing her.

So how can I make her aware of it in a polite and constructive way?

  • I could talk to her in private (or more likely via chat as she is based in another location). How would I go about this to not insult her or sound condescending?
  • I could include my concerns about her mumbling in the feedback about the session content I plan to give to Jane, the HR assistant organizing the onboarding process as a whole (which also has other sessions). My idea was that Jane maybe knows better how to approach her.

Additional Background

  • I am not a new hire, but part of the management of a much smaller subsidiary company that was acquired a few years ago. Some of my colleages and I attended the event because our company recently moved in with the parent company, and Jane from HR suggested we attend because we might catch some things that are new to us.
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I feel this question suits better in another stackexchange site called "the workplace", but it is not my place to migrate content, I'll leave that to the moderators.

My answer is.

Definitely do it through Jane.

You are not in a position where you would benefit much from any recognition on spotting this problem, this person is too well positioned to be considered a problem and you pointing out a problem being caused by an unpolished skill of this person won't be appreciated as much as the way you approach a solution, and the best way to approach is through Jane, as you already suspect.

There's not much else to consider. I would wish you good luck, but you won't need it if you do it properly though the HR agent in charge of the event.

Be clear with Jane about how this problem is not in your head and other participants expressed the same concern and it won't be such a big deal. If they take action, and they get her an enunciation coach or something similar, good, if they don't take action... well, sit on the front row next time.

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Mumbling

There is a problem with people and accents. If ones ear is trained to hear a particular way of saying a word, hearing it with another accent can appear to be mumbling to some and to others just their accent.

I had a Scottish man say ESure which sounded like Esher. One is an insurance company, the other a place in London.

A presenter who has been given the job of explaining things to other people, probably has good enough articulation for most.

I would suggest if you find them hard to understand, you ask others how they find it. I once translated for a scottish guy who you had to tune into to understand, but non english speakers found him impossible.

And as far as correcting people, I would leave well alone. If one has the skills to help someone, one could ask if they had ever attended a course on projecting your voice etc. for public speaking. And if they show interest give a few pointers how to improve the impact of ones words. Some really appreciate help, because formality and learning such skills seems to not be thought of as a worthwhile skill.

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So as not to embarrass her, shift the embarrassment to yourself. For example, "Alice, I'm sorry, but I don't hear well out of my left ear and I'm missing a lot of what you say. Can you speak a little more deliberately?"

If, as you say, other people in the company have the same problem understanding her, then they will not believe you are actually hard of hearing. They will instead admire you for your selfless tact.

Later, if you are alone with Alice, you can say, "Thank you for helping me out. I think some of the other people in the room had trouble with the acoustics." Then she might understand that she's the problem, not your hearing.

P.S. If later on someone remarks that your hearing problems seem to have gone away, you can say: "Yes, my ear was full of wax, and now that it's cleared out, I can hear like a dog!" No one will ever ask you about hearing again, once you hit them with a waxy image. :-)

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