Recently, I worked with a client who frequently says “um”. We all say it now and then, but it was so prominent in this client’s speaking that it reduced the power and impact, and even the sense of authority of the speaker. I also know a couple of people who say, “Okay?” after every sentence or two, as if they constantly need reassurance that the listener agrees or approves of them. Maybe they are just ensuring their listener is following, but the over-use of “Okay?” makes speakers sound unsure.
Speaking is a conscious act. To be effective, we need to be conscious of what we are saying. If we use a word or phrase so much that it becomes an unconscious habit, it makes a poor impression on the listener, lessening the effectiveness of our speaking.
Here’s another look at “habit words” with an article I wrote some time ago.
Eliminate “Um” and “Ah” from your Speaking
A friend of mine is an English teacher. He has a good command of the language, but it’s painful to listen to him give instructions. Why? Because after every couple of phrases he utters a prolonged “Aaaah” while he thinks of what to say next. It’s as if he took a knife and slashed across the fabric of his ideas every few seconds. Do you do that, too? It’s a common habit, but you can break it if you want.
Overworking your listener’s brain
We seem to have an unconscious feeling that we must fill every second with sound, that if we stop talking we will lose our listeners’ attention. In fact, the very opposite is true. Your listener’s brain is processing every sound you make. When you fill your speaking with “um” and “ah” (or any speech “dysfluency”) you interject a sound that is foreign to your train of thought. You force your listener’s brain to take a split second to process this non-word and reject it as meaningless. If you do this every few seconds, your listener’s brain is see-sawing back and forth, processing what your ARE saying and what you are NOT saying. From the listener’s point of view, it’s exhausting! If the habit is serious enough, the speaker looks unskilled and unintelligent, at best. Even ridiculous, at worst! Not only does the speaker sound unsure of him or herself, but the listeners end up focusing on the “ums” instead of listening to what the speaker is seeking to convey.
Pauses are a good thing.
Pauses, short silences, are crucial to good speaking. They give your audience time to digest what you have just said, and they also add a moment of dramatic tension. Without the interjection of a meaningless sound, the listener’s mind stays focused on what is being said. Indeed his/her attention is intensified in that second of expectation about what is coming next.
If you look up some of the great speakers of the twentieth century on YouTube, you will hear every one of them using short pauses. Listen to Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Margaret Thatcher. Not one of them says “um” or “ah” when they need a moment to think. Yet they all do occasionally search their mind for just the right word. Those little pauses not only help their audience’s comprehension, but also give them time to think.
Changing the habit
What can you do to change the “um/ah” habit? The first step is to start listening to yourself as your audience hears you. We all say “ah” now and then. How often do you say it? Does the frequency vary with the circumstances? Awareness is power. If you can hear it, you can change it.
For a presentation, carefully think through what you plan to say, and then practice it. When you’re sure of what you’re saying, you’re less likely to be tempted to fill a short “thinking moment” with sound. Try to catch yourself before you say “um”. Simply stop talking while you think. Intentionally take a breath. At first it will take courage to allow silence to reign, even for a second. Gradually you will find that your listeners do not “tune out” when you pause. They tune IN!
Don’t be hard on yourself if you find the “um” habit challenging to change. After all, if you’ve been using this meaningless filler all your life, you can’t expect to eliminate it immediately. If you can remember to work on it even once in a day, that’s progress. The payoff is big, however, so you will be motivated to keep at it. Your listeners will be more attentive, you will speak more proficiently and you will find that your own thinking process is more focused.
Combine the power of awareness with the power of intention to change, and you can move mountains. You can stop asking your audience’s brain to multi-task with frequent “ums” and “ahs”. You can keep their attention on what you are saying by giving them ONLY what you are saying!
“This doesn’t feel like me. It doesn’t feel natural!”
I hear this objection over and over when I ask clients to speak with more enthusiasm and animation in their face and their voice. If their usual presenting style is low key and low energy, speaking with more energy initially feels like putting on a suit of clothes that doesn’t fit. If their standard opener is a flat “I’m here to tell you about…,” and I come along and suggest opening with an enthusiastic, “What if you had access to a…?” they worry that they’ll look phony, as if they’re pretending to be someone they’re not.
Every time you interact with another person, you are playing some kind of a role. The role might be parent, spouse, employee, manager, friend or teacher. We don’t even realize how many roles we play in a day, and we flip from one to another in the blink of an eye, according to who we’re talking to. Make that, “presenting to”. Every time you talk to someone, whether their relationship with you is intimate, casual or formal, you’re presenting to them. They are your audience. You’re playing a part, in the same way as an actor on Broadway. And just like Broadway, some roles come so easily, you feel as if you’re hardly working at all. Other roles require you to dig deeper and work harder.
A Little Acting Lesson
Many people think that actors are people pretending to be someone they’re not. The reality is quite the opposite. Take a performer like Meryl Streep, who seems to be able to play any type of character and make us believe in her utterly. Why? Because she believes in the character as an extension of herself. Good acting is not pretending. It’s believing. Acting is sometimes called “make believe”. And who is the first person who must believe? The actor, him or herself. Good actors find something in themselves that resonates with the character they are playing, something that says, “Yes, given the right circumstances, I would behave as this character does.” Actors infuse a character with their own genuine self and genuine feelings. They are being real and genuine within a prescribed role and circumstance.
A New Role
Once I played a role where the character had a personality I didn’t think was like me. Sure, she had a heart of gold, but she was supremely self-confident – brash, bossy and flamboyant. The costume director dressed her in lots of animal prints and flashy colours. I loved the intensity of energy in the character, but the bossy, flamboyant side of her felt out of my comfort zone. I thought I would have to work hard to pull that off.
As rehearsals progressed, I found myself increasingly at home with the aspects of my onstage character that I had thought would feel unnatural. I discovered parts of me that had been waiting to be expressed. It was as if the character were teaching me to be more self-assured and assertive, as if she were saying, “Go ahead! Make a statement!” Not only did I feel genuine within the onstage role, but playing that role filled out my offstage personality. What started out feeling unnatural ended up being part of my natural, expanded self. It increased my self-expression, both onstage, within the prescribed role and circumstance, and off. It enlarged my experience of who I am.
You’re More than You Think
Just because something is outside your comfort zone doesn’t mean it’s wrong or false. When you bring the relaxed smiles from happy moments of your offstage life into a presentation, it’s not phony. It’s just unfamiliar to be doing it within that more formal, prescribed circumstance. You’re not used to showing the same enthusiasm onstage that you’d express in a one-on-one conversation. Yet it’s that very warmth and enthusiasm that makes you memorable to your audience.
So go ahead! Try being animated, enthusiastic and smiling. Give it the chance that it’s not unnatural, just new. I bet you’ll come to love the expanded version of yourself. As for me, I now love to wear animal prints.
I’m back from an unexpectedly long stay in Winnipeg, Manitoba. My father died the day after I had arrived for a week-long visit. (Amazingly, a similar situation occurred with my mother’s passing two years ago. My brother jokes that he’s not going to invite me to come to Winnipeg anymore.)
Neither of our parents wanted a formal, religious funeral, and so both times we held a simple, informal “Celebration of Life”. My brother, Rick, and I wanted a relaxed, appreciative yet light tone and an informal structure. It may be useful, if your turn at this experience is yet to come, to hear what our family did and said.
Both our parents lived into their nineties. Dad was a long-time, active member of the Lions Club of Winnipeg – President in 1967-68, and “Lion of the Year” in 1975. Mom took her turn as President of what was then called the “Lionelles”, wives of Lions. (Nowadays, Lions Club membership includes both women and men.) Rick is also a Lion, so it was fitting to hold both Celebrations at Lions Place, a seniors’ residence built and owned by the Lions Club, and managed by staff the club hires. Both times the staff set out chairs in rows and catered a spread of sandwiches and sweets, as well as tea and coffee.
