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How can I overcome the tongue-slip problem in conferences, meetings and seminars? I have read many discussions regarding conference presentation, such as delivering a good presentation, staying confident during presentation, avoiding nervousness, maintaining time and many more. But I have not found a proper answer to the tongue-slip problem.

I recently faced it in a presentation, only once, but in my title slide. The word was extreme, which I could not pronounce even in 5–7 seconds and felt much shame, finally pronounced it as esteem. I had previously done very good practice such as in front of a mirror and closing my eyes. I would also like to mention that I have used the same word several times very clearly in past conferences and also used same word very clearly in my next slide onwards.

How to overcome this problem? Many times I face similar problems, maybe with different words, but I have been noticing that it always happens in first few minutes of a presentation.

  • 66
    There is no reason to feel shame. Everyone is nervous when they give their first presentations (where "first" can mean anything between one and infinity). Most people in the audience will notice that you are nervous. Nobody will care as long as they are still able to follow your talk. They all went through the same thing. I've seen senior full professors struggle with a word. No one commented on this, instead everyone was focused on the talk's content. People are at a conference for the science and not to mock you. – Roland Oct 8 '15 at 7:50
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    Tip from an occasional performer: if you ignore the slip and continue, most of your listeners will do likewise. – keshlam Oct 8 '15 at 12:54
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    Next time you're in a talk given by someone very respected, try to listen out for this sort of thing. They'll make dozens of slips, maybe even have a complete block and have to drag up a word from their memory even though it's key to their work. You've heard lots of talks in which people do that I'm sure, and it hasn't affected your respect for the speaker or their work. In fact you don't remember. Once you get into your flow you're fine, which is great, because the first minute or two are introductory material in which there's less room for misunderstanding than when you get to details. – Chris H Oct 8 '15 at 13:42
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    One should consider reading about the Reverend William Archibald Spooner - a very respected individual who occasionally had some odd syllabic mixups and turns of a phrase. I don't intend for that to be mocking at all, that the absent minded and awkwardly worded academician is one that has a long and honorable tradition. – user10948 Oct 8 '15 at 18:54
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    This would be a great example question for the Public Speaking proposal at Area 51. – Dan Henderson Oct 9 '15 at 13:47

11 Answers 11

76

Years ago, I transcribed raw film footage to earn a little extra money. These transcriptions had to be verbatim, with all the ums, ahs, stuttering, etc. included. It's surprisingly difficult to do a verbatim transcription, because there is a strong tendency for listeners to hear what is meant, rather than what is actually said. We transcribers had to listen to things three or four times to record the speech exactly. The first time I listened to something, I wouldn't even notice the mistakes!

Some of the transcriptions I did were of people famous for being well-spoken, people I admire very much. I was surprised to learn that they make frequent speech errors/hesitations/disfluencies, just like the rest of us.

As a result of that experience, I realised that while we are all painfully aware of the imperfections in our own speech, others hardly notice them at all. Most mistakes are filtered out by the listener's brain, and aren't truly "heard".

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    Even non-mistakes are filtered out; one of the most striking examples of this I've seen was that I was posing a puzzle about solving the mystery of a cabin in the woods. One of the people who were kibitzing chimed in with a question that quite explicitly gave away the secret ("How many people were in the airplane?"), but none of the people solving the puzzle noticed. (and, in fact, it took me half a minute before I realized he had just done) – user13589 Oct 8 '15 at 15:50
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    @Hurkyl "where did they bury the survivors?"? – user253751 Oct 12 '15 at 1:27
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It sounds to me like you're asking how to eliminate simple "slip-of-the-tongue" mistakes, which I think is the wrong way to approach this and likely to be counter-productive.

Let's instead start with the assumption that sometimes you are going to make these simple mistakes. First, recognize that it's not just you: everybody does. Some people have more or less than others, and it's likely to happen more often to people not presenting in their native language, but everybody has problems like this sometimes when they're presenting.

Now the real question I would advise you to focus on is this: given that you've already made a mistakes, how do you minimize the impact that the mistake is likely to have on your presentation? The answer is simple but challenging: just correct it and move on. Why is this OK? Because almost nobody but you will have noticed and cared in the first place.

