PUBLIC SPEAKING: Doing What Is Commonplace

June 8th, 2011

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.

HEART AT PEACE: Seeing The Humanity In Your Listeners

May 5th, 2011

Recently, I revisited an audio book, The Anatomy of Peace, by The Arbinger Institute, well-known for their previous book, Leadership and Self-Deception. The authors maintain that our way of being is even more important than our words and actions. If our heart is “at war,” than we see others as objects, obstacles or vehicles for getting what we want. Saying and doing “the right thing” is hollow and meaningless when our heart is “at war.” When our heart is “at peace,” we see others as unique human beings. We say and do the right thing from a place of sincerity and care.

I couldn’t help but think about how this plays out in presentation and public speaking. When our own heart is not at peace, we treat our listeners as objects, a collection of faces. Then any number of common problems arise.

  • The experience becomes all about us, instead of creating an experience for our listeners.
  • The presentation becomes all about getting through the content, instead of making sure our listeners understand.
  • We become fearful and defensive, instead of being fully engaged and making ourselves fully available.
  • We become pushy and competitive, instead of being flexible and cooperative.


I know I’m constantly preaching that cultivating the optimal physical state of being will encourage the optimal vocal, mental and emotional state of being. But—heart at peace—I’m not sure I know how to get there… I’m sure a peaceful physical state will get us moving in the right direction, but will it get right into the center of our being, where it can change how we view our listeners, how we feel about them? I know it’s crucial, but I don’t feel I have the answer to that, yet…

FILLER WORDS: Streamline Your Delivery

September 28th, 2010

Filler words such as “uh,” “like,” “you know” and “basically” get a great deal of attention in discussions about communication. They occur in all languages. Speakers use them to signal when they’re pausing to think, but intend to continue talking. While I reject the assumption that filler words are like poison and need to be eradicated from our speech, especially from spontaneous speech, overusing these words in a mindless, habitual way can indeed make a speaker sound hesitant, unfocused and even less intelligent.

Assume, for the moment, you really do overuse filler words and phrases. What can you do to reduce the clutter in your speech? The key word in that question might be “do.” I believe it’s very difficult, and ultimately ineffective, to practice not doing something. How do you reinforce a non-action (e.g. Don’t talk too fast. Don’t rock back and forth. Don’t say, “Like.”)? If you are serious about eliminating an undesirable behavior, you must implement a new behavior that displaces the first. (I just discovered psychologists call them “competing behaviors.”)

In my opinion, the most effective competing behavior for filler words is breathing. I believe there’s a connection between breath holding and the use of filler words. Poor breathing habits increase tension, induce fast speech and inhibit clear thinking. That creates a perfect breeding ground for filler words. When you’re searching for the right idea or word, just pause and allow a breath to enter your body. You won’t vocalize while you’re inhaling. The rate of your speech becomes more deliberate and your brain functions more optimally. You become more conscious of the core of your message and how that can be best expressed. Filler words diminish.

I get a little crazy when people start counting the number of times a speaker uses filler words, especially in spontaneous speech. (Using frequent filler words in a prepared speech probably does reflect, well, a lack of preparation.) Great communication involves so much more than the absence of “um.” But when it reaches a point where the filler words become a distraction for your listeners, you do need to take action. “Just stop doing it,” is not an action. Competing skills, like breathing, are an effective solution for a stubborn problem.

Inside Out: Speaking with Authenticity

September 21st, 2010

If you’re like most people, speaking is just a matter of words, something you do with your face. When you think about it, it’s little wonder communication becomes less effective under those circumstances. Speech loses its personal connection and your message loses its impact. What can be done to ensure your listeners see the real you and feel the true power of your words? Here is a three-step method to get the process started.

Relax from the inside out. Tension, anywhere in your body, affects your voice and ultimately distorts your message. (Just because you don’t notice tension doesn’t mean it’s not there.) If your impulse to speak must fight its way through six layers of tension to see the light of day, what comes out bears little resemblance to your original intention. A relaxation program to help you identify and release deep muscle tension can make you a better speaker.

Breathe from the inside out. Everyone knows breathing is important to speaking, but few have experienced that feeling. There is nothing like a full, relaxed in-breath to open your inner space and clear the channel for expressive, uninhibited speech. What follows is an out-breath. Sound flows out with breath. The only alternative is to squeeze sound from your body, creating distortion that affects the meaning of your message. As Louis Colaianni said, the in-breath reveals what you feel. The out-breath expresses what you feel.