For Mom, we’d had a recording of her favourite Chopin piano music playing while people arrived. We didn’t include hymns or other music in the presentation part of the events. Mom, however, was an excellent whistler, so for her I sang, unaccompanied, Stephen Sondheim’s “Anyone Can Whistle”. I’m not sure how I got through that – maybe she helped me. For Dad, we knew it would be a large gathering and figured the room would be too noisy for background music.
There was no formal eulogy, and none of us spoke for more than ten minutes. (If you’d like some excellent guidance on delivering a eulogy, check out Denise Graveline’s blog, The Eloquent Woman.) For Mom, my father, my brother and I all spoke. For Dad, Rick and I were thankful to be able to include a favourite cousin, Ed, whose mother and our Dad were always very close. Ed and his wife cut short a motorcycle holiday in order to arrive in time.
Ed began his presentation by asking the family members to stand. There were only seven of us. Ed assured everyone that if we had been in Vancouver, where we originated, half the room would have been on their feet. He then asked in turn for neighbours, friends and people from various associations to stand. Dad was extremely active in many areas of community service, so it was fun to see how everyone was connected to him.
None of us gave a summary of Mom or Dad’s life, choosing instead to focus on special memories. We didn’t want long faces, so we kept it light, even humorous at times. Our parents were both exceptional people. Mom gave help and support to many people as head of Social Service for Winnipeg’s Victoria Hospital. Dad was Vice President Industrial Relations for Canada Safeway. He was a skilful negotiator, so much so that when his hair turned silver, the union negotiators began calling him the Silver Fox. They always knew, however, that they could trust his word. Several of his former “adversaries” were at the Celebration, even though they had all retired many years ago. Quite a tribute!
Understandably, there were moments that were difficult to get through. Both my brother and I found it helpful to practice those parts ahead of time. By practicing difficult passages over and over, you work through the intensity of emotion on your own until you can present them in public. It doesn’t make them any less genuine. At the Celebrations, all Rick or I needed was a pause and a deep breath.
Following the presentations, we encouraged people to stay and eat and socialize. If Dad was about anything, he was about socializing and having a good time. We held to his example.
I think a less formal farewell such as our family held is becoming more popular. Rick and I followed no structure other than what we felt would be appropriate. We have heard many comments on how genuine and even enjoyable both events were. I will always be glad that I had an opportunity to speak my respect and appreciation for my parents’ lives.
Whatever your challenges, you have the potential to stand tall, glowing with the knowledge that you’re a worthy, valuable human being. That’s what’s happening for a group of young women I met nearly two years ago. They are all people who are supported by Community Living, an organization which helps connect people with intellectual disabilities into their community so that they can participate and be included as rightful citizens.
Community Living in Peterborough, Ontario received funding through a project initiated by the Ministry of the Status of Women Canada. Combining that project with the desire to raise CLP’s profile in the community, the Director of Operations, Barb Hiland, decided to embark on a series of public presentations in which women with intellectual disabilities would speak about themselves and their experiences and, ultimately, conduct presentations to the public about issues pertaining to women living with intellectual disabilities. Knowing there would be training required, Barb hired me to spend four coaching sessions with these young women. In Use Your Gifts, I wrote about how inspiring it was to work with these enthusiastic students.
Eight young women from the group carried on to become “Ambassadors” and leaders for the Status of Women and Community Living Peterborough. Take a look at some of their accomplishments. (What follows are not their real names.) Jenny gave a presentation at a Conference on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, speaking clearly and seriously; Cathy thanked a crowd of over 600 people at a fund raising activity. Christie won the Youth Award at Community Living Peterborough’s AGM for her contributions to increase awareness of women’s issues. Maggie speaks so well that she volunteered to do an interview for the local TV station. The interview publicized a Community Living event to which she donated one of her paintings. This week, Maggie has a photo shoot with a provincial magazine for an article on accessibility. She was chosen as a model from many across the province and will be paid significantly for her time.
Barb tells me that Linda is now a member of Community Living Peterborough’s Board of Directors and a member of People First, a self-advocacy group for people with intellectual disabilities. Barb has no doubt that she will be President of the Peterborough Chapter some day. She is on too many committees to remember, and she just shines!
These eight young women have conducted presentations all over the community – over 40 and counting! They carry their heads high and have all the confidence in the world to speak up to have others hear their voices. They are now mentoring another eight women to follow in their footsteps.
Meeting with the PM
Recently I received an email from Barb Hiland to update me on the latest accomplishments of my public speaking students. Barb said, “As the pinnacle of our goals, we hoped to go to Ottawa and see the Prime Minister to thank him for the funding and to tell him about all of the personal accomplishments these women have made to our community.” That dream came true in May of 2012, when four of the eight young women were well received by Prime Minister Steven Harper, as well as the Minister for the Status of Women, Rona Ambrose, and Peterborough’s MP, Dean Del Mastro. I have on my computer screen some photos of the event. The photo above is the official photo. I wish I could share them all with you, but I don’t have permission to publicize them. The one that particularly gives me goose bumps is of tall, willowy Jenny, formerly so shy, standing at full height, shaking hands firmly with the Prime Minster of Canada, and looking him squarely in the eye. What a transformation!
Training = Growth
Barb writes, “All the women have done exceptionally well. Their former teachers are ‘stunned’ at their growth and they never envisioned such a positive future for them. I think it was critical to have you come so early in the Project and teach the group about public speaking and the skills they needed to develop. It was our most intense topic for training, but well worth the investment. It had a huge impact on the young women’s development and ultimately, their success. Public speaking training instilled them with confidence, and as a result, the sky is the limit for their success.”
Do you find it challenging to speak in front of a group? When I think of the challenges these young women have overcome, I realize that the only thing that holds us back is what’s in our head. When we change our thinking, truly, the sky’s the limit!
“My voice shakes when I first begin to speak! It’s so embarrassing! How can I stop that?” Lots of people have this experience at the beginning of their presentation, so if you’re among them, it may help to realize that you are certainly not alone. Here are a few strategies that may help you deal with this situation.
- Ignore it. Bear in mind that you never look or sound as nervous to your audience as you feel. In my early days of classical singing training, whenever I stood up to sing, one arm would go completely numb. I knew that the audience didn’t know that, so I just held up one hand with the other hand, pretended it wasn’t happening and carried on until the sensation went away. What else could I do?
- Focus on the audience. If your voice steadies as you get further into your talk, the initial shakiness is probably because of a little too much adrenaline in your system. The more you stay focused on “How can I make this the best possible experience for the audience?” rather than on concern for what they are thinking of you, the more your butterflies will stay at a manageable level.
- Try vocal warm-ups. Starting cold invites a shaky beginning. Think of how carefully athletes warm up before a competition. Like any muscle, your voice needs to warm up before the main event. If you sing with a choir or if you’ve had singing training, do the same vocal exercises you use to prepare for rehearsals or a performance. If you don’t know any, ask a singer, choir director or voice coach to show you a few exercises. Or just sing. If you don’t sing, practice your speech out loud a few minutes before your presentation. Whatever option you choose, warming up your vocal muscles ahead of time will take you into your presentation with a firmer, steadier voice.
- Breathe. Pay special attention to your breathing and make sure you have a good cushion of air for your voice to ride on. Any musician who makes music by blowing into an instrument must learn to breathe efficiently. So must singers, and so must speakers. Most people who have not had breathing training tend to breathe only from the upper part of their chest. Since the larger part of your lungs is the bottom half, this tendency means you’re not filling up your tank of air. If you’re only receiving a fraction of the air you should be getting, you’re not adequately supporting your voice. To fill your lungs completely, you need to breathe from your diaphragm and keep your chest quiet. Ask a singer or vocal coach to show you diaphragm breathing. Other disciplines that can teach you correct breathing are yoga or Tai Chi.
Never let yourself run completely out of air. Allow yourself time to pause and fill your lungs. Your audience won’t stop listening just because you pause to breathe. Remember that pauses in speaking are good!
- Be well prepared. As with any type of performance, the process of improvement begins long before the actual event. Thorough preparation is one of the most steadying strategies you can do. Know your topic in depth. Sort out well in advance how much information you will share with the audience – no more than three points with a maximum of three examples or stories to illustrate them. Think it through and then talk it through. Practice, over and over. Your resulting mental clarity will give you confidence and help steady your voice.
As you get rolling in your talk, your butterflies will subside and your voice will settle down. A speaking event is about the audience, not the speaker. If you keep your focus on giving value to your listeners and on developing a relationship with them, they will sense that you have your priorities in the right place. You’ll find that your audience is a lot more understanding and uncritical than you thought. They won’t mind if your voice starts out a little shaky. Just breathe deeply and carry on. After all, what else can you do?
Who needs public speaking training? Everybody. Because everybody speaks. Even people who usually work on their own, like scientists, artists or accountants, speak to others at some point. Whether you’re in business, government or a profession, your most valuable tool for success is your ability to communicate effectively. Why? Because effective communication isn’t only about choosing accurate words to express your ideas, it’s about creating the desired perception in your listener’s mind, because it’s perceptions, not just information, that govern people’s actions.
Perceptions govern behaviour
We behave toward one another according to how we perceive one another. Think about how your own responses to a person vary according to whether you perceive him or her to be honest or dishonest, competent or incompetent, friendly or cold. Your perception of that person, positive or negative, will strongly affect your choices and decisions where that person is concerned. Effective speaking is about developing a rapport with your listeners, so that they, in turn, have a positive perception of you and what you’re saying. Their perception of you will determine their degree of receptivity to your message.
Scientists have learned, believe it or not, that our perceptions are primarily formed by first impressions and by feelings, how we feel about one another. So isn’t it in every speaker’s best interest to know how to create a great first impression and how to generate positive feelings in the people they’re speaking to? What we’re really talking about here is having not just an intellectual connection with our listeners, but an emotional connection, a human-to-human, heart connection.
However, your listeners are not going to generate that feeling of emotional connection with you on their own – unless it’s your Mom! The speaker has to give the listener something to feel connected to. The speaker has to show some feeling, some genuine emotion. Yet, showing emotion seems to be one of the hardest things for speakers to do!
Colourless is boring
Tell me this: what’s the most boring element in a boring presentation? You said, “Monotonous voice,” didn’t you? Of course you did! Why? Why is a monotonous voice so boring? Because there’s no colour, no feeling. There’s nothing for the audience to feel connected to. You can’t have an emotional connection with someone who shows no emotion. You can’t have a heart connection with someone who appears to have no heart! Speakers who dampen down their emotional expression end up with a flat, colourless, monotonous voice. They not only ensure that their presentation will be deadly dull, they eliminate any possibility of developing rapport with their audience, thereby missing the opportunity to create a positive perception in their listener’s mind.
Rapport is first
I’m not saying you should be bouncing off the walls, but I am saying that energy, enthusiasm and genuine emotion create rapport. What so many speakers don’t realize is that showing feeling doesn’t make them look foolish. It makes them interesting, colourful and approachable. No matter what you’re talking about, your first job as a speaker is to develop a human-to-human rapport with your listeners so that they will have a positive perception of you and what you’re saying. Only when your listeners have that positive perception will they truly be receptive to the information you want to communicate.
Like it or not, a presentation is a performance. To borrow an image from PowerPoint consultant, Gary Murray, a presentation with PowerPoint is like an equine show jumping event. The trophies go to those who have a perfect partnership between a superb horse and an expert rider. To achieve excellence in any performance, the performer must practice. If you’re showing PowerPoint slides in your presentation, you need to practice using them so that the flow of your talk looks as fluid and effortless as a championship jumping exhibition. However, while you need to be a good rider, you need to start with a good horse.
The Lame Horse
How often have you seen a speaker show slides that are filled with bullet points and long, wordy sentences? Unfortunately, it’s rare when speakers don’t do that! Here’s what’s wrong with wordy slides:
- Slow. Our brains process pictures 60,000 times faster than text. That’s because the brain recognizes images immediately, whereas the act of reading requires a lengthy, circuitous process of shape recognition and synthesis. Reading a lot of words is simply too slow to create the emotional “punch” that results in memory.
- Attention splitting. Faced with a slide full of words, listeners will choose to read the slide rather than listen to the speaker. Think back. The last time you saw a wordy slide come up on the screen, were you able to focus your attention solely on what the speaker was saying? Or were your eyes irresistibly drawn to all those words? And while your brain was busy decoding that fascinating puzzle of lines, curves and angles, were you really listening to the speaker? Contrary to popular belief, the human brain can’t multitask. Attention, comprehension and memory all suffer.
- Boring. Wordy slides are boring! Author John Medina writes in Brain Rules, “We don’t pay attention to boring things.” Our brain resists and rejects things that don’t have enough emotional content to make them interesting. Picture recognition is emotional; word recognition is intellectual. Even neutral images have greater emotional impact than words because they are processed in the emotional centre (limbic system) of the brain, not in the cerebral cortex, where words are decoded. Scientists have found that there’s a 100% increase in recognition of a picture over text. Yet only 3% of business communications contain visuals.
The Superb Horse
What to do? Reduce, reduce, reduce! Don’t write out your whole point on the screen. Find the fewest possible words that will reinforce the point and then pair them with an image that illustrates the idea.
Let’s take the three points above. If I were using those ideas in a PowerPoint presentation, the only words that would appear on the screen would be the ones in bold type. Everything else I’ve written for those points would be what I would say. And each point would have its own slide. The more impact a PowerPoint show has, the less sense it makes on its own without the speaker.
My first slide would show only the word Slow with a photo of, say, a snail. I would talk about why reading is slow, and why that’s ineffective. The second slide would say Attention splitting. What image would reinforce that idea? How about an axe splitting through a block of wood? Explicit and dramatic. You can probably feel the emotional impact just from imagining the picture. The third slide might show someone sleeping through a lecture, with just the word, Boring. Humour creates memory.
Whole books are written on how to use PowerPoint effectively. In a short article, I can only discuss one idea, but this is the most glaring and most frequent error I see. Too many words! The more words people have to read, the less they will remember. Why bother speaking at all if your words and ideas will be immediately forgotten? “Less is more” could be a PowerPoint law! If you want your listeners – whether it’s a large audience or a couple of people – to remember what you say, give ‘em fewer words to read, and give ‘em pictures.
Ultimately, it’s what we think of ourselves that determines what other people think of us. Lately, I’m re-thinking western culture’s taboo against pride.
Where’s the pride?
A client of mine, president of a manufacturing company, was practicing his corporate presentation. One of my colleagues had upgraded his PowerPoint slides, and now I was coaching him on his delivery. He was giving good, factual information, but his energy was low and his voice had a sing-song, almost apologetic quality. After a few minutes, I stopped him and said, “You know what I’m not hearing in your voice? Pride! Your father started this business with an invention in his garage, and now it’s a world class company producing world class products. As a listener, I want to hear how proud you are of that.”
He tried it again, and what a transformation! This time, he smiled, his eyes shone and his voice had the energy and variation in pitch it had been lacking before. His whole bearing was vibrant and engaging. Now he was letting emotion hold hands with information, and what a dynamic duo that is! Could this dramatic change have happened just because he lifted his internal ban on pride?
A few days later, another client was working on how she offers her book for sale at the end of her talks. Again I heard the factual accuracy, but low key, slightly apologetic tone. Again I suggested that if she’s proud of having created this book, the audience needs to feel that energy of pride. Again I saw the dramatic metamorphosis from drab chrysalis to engaging butterfly.
Why aren’t we proud?
What’s going on here? Is it just because I’m Canadian, working with Canadians, and we’re notoriously self-effacing? Or is the tendency more wide-spread? Why is it so terrible to be proud? Have we become so convinced of the “sin” of pride that we confuse honest pride with arrogance, presumption or “being pushy”?
To me, they are not the same thing at all. True pride originates in a consciousness of value. If you’re truly proud of yourself, self value shines out of you. You enjoy sharing that value with others, but never imposing it. You have no need to convince anybody else of your worth.
I think arrogance, on the other hand, comes from a lack of self value. Many years ago, I made it into the semi-finals of the local Metropolitan Opera auditions. In my heart of hearts, I felt I was out of my league. In my efforts to hide my insecurity, my show of confidence was “over the top”, because it had no solid grounding in self value. I know I came across as arrogant and flippant.
I’m acquainted with a person who appears to be, on the surface, supremely self confident. He speaks of his accomplishments with a vehemence that is almost overpowering. He seems so convinced of the rightness of his own viewpoint that he comes across to others as overbearing and arrogant. I don’t think that’s self pride. I think that’s the exact opposite. I think that, unconsciously, he’s desperately trying to convince other people of his value in order to try and believe it, himself.
Pride is good!
I believe that unless we’re confident – yes, proud! – of our own value, we have nothing of value to share with others. When we’re honestly proud of ourselves and of the value of our offering – in the classroom, the showroom or the boardroom – our listeners see attractive confidence and energy, not arrogance. Your audience will pick up on whatever energy you project. So go ahead, be proud!
A presentation has the greatest impact when audience members feel as if the speaker is talking directly to them personally. Yet it’s so easy to slip into seeing the people in an audience only in terms of their position in a society or their role in an organization. This kind of de-personalizing is counter-productive for both the speaker and the listener. The listener feels unacknowledged, and the speaker misses an opportunity to make a human-to-human connection with listeners.
We behave toward one another according to how we perceive one another. Say your job requires you to give a monthly report to the Board of Directors of your organization. If you see them only as positions above you in the hierarchy, your perception will be coloured – need I say, “darkened” – by the realization that their positions are more powerful than yours. Maybe they have the power to fire you. You will probably feel very threatened and go through agony every month as your report deadline approaches. When you give your presentation, your manner is emotionally distant and lacking in energy. You feel terrified and your Board members feel unengaged. Neither of you can have a positive experience under those circumstances.
The person beneath the role
Have you ever watched a TV program called “Undercover Boss”? It’s a “reality” show where the head of an organization works in disguise as a trainee at various jobs in their company. It provides a look at what goes on behind the scenes of big organizations like a restaurant chain or an international courier service. Another aspect of the show that I find interesting is how people in top executive positions reveal themselves to be people just like all the rest of us. They might be clumsy or get confused, and they have emotional challenges, just like everybody else. Yes, I know, this is television, and the authenticity of all of it is suspect. Nevertheless, these people are not experienced actors, and I can’t imagine that all of it is faked. What it shows me is that a CEO is a person, not a position.
Think of Queen Victoria. In Great Britain, there is no rung higher on the ladder of hierarchy than the queen. Because of her position, certain modes of behaviour and speech are required in her presence. That’s how the game of human society is played. Yet here was a woman who was so devastated by the death of her husband that she withdrew from her public duties as monarch and lived almost as a recluse to the end of her days. Under the role of queen, she was a person with feelings. Even a queen needs love as much as you or I.
