I had been planning a post on this for a while but after yesterday's "success" and the nudge from the DM, I thought I'd write a little bit about it here. Passion can easily make up for a lack of accuracy in a second (or third, or fourth) language. I've seen it happen time and time again. That being said, I've also seen a lack of accuracy kill the passion that I know is there but the speaker is afraid to show it.
I'll give you three examples. The first one comes from the IELTS exam. If you've never taken the IELTS exam or a prep course for it, it's not like those multiple choice exams or online "talk to a screen" exams that claim to be able to determine a candidate's language ability. For the speaking portion of the IELTS exam you sit in a room with the examiner and basically have a conversation for 11-14 minutes. Some parts of the exam are scripted but the examiner has some flexibility for where they can take the conversation. Scoring is spread across the candidate's lexical resources, grammatical accuracy, pronunciation, and fluency & coherence. Scores for each criteria are 0-9. When you look at the descriptors for each band there is a quite a bit of wiggle room. Sometimes the difference between a six and a seven for one criteria is a "feel thing". This is where attitude/passion/personality/enthusiasm/energy level comes into play. A candidate's attitude won't change their grammar mistakes but it can shape the way we hear them speak. The examiner may feel like the score for vocabulary usage, pronunciation, and fluency could go either way and if we actually enjoyed talking with the candidate we will probably skew up. I know this has happened to me in the past. "Six? Seven? Six? Nah, they were really confident... Seven!"
A second example comes from the presentation skills classes I taught in the EFL department of a university in Korea. Listening to ten or more presentations in a row can be tedious. Students who began their presentation with a strong voice and a smile on their face changed the dynamic of the entire room. I would often glance around at the beginning of each presentation to see if the other students were paying attention. If the speaker began with a weak, flat voice, many of the students would put their head down and study their notes for their own presentation. Conversely, a strong voice provoked the others to pay attention. It was almost as if the other students knew they could learn a thing or two from this speaker. When giving post-presentation feedback, I regularly pointed out how impressive the speaker's energy level was and how it helped me give the speaker my full attention. Most of the students nodded in agreement but it wasn't always easy for them to emulate.
This leads us to the third example, conference speakers. Like in my class, many speakers at ELT conferences are non-native. Many of them confess that it can be intimidating to give a presentation to their colleagues, especially if there are native speakers attending the talk. I suppose it's human nature to assume you are being judged when giving a conference presentation. I'll confess, in my case you are being judged, just not the way you think. I can't help it. I judge every speaker's presentation skills. I judged Jane Goodall when she came to give a talk about her years in the mountains with the chimpanzees. I judge big name speakers who come to conferences and give the same uninspired talk they gave a week ago in a different city. And I just the language school teacher who is giving their first presentation at a conference and is scared to death. The thing is, I'm not judging their English unless it is so bad that I can't understand what they are talking about, and that almost never happens. So speak with confidence. Believe in your message, believe in your content, and believe in yourself.
There's something special about a speaker who seems genuinely happy to be there. They know they have an accent (which is not a bad thing), make occasional grammatical errors, and say the wrong word from time to time but they are there to share something of value and that's what they focus on. You can see the joy on their face and if you look around you will see that joy reflected in the faces of the audience members. So, I'll end with the same advice I gave in my reply to the DM on Twitter. "Accuracy takes time to develop. Sometimes it never develops to where we want it to be, but energy and enthusiasm can make up for that. If she brings passion to the presentation, it can often overcome the inaccuracies. If she appears to lack confidence AND makes a lot of grammatical errors, it wouldn't be surprising for the client to say no. Have her practice timed answers for surprise topics that require her to share her opinions. Praise her for passionate answers. That should help in the short term."