Sound from the inside out. If you imagine speech coming only from your mouth or your throat, your voice will be small, weak and shallow. Your listeners will get only part of your voice and by extension, get only part of you. Imagine and practice sound starting in your center and vibrating throughout your whole body, and you will be more fully engaged when you speak.

My teachers said real communication is about taking what’s inside and putting it on the outside, taking what’s private and making it public. That can be very profound, but it starts in your body. It’s that simple. If you can relax deeply, breathe fully and be generous with sound, you are much more likely to speak confidently and genuinely, with your whole being. That will make a powerful impression on your listeners.

BEING LIKE A BELL: Becoming a More Confident and Engaging Communicator

September 2nd, 2010

In the south tower of the cathedral in Cologne, Germany, hangs Fat Peter. He’s not some unfortunate character who met a mysterious and untimely end. Fat Peter is a bell, officially known as St. Peter’s bell. Bigger than a bedroom and weighing as much as a fully loaded cement truck, it is easily one of the largest bells in the world. When Fat Peter sings, you don’t just hear it, you feel it in your bones. You are immersed in vibrations. It’s not just sound. It’s an experience.

St. Peter’s bell has something to teach us about how to communicate effectively. It’s interesting to note that bells have ears, eyes, mouths, lips, tongues, necks, shoulders and bodies. They even have crowns and belts if you’re into accessories. But I want to discuss more than superficial similarities. The way a bell produces sound has profound lessons for us, its human inventors. Specifically, a bell works with 1) economy of effort, 2) total engagement, and 3) complete generosity. I will elaborate on each of these three points and, at the end of the article, provide sample exercises for your exploration.

Economy of effort
A bell is never working hard. It swings at its own rhythm. Force it beyond its natural rhythm and you get less from it, rather than more. The same is true for human speech. You don’t get more from your voice by increasing your level of effort. Increased effort causes contraction, which results in less space for sound—you end up with a smaller bell! The trick to getting maximum sound and impact from your voice is to get out of the way and allow it to work rather than forcing it. You must work with your voice rather than pushing it. Time and again, my clients discover they can cut their effort by 50% and still produce the same amount of sound or even more. (See Sample Exercise 1.)

Total engagement
When a bell rings, the whole bell vibrates with sound, from top to bottom. The same is true for you. When you speak, ideally, it’s not just your vocal folds vibrating. It’s not just that hole in your face where sound comes out. Your whole body vibrates. There’s no body part that doesn’t have the potential of vibrating in sympathy with the sound of your voice. When your whole body vibrates there’s a pretty good chance you’re speaking with your whole voice. And when you’re using your whole voice there’s a pretty good chance you’re communicating with your whole being. But if you’re using only part of your voice your listeners are only getting part of you. (See Sample Exercise 2.)

A bell is never holding back. Think about it. Every last vibration of sound is traveling outward, being given away, generously. There’s no reservation. That’s the way you could be speaking, but in the real world all sorts of things tend to happen. Your voice will sit in your chest, get stuck in your throat, die in your mouth—it seems humans will do virtually anything to avoid putting their whole voice out there into the world. There’s very little generosity in the way most people speak. Few people speak with their whole voice. Most are accustomed to using just a small part of their voice. (See Sample Exercise 3.)

It’s easy to assume great speech is about words, but that isn’t half of it. It goes beyond what we’re saying or even what we’re doing—it’s about how we’re being in the moment of communication. Great speakers make powerful connections and have profound impact because they’re relaxed, fully engaged and totally available to their audience. Listeners love that. We are willing to overlook all sorts of imperfections in the delivery if someone will show up and let us see who they really are. That is the challenge of great speaking: the ability to be fully open, fully engaged, fully available.

You don’t have to be a gigantic bell to fill a room and make an impact, but you do have to feel like one. To explore this process more fully, contact me and ask about the Open Being Program. Learn how you can master these three principles and discover your unique potential to be a confident and engaging speaker.

Sample exercise 1: The Sigh of Relief (Economy of Effort)

Allow an in-breath to flow down into your belly then release it outward with a feeling of relief. Notice how easy it feels. Now do that with sound, an extended “Haaaaaaay” for example. It shouldn’t be breathy, but it does have to be easy. Use the feeling of a sigh of relief to monitor the level of effort you bring to your speaking. If you ever notice you’re working harder than a sigh of relief, you’re working too hard. You should be able to speak for hours, even a whole day, without your voice feeling fatigued. