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Jennifer is in her early thirties, smart, talented and very effective in her role as account manager for a large marketing firm. She’s bubbly, talkative and tends to speak and move at a fast pace. She projects youthful energy and under pressure might seem a bit nervous.
Despite her experience, her excellent performance and high potential, Jennifer often struggles to win the respect of new clients and exert the kind of influence she desires, especially in the early stages of the relationship. People tend to assume she’s young and therefore inexperienced so they underestimate her level of expertise. Her input is sometimes ignored or dismissed; she’s not entrusted with important projects and misses strategic opportunities for advancement.
Jennifer has a credibility problem. If you can relate to her situation or something similar, you might want to consider ways to address that issue.
The perception of credibility is admittedly subjective and not always accurate. But it’s formed very early in the interaction and determined at a subconscious, emotional level more than at a conscious rational level.
Here are some personal attributes you can cultivate to make sure you’re projecting an image that communicates substance and authority.
Be grounded. Feel the ground underneath you and relax down onto that firm foundation. When you’re not aware of grounding, your body tends to pull itself away from the ground. You project a physical presence that’s high and tense, not relaxed and settled. People get the feeling that you’re a lightweight.
Be aligned. Take advantage of your full height. I’m not talking about “chin up, chest out, shoulders back and belly in.” That just makes you tenser, and it certainly doesn’t look relaxed and authentic. This needs to be a relaxed alignment, not a forced posture. Stand on both feet and imagine allowing your ankles, knees, hipbones, shoulders and ears to be on a vertical line.
Speak up. Engage your voice fully so people can hear you easily. Few things destroy credibility faster than a weak voice. You don’t have to push and shout; that just sounds like you’re trying too hard or that you’re overbearing. Breathe deeply before speaking and use your breath generously to produce the sound. If you have breath left over at the end of a phrase or sentence, you’re holding back, and your listeners will feel that reticence.
Cultivate depth. A relaxed, grounded voice has resonance and richness that communicates strength, confidence and authority. A voice that’s stuck in the throat sounds defensive and withdrawn. If it’s pushed into the face and head it sounds young and abrasive. You don’t need to speak at the very bottom of your range. It’s not about having a low pitch. It’s about speaking with your whole body, not just your mouth and throat.
Take your time. Cultivate a deliberate manner of speech and gesture. If you speak and move quickly you lack presence and gravitas. You seem rushed, nervous and disconnected. When you’re able to pause and deliver your message in a relaxed manner you appear confident and in charge. You make fewer mistakes and your listeners have time to absorb what you’re saying. The overall impression is much more powerful.
Be brief. Learn to state your point clearly and directly—and leave it at that. Using too many words to express your thoughts makes you seem scattered. Repeating your point too many times makes you seem insecure. Holding the floor for too long annoys your listeners and nullifies the point you’re trying to make. The ability to say much, with few words, is a priceless skill that commands deep respect.
Your ability to project credibility can make the difference between being ignored, overlooked and undervalued or being effective, respected and successful. Take time to consider which aspects of your persona communicate strength, substance and authority and which make you seem young, inexperienced and unsure of yourself. The improvements might require some time and effort, but their ultimate value will be significant and ongoing.
When you focus attention on your speaking skills, two tendencies usually emerge.
- You focus almost exclusively on words.
- You start listening to yourself.
What’s wrong with that? After all, isn’t speaking about forming thoughts into words, using sounds? Of course you’re going to listen and focus on words.
It matters because communication is more than just words and sounds. You speak to create a shared experience. In that moment, you want others to see what you see, understand what you think, feel what you feel.
Language is primarily a left brain activity. Words tend to emphasize the narrow cognitive aspects of communication. Just saying the words disconnects you—and your listeners—from the full experience of what you’re communicating. You’re human. So much more than thoughts and words. What about the deeper, richer, personal aspects of your existence?
You must learn to speak with your whole being.
I think it starts with an ability to observe and enjoy the physical sensations of speech.
- the sensation of being in your body
- the sensation of breath flowing in an out
- the sensation of sound vibrations on your skin and in your bones
- the shape, texture and quality of consonants and vowels
- and so on
Becoming conscious of these physical sensations, honouring the sensual aspects of speech, reopens you to the possibility of communication as an experience. In a very natural and authentic way, getting connected to your body brings you closer to your own unique personality. You start to express more of yourself.
Start paying attention to the sensations of sound. Find ways to get out of your head, and notice what’s happening in your body when you speak. Do you feel open or closed? Generous or reserved? Totally engaged or shut down?
When you speak with your whole being, speech becomes more than just saying words. It becomes human and personal, a relationship, with all the power and richness that entails.
I hear a lot these days about the importance of pausing when you speak. It’s not a new concept, but it’s become a popular point of focus for speech coaches. “Pause for one second after every sentence. Pause for two seconds before moving on to a new point.” And so on…
That’s fine advice, but it presents a problem if you’re not used to pausing. What do you do while you pause? It has to be more than just the absence of words. You can’t practice “not doing” something.
So what do you do when you pause? You breathe. If speech is powered by breath, if breath is the “inspiration” for speech, there has to be time for breath to enter your body. Breathing creates the pause.
That in-breath provides not just the power for your voice, but it connects you to your inner experience, the impulse that moves you to speak in the first place. My colleague, Louis Colaianni, expressed it so elegantly when he said, “The incoming breath reveals how you feel. The outgoing breath expresses how you feel.”
So the pause isn’t just dead air-time. When it’s connected to your breath it’s alive with potential and expectation. You needn’t worry about sounding slow or being boring when you pause. It creates anticipation.
Pausing to breathe in enhances the clarity of your speech. Your listeners have time to actually absorb what you say. According to John Miers, “the actual process of communication takes place in the silence.”
From where I stand, the biggest benefit of the breath-pause is that it keeps you in command of your performance. Many speakers are unconsciously rushing themselves. They start to feel like someone running down a steep hill. Before long they’re out of control. Then panic sets in. Pausing frequently to breathe brings a very deliberate feeling to your speech. You have plenty of time to think, to speak clearly and connect with your listeners. You might actually enjoy the experience.
So much advice about public speaking and presentation is an attempt to produce the right result without understanding what’s going on under the surface to make that result possible. That tendency to focus on results has us putting the cart before the horse. Pausing isn’t just another point on your presentation checklist. It’s an organic part of a larger process that cultivates a deep connection to your self, your message and your listeners.
One of the qualities I look for, in a good voice, is clarity of tone. I want to hear a voice that’s free of noise (e.g. breathiness, hoarseness, wheeziness). One of the most common sources of noise is vocal fry, or glottal fry. That’s the slightly raspy, scratchy or gravelly quality that often sneaks in at the ends of phrases. It’s called vocal fry, because it sounds a bit like food sizzling in a frying pan.
Tension, a lack of breath support—or both, usually cause vocal fry in the speaking voice. Speaking at a pitch that’s too low for the voice can also cause it. So you’ll often hear fry on downward inflection, when pitch falls below frequencies in the normal range.
Vocal fry is a common trait in the untrained speaking voice. While it’s not considered pathology, it does have consequences for your effectiveness as a speaker. It causes your voice to feel irritated and fatigued over time. People find it difficult to listen to your voice due to the rough quality. And perhaps most importantly, you diminish the impact and effectiveness of your message, because the tone of your voice makes listeners feel you’re pulling back and not fully committed to what you’re saying. So how do you eliminate vocal fry in your voice?
The first strategy is, you guessed it, breathing. Learning to breathe deeply and fully before speaking, and releasing breath generously during delivery will provide power to engage your vocal folds fully and get rid of vocal fry. Just 15-20 minutes of coaching often noticeably increases tonal clarity. (Of course, such a brief period of exercise doesn’t change the habits that created vocal fry in the first place.)
Another strategy for eliminating vocal fry is supporting the ends of phrases. As you approach the end of a phrase or sentence, your breath is tapering off and the inflection of your voice is dropping. All of that is quite natural, but those tendencies conspire to rob your voice of the energy needed to vibrate fully. As a result, words at the end of the phrase lose tone, get scratchy and sometimes become inaudible. Then listeners have a problem understanding what you’ve said. As you’re speaking, notice whether your voice is as strong and resonant on the last word as it was on the first word. Make sure your listeners hear the last word as easily as the first.
Raising the pitch of your voice, very slightly, will often make your tone stronger and clearer, eliminating vocal fry. Your speaking voice operates a lot more efficiently in the middle of your range than it does at the bottom of your range. So practice starting sentences a tiny bit higher than your habit dictates. The change need not be noticeable to your listeners, but you’ll feel a big difference. The funny thing is, you’ll often get more deep resonance in your tone by moving into the middle of your range.
Start eliminating vocal fry by practicing breathing techniques, speaking in the middle of your range and supporting the ends of phrases. Your tone will improve, as well as the comfort and stamina of your voice. Best of all, as you engage your voice fully, you engage your self fully and ultimately engage your listeners.
Well, it happened again, this morning. I was in the middle of a consultation, comparing someone’s before-and-after speech samples. After just 15-20 minutes of work, the person’s voice sounded, well, personal. Same words as before, but a completely different experience for the listener. Beyond the words being spoken, I could hear the person behind the voice. The effect was rich, engaging, and powerful.
The human connection makes communication alive and powerful. Time and again, in my own office, I’ve heard clients produce simple sounds such as “hay”, “hoe” or “huh”, with such openness, such authenticity that it makes the hairs stand up on my arms. It’s as though the sounds become alive. It’s like I can hear the person behind the sound, even though they’re not using words and sentences. I believe this dynamic has potential to raise ordinary communication to extraordinary levels. It’s the difference between your listeners understanding what you’re saying and being moved by what you’re saying.
And the cool thing is that it starts right in your body. You don’t get that result by pretending, or trying to make it happen. You just cultivate the right conditions at a physical level. If you find that grounded, open, engaged state of being, it will happen, naturally, effortlessly and authentically. You will be compelling.
I spent the weekend reading Steven Pressfield’s novel, Gates of Fire, and I can’t stop thinking about one line from the book.
“The supreme accomplishment of the warrior [is to] perform the commonplace under far-from-commonplace conditions.”
Isn’t presenting and public speaking very much like that? In one sense, it’s just a conversation. After all, you talk all the time. You interact. You strive to influence, persuade and entertain others, every day of your life. Commonplace.
But doing that when the pressure’s on—in an interview, in the boardroom, in front of the cameras—that’s far from commonplace.
I’ve always said that effective communication is about making a connection. And making a connection challenges you to be fully available. To do that, you have to be open. Sounds simple. But you soon discover it takes practice to stay open. It takes practice to stay open when you’re under pressure, when you have to perform, when the team is counting on you. In those situations, everything conspires to close you down.
In Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, Shunryu Suzuki says, “So to find your own way under some restriction is the way of practice. When the restrictions you have do not limit you, this is what we mean by practice.”
All those weird exercises we do in public speaking training have one objective: reinforcing your ability to stay open, even under restriction, even with distractions, even when things get complicated. You’re developing the ability to perform the commonplace under far-from-commonplace conditions.