  • Many people won't even notice the type of mistake you are talking about. Our perception of speech is strongly influenced by the larger structure of the content. The type of mistake you are describing, e.g., "esteem" instead of "extreme" will likely not even be perceived by most listeners. Our brains are tuned for noisy communication and will simply fix it to the words that "ought" to be there.

  • Most people who do notice won't remember, as you move on with your talk. The linguistic glitch will simply disappear from memory, since it was far less important to anybody's comprehension than it felt to you in the first place.

In short: nobody worth talking to will care. In fact, the biggest reason to even bother correcting the word is for your own personal comfort, not for anything about your audience. Just fix it, let it go, and move on. Doing that may be difficult and take some practice of its own, but it's absolutely the right thing to do.

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    Even if someone notices and remembers they won't mind -- the vast majority of people listening to a conference talk will have done something equivalent or worse. – Chris H Oct 8 '15 at 13:39
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    For my most recent presentation, I realized as I was practicing that I would start to feel anxious and lose focus. Instead of trying to practice until I no longer got distracted, I deliberately pushed myself until I felt anxious, and practiced continuing confidently anyway! – Kevin - Reinstate Monica Oct 8 '15 at 20:45
  • @Kevin Self-imposed exposure therapy? Nice. – Dan Henderson Oct 9 '15 at 13:52
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    just correct it and move on. -- For such simple mistakes it is probably best to not even correct them. As you said, most people will likely not even recognize it. By correcting yourself, you just point them on the mistake. – luator Oct 9 '15 at 19:21
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I'm not sure if this is really an answer, or if this kind of plug is allowed on SE...but I would strongly recommend looking up your local Toastmasters chapter(s). Toastmasters, in essence, is a public speaking club for adults. While you can practice plenty in private, there's just no substitute for giving a speech in front of an audience, which Toastmasters can give you in a very friendly and encouraging environment.

The basic run-down of a 1 hour Toastmasters meeting goes like this:

  • Some members give a few speeches

  • They do "Table Topics" - the Topics Master asks random questions to the members of the meeting, who then must give a 1-2 minute long impromptu answer.

  • Some members give oral reviews of the speeches given during the meeting.

  • At the end of the meeting the leadership team gives their reports. Some of the leaders include the 'Ah-Counter' and 'Grammarian'. The Ah-Counter will inform you of filler words or phrases you commonly use and give you tips on eliminating those from your speech. The Grammarian will inform you of any improper grammar you've used(they'll be gentle if you're clearly not a native speaker).

You'll not only get the opportunity to practice speaking in public, but you'll receive immediate, constructive criticism. The speech projects give you specific, directed goals to achieve so you're not just stumbling from one speech to the next. Of all the clubs I've witnessed guests are always welcome at no charge, so you can give it a shot and see if you like it without committing to anything.

In addition to the meetings, there are multiple competition periods throughout the year. If you just attend your club meetings, you get comfortable speaking in front of the same audience all the time. But if you go to these competitions, you'll be placed in large auditoriums filled with unfamiliar faces, which is good for improving your abilities.

Toastmasters is an international organization and there are chapters all over the place. If you're in any decently populated area there should be more than one local chapter, and there may even be one at your university. If there isn't a local chapter, then you could potentially start one yourself.

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    As a fellow Toastmaster, I approve this plug. :-) But also, I'd like to point out that TM is a non-profit organization, in case that's a factor in the question of whether such a plug is allowed/appropriate for SE. – Dan Henderson Oct 9 '15 at 13:59
  • I have witnessed as a guest once, and I wonder if it's best suit in academic setting. In academic talk, people tend to focus on deep thought idea, while in a Toastmaster presentation, people focus more on the charisma of the speech. If we look at how speakers talk in TED, we will see that they don't use wave their hands, or walking around, or making eyes contact much. – Ooker Dec 23 '15 at 7:43
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Not Really A Problem

As the other answers and comments have said, this kind of verbal boo-boo is always much more noticeable to the speaker than to the audience. If they actually were to notice, congratulate yourself for having kept them awake and attentive with your lively style and important content.

If the misspeaking is important to the content, merely correct yourself and move on. If not important, ignore it and move on. Do not apologize as that distracts the audience. Intently watch some news anchors or radio jockeys to see how they do just that: correct and move on. Note the keywords: move on.

Prevention

While not really a problem, if it bothers you so much you can take steps to minimize (but never eliminate!) such misspeaking. Here are some techniques I learned as an instructor.

Syllables

If you know certain words trip you up, replace them.

If you cannot change them because of content requirements, then practice to over-annunciate them. Practice slowly pronouncing each sound separately. Write the word down, misspelling as needed to create these separate sounds.

For example, turn extreme into three or four syllables: x - tah - rhee - mah.

Practice that way slowly. Then re-assemble back to natural speech. But mentally maintain that multi-syllabic structure.

This trick also helps with certain words that your touch-typing hands cannot quite master.

Breathe.

Really, breathe. Occasionally take deep breaths. Feel free to take a moment at points in your talk to stop, take a deep breath. Straighten your back, letting your shoulder blades slide down into place. The physical act of breathing changes your physiology and your mind.

Your audience will appreciate these moments. They need time to digest your content, and form their own thoughts.

Plan for these deep pauses as part of the structure of your talk. After heavy meaty pieces of content, or when touching on something controversial or thought-provoking, plan to give the audience a moment.

Also grant yourself a few unplanned pauses. If at any time you start to feel rushed or anxious or don't quite know what to say, stop talking. Take a breath, and let yourself plan the next sentence before speaking. What seems like a long pregnant pause to you the speaker will hardly be a blip on the radar of attention to your audience.

Another way to work in pauses is to occasionally ask a rhetorical question. Emotionally for you it shifts some of the attention and burden onto the audience members, as you are challenging them to engage their minds. Emotionally for your audience members, it is a mild "wake-up call" reminding them to pay attention. Taking a long moment lets them wake-up and think, meanwhile giving you time for a moment to breathe and turn your body as you pan across the audience.

Rushing is a sure sign of a newbie speaker. And rushing tends to trigger misspeaking.

Speaking to Colleagues & Friends, Not Audience

The idea of an "audience", the sight of a stage and of ordered chairs, tends to provoke speaker’s anxiety. Remind yourself that you are talking to individuals, not an "audience".

Before your talk happens, have a few chats with a few people who will be in attendance. Give them an overview. Let them ask you a couple questions about the content. Look for these faces during the talk. Lock onto any face and think of yourself as talking only to that person for a sentence or two.

When you find your words lock-up, just think of talking to a colleague over a casual coffee break. I find that literally imagining the visual imagery of talking comfortably with a colleague can unlock those words.

Practice, Practice, Practice, Ad Nauseum

Practice your talk in your office. Practice your talk in front of your cat. Practice your talk in the mirror. Repeat three times, office, cat, mirror, office, cat, mirror.

Not to memorize a speech, but just go through the content step-by-step repeatedly.

Do a "dress rehearsal", with colleagues. Some teams regularly give a "brown bag talk" where they meet for lunch and someone gives a less formal talk.

Keep repeating until you are sick and tired of the content. Ad nauseam is the goal.

This helps in two ways:

  • Emotionally, if you are tired of the content, you’ll find your anxiety level will diminish.
  • Intellectually, with repeated practice you will find and lock onto certain phrasing, certain rhythms, and favorite sentence patterns. These will roll off your tongue more naturally. Once you have these “chunks” of language at the ready, your brain has so much less work to do during the presentation. You will feel the load lighten mentally, and misspeaking is much less likely to happen.
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I once had a keynote in front of 500 people and someone in the front row was making some kind of crazy gestures which were a bit disturbing. At some point I thought he had a health problem as he was moving his fist from his chest to his throat. I stopped to ask him if he was okay (the whole audience looked at him) and he replied that HE was ok, but that my zipper was down... The whole audience looked at me (yes, over there). There was a roar of laughter.

I answered that it was a good thing that at least my underwear matched the trousers and that I hoped this was not the only thing which would be memorable in that keynote. Some more laughs and we were good to go on.

This is to say: just relax. Nobody cares about tiny mistakes. People really want you to have a great speech particularly when they see that someone is struggling with the speech.

As seen in the scientific documentary Four Weddings and a Funeral, stress during a speech can be tough but everyone is with you : https://youtu.be/2PubPWuEQp8?t=27

5

Here's a metaphor that might help. It is based on my genuine experience of learning to skydive.

If you ever take up parachuting, you are likely to hear the story of the novice who realised there was a tree in the middle of the field he was trying to land in. There was just one tree and the field was enormous. He became so terrified that he might hit this tree that he was unable to take his eyes off it. Now, parachutes are steerable and they tend to go in the direction you are looking. The instructors and everyone else watched in horrified silence as the beginner slowly, inexorably and inevitably flew straight towards the tree, finally hitting it full on. He ended dangling from the branches and having to be rescued. Luckily he suffered only bruises and no hospital treatment was necessary.

Apply this cautionary tale to public speaking (or any other activity). What you focus on, you will get. Focus on trouble and you will get trouble.

The key to public speaking is to focus on the message that you want to get across. If the subject-matter isn't important then you shouldn't be talking about it. Prepare thoroughly and have all your facts at your fingertips. Have a sheet of reminders so that you don't forget any important points. When speaking, have your notes there. However they aren't a crutch or a safety net but a reminder not to miss any of the fascinating facts you want to get across.

When the time comes to speak, forget all your prepared words and focus entirely on what you want to communicate. Look at the audience and see if they are understanding. Treat them as humans who want to hear about the subject. They wouldn't bother to be there if they weren't interested. They are not there to attend a theatrical performance. The message is far more important than the words.

If you are worrying about how you look and sound then you are being self-centred and making yourself more important than the facts you want to convey.

By all means practice voice exercises so that you speak clearly—maybe even take elocution lessons. As someone else suggested, join Toastmasters and they will give you excellent feedback on your enunciation and clarity of thought. Record yourself reciting poetry. When it comes to the actual event, forget about individual words. Never try to memorise them unless it is a performance of a dramatic work. Focus on what you want to communicate and trust your brain and body to do the rest.

In summary. Stop being so selfish and thinking about yourself all the time. Instead give the audience what they want. They want information about a fascinating subject. Don't think about you, think about them. Tell them what they need to know.

  • 4
    But public speaking is inevitably a performance, and many of your remarks implicitly acknowledge this. Perhaps rather than saying "the words don't matter", which is not exactly correct, one might think of performances of some great musical virtuosos, in which the acknowledged wrong notes were far secondary to the thrill of the bigger picture. – paul garrett Oct 8 '15 at 23:00
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    @paulgarrett - I completely disagree. Public speaking should not be a performance - it should be communication. An actor in a play gives a performance and must learn the words parrot-fashion. That is perfectly acceptable and necessary. Public speaking at a presentation is not (or shouldn't be) a theatrical performance. Its sole purpose is to effectively convey information. If you are trying to perform then (a) it will be obvious (b) it will be annoying and (c) you are in the wrong business. – chasly from UK Oct 8 '15 at 23:05
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    I know many people who agree with you. But, "parrot fashion" is not the desired end, anyway. And the audience is probably not logical automatons. And the speaker establishes credibility as much by manner and affect as by "content". Sure, there are a few bad speakers with something marvelous to say (badly), but the middle-of-the-road content will be perceived wildly differently depending on the presentation. Everything is a performance, I think, the only question is whether one takes this into account, or not. I encourage my competitors to ignore this aspect. – paul garrett Oct 8 '15 at 23:21
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    I think exactly the point is that one must/should rehearse so much that one need not think consciously about walking across a room, or down the road, or making small talk at a party with many people one hardly knows. I think it is an unwise principle to declare that "(alleged) content" trumps all other considerations. It is not true that if one builds a better mousetrap "they will come", and so on. (E.g., my assertions are not meant in the stupidest and naivest possible sense, however appealing that possibility might be, in the usual rhetorical <whatever>. Trying to give good advice.) – paul garrett Oct 8 '15 at 23:32
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    A public speaker is being him or herself and not portraying a character. — You're presenting a false dichotomy. A public speaker is putting on a professional persona, which include adopting a different speaking style, different mannerisms, different volume, even different posture than they might normally use in a hallway conversation with a student or chatting someone up at the local pub. I speak differently when I'm teaching a class of 200 students versus explaining something in office hours to two students. It's not a question of being fake. – JeffE Oct 9 '15 at 11:13
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I wholeheartedly support the answers by @jakebeal and @mhwombat. But I would like to add my two bob's worth.

Everybody is different and what works for one person might be anathema to another. Personally I find practice takes away the spontaneity of the presentation. I rehearse what I'm going to say as I prepare the presentation. Typically writing some of the more clever phrasings into the speaker's notes. I do one read through to check the timing, etc. And that's it.

I too make mistakes, slips far worse than saying "esteem" instead of "extreme". I sometimes make a joke of it and either way just keep going. I keep the speaker's notes handy, but rarely glance at them. I'm more conscious of keeping the tempo to finish at the prescribed time. I use a count-down timer on my phone.

I have sat through literally hundreds of talks, presentations. The memorable ones are where the presenter was obviously on top of the topic, passionate about the topic and projecting a personality with whom I would love to chat with at the pub.

4

I can offer a few ideas for you:

  1. You need not read every word on your slides out loud. After two tries with the word extreme, you may gesture at the troublesome word, and then go on. You may even allow the audience to read an occasional whole sentence on their own.

  2. You noticed that your difficulties arise primarily in the first two minutes. Interestingly, I have noticed that the first minute or two of a talk, many people tend to take in very little of the content of what the speaker is saying. That first minute or two is needed for acclimating to the speaker. Keeping this in mind, you could put some unimportant filler in the very beginning; this way, there's no harm done if you read a word inaccurately.

  3. You might experiment with being up front about the problem. Just as someone might bring a hearing impairment or a neurological condition out in the open at the beginning, you could display a slide that informs the audience that you have a slight speech problem which might require you to occasionally gesture at a sentence on the screen while remaining silent. You could let this slide speak for itself, or you could read it out loud -- either one would work.

Edit --

I had another thought. Since it may be hard to anticipate which word might give trouble, it would be good to have a rescue plan in place in case this ever happens again.

Suppose you are on a particular slide and a certain word doesn't want to come out right today. You may give it one more try, but then, even if you're hopeful it will work on the third try, I advise you not to try again. Instead, use a synonym, or just point at the word with a laser pointer or a yard stick pointer, and say something like "that word!" and keep going. Just as you would muddle through and keep going if one of your images inexplicably didn't show up on the screen during the talk.

Nerves can affect a person in unpredictable ways. A long time ago, before the advent of digital recording, I set up a recording date in my community college's recital hall to record my audition for transferring to a music conservatory. While I was in the middle of one of my pieces, a prelude from a Bach suite, my nerves had an unexpected effect: I couldn't hear myself properly. My cello sounded incredibly muffled, as though it and I were in two neighboring rooms with a pretty soundproof wall in between. Since I was on a tight budget, I didn't feel I could stop, regroup, and begin the movement again -- I felt I had to keep going. What a strange feeling that was, to play but not be able to hear. (The recording actually came out fine!)

So, if you are nervous, you might not have the control over your tongue that you normally have.

What makes nerves? I mean, what makes a person nervous? Adrenaline. Without that shot of adrenaline, your talk would be deadly boring. But every time your body gives you a shot of adrenaline, you are playing Russian roulette, because the result of the adrenaline is unpredictable.

I'm explaining this in the hope that understanding what's going on in your body will help prevent a panic reaction if you have a speech mishap. Because really, the speech mishap itself isn't the main problem, is it? I think it's the panic reaction that might come secondarily to an unexpected pronunciation anomaly.

It would be helpful to practice slow, deep breathing for a few minutes every day, to train yourself to respond this way when something goes very differently from plan.

  • Thank you for your answer @aparente001. Does your 2nd point mean that audiance don't give more importance to first 1-2 minutes of talk? The what about the first impression? If I can't deliver properly the first 1-2 minutes, then listeners may get frustrated to listen more. – Kay Oct 16 '15 at 5:28
  • @Kayan - What I'm trying to say in Point 2 is that for your first 90 seconds, you should play to say unimportant things. This gives you the freedom to use words that are generally very comfortable for you; and it gives you the freedom to just put some graphic images on that first slide, and use index cards to cue what you plan to talk about in the very beginning. For example, you could put up a nice image of a location -- perhaps your alma mater, or your current institution, or the institution where you are giving the talk, or your favorite waterfall -- really, anything that appeals to you... – aparente001 Oct 16 '15 at 13:25
  • ... and then with that attractive slide showing (hopefully something that gives you a nice warm feeling inside), you can say anything -- e.g. if you are visiting Madison, WI, you could say, Here is a picture of frozen Lake Mendota. It is my dream to drive a car on it when it is frozen someday! Unfortunately, today it is a balmy 72 degrees outside, and my dream will have to be postponed until my next visit to your lovely city. // Or you could put up a Gary Larson cartoon -- something somehow relevant to your talk would be nice, but not necessary. The point is that these first couple... – aparente001 Oct 16 '15 at 13:29
  • ... of sentences are just filler, kind of like when a band does a sound check of their mikes, amps and speakers. – aparente001 Oct 16 '15 at 13:30
  • Oops, typo. "Play to say" should have been "plan to say." – aparente001 Oct 16 '15 at 13:32
3

One particular version of this that I am prone to, even in more casual conversation but especially when animated and thus speaking quickly, is the occasional gibberish word. I have over the years realized that this is the consequence of attempting to simultaneously speak two (multi-syllable) synonyms, which begin with the same sound but end differently.

I hypothesize that this may be the result of my left and right brain sending slightly different thought streams for the sentence. I have reduced this by deliberately and consciously slowing my speech slightly when I get animated.

2

A detailed research on he slip of the tongue was done in Sigmund Freud's Introduction to Psychoanalysis. It could happen when you are stressed, fatigued, exited, or when concentrating on something else at mind. It could also be a mixture of the above.

You situation could involve more of the last case. As you stated, you spoke the word "esteem" instead of "extreme". This may as well mean that your unconscious mind was concentrating on either your esteem or your critics'. You would be able to counterbalance your unconscious thoughts by increasing your level of confidence in the matter. This doesn't necessarily mean you weren't thorough with your presentation. It means that you are too conscious on the presentation itself. It seems that you rehearsed the presentation so as to focus on many details to concentrate on in addition to the presentation material. This naturally decreases the level of your confidence, which is case 1 -- stress. So fixing even one of the first and last cases should solve your problem in theory.

The slip of the tongue is something that can occur without thought. You may not be able to overcome it by practice, but mostly by experience. Albeit this is nothing to worry too much about as even recorded lectures include tongue slips.

  • This seems to be most to the point answer. If there is a hidden reason behind your slip of the tongue, the only efficient way to deal with it is to face this reason. I would just add that another side of it - that you were actually aware that you should pronounce "extreme" but were unable to do so - is equally significant and you must try to rationalize the reason behind that too. Moreover let me add that the way you present the question makes me think that you yourself know very well all the reasons and just hope to convey them to us without doing it explicitly. So, just go ahead and face it! – მამუკა ჯიბლაძე Oct 10 '15 at 7:04
2

In my opinion, the harder you try to correct your spelling, the harder your time will be in presentation.

If you pronounce the word extreme as esteem, then keep it this way! There are many people in the word that pronounce English words in an incorrect way because of the structure of their mother tongue.

As long as you spend a huge effort and still pronounce it in a wrong way, the audience will understand what you mean when you say esteem point. The important thing is what you tell the audience, not how you tell it.

If you must get rid of it, talk to yourself in English frequently. In daily life. Do not rehearse your presentation. Use the sentences that you use in daily life. While doing this, try to imitate your favorite actor, for instance.

After some time, you will get used to the pronunciations of different words, including extreme, congratulations and so on.

protected by eykanal Oct 9 '15 at 16:52

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