Narrow the gap
If your attitude toward the people in your audience is de-personalized, and you see them only as bodies or positions or roles in the hierarchy, you increase your own distress and decrease your ability to develop a sense of relationship with them. But if you focus on the fact that your listeners are human beings just like you, the gap between you narrows. You approach them as neither inferior nor superior, but as equal human beings. You think in terms of “us”, instead of “me versus them”. When you give that report to the Board, you are giving value by fulfilling their need for information. You are partnering with those people for the good of the organization.
Appreciate the heart
This doesn’t mean you’re suddenly going to become “buddy-buddy” with your CEO. The game is played according to certain rules, after all, and we are wise to observe them. It does mean, however, that every human being has a heart, and that heart needs acknowledgement, acceptance and appreciation as much as any other. When you conduct yourself with confidence and self-value, when you smile and make eye contact, when you engage by asking questions and listen intently to the answers, you fulfil your listeners’ need for connection. You make them feel you are talking directly to them, person to person, human being to human being.
If you’re talking to someone one-on-one, or if you’re in a meeting with just a few people, you probably don’t have difficulty being heard, even if you have a soft voice. On the other end of the scale, if you are speaking to a large audience, you will almost certainly have amplification, and the sound technician will make sure your audience can hear you.
In some circumstances, though, you might find yourself in front of a medium-sized group of, say, 20 to 60 people, with no microphone in sight. Workshop presenters, team managers and teachers are examples of people who find themselves in this kind of situation. This is when you need to know how to project your voice in such a way that your audience can hear you, but that doesn’t strain your vocal equipment. Here are some physical strategies you can try.
Fill your lungs
The way you breathe affects the way your voice comes out. After all, air flowing over your vocal cords is the reason you have a voice at all. If you breathe shallowly, you will quickly run out of air, and then your throat muscles tense up to try to squeeze the sound out. To whatever degree that happens, your voice will sound strained and lack carrying power. It’s hard on your vocal cords, too. But when you take the time to fill your lungs, it’s as if your voice is riding on a supportive cushion of air, and your throat muscles can stay relaxed. Your voice will carry better and have a richer, more pleasing sound.
Most people only fill the top part of their lungs when they breathe, but in fact, your lungs are larger at the bottom than at the top. To get a good breath, you need to fill your lungs all the way to the bottom. Ask any musician whose instrument uses air, and they will tell you that your waist and abdomen must move outward as you inhale, and back in as you exhale. Your chest stays quiet. If you’ve never done that before, try imagining that you are filling your lungs from the bottom up, as if it were water instead of air.
Articulate with energy
Most people (no offense, folks!) have rather lazy diction. They don’t use the tools of articulation – their jaw, lips and tongue – with enough energy to create clear, crisp consonants. You wouldn’t think, would you, that your articulation would have a bearing on how well your voice carries? But it does.
The more energy you put into your muscles of articulation, the more you lift your voice up away from your throat muscles and into the resonators in your face – specifically, your cheek bones and your sinus cavities. Even on such a small scale, your cheek bones act like the sounding board of a piano, and your sinus cavities (assuming you don’t have a cold) resonate like a big, open room. That means your voice will have more resonance and will project better to your listeners.
Think of how much energy it takes to run the length of a soccer field or basketball court. Clear articulation requires just as much energy; you’re simply using smaller muscles.
Think big, never push
Never try to “push” your voice to make it louder. You will probably become hoarse, and might even do damage to your vocal cords. Instead, imagine that the inside of your throat and mouth are large, as large as the room you’re speaking in. That will cause all the muscles around the inside of your throat to pull away, just as you do when you are yawning. The bigger the space inside, the bigger the voice outside.
More energy, please
All of these physical strategies bring me back to my familiar theme: it takes energy to speak well in public. You really do have to work harder than when you’re not in that situation. But when you remember that the speaking event is about making sure your listeners have the best possible experience, you know that it’s worth the extra energy. As the speaker, that’s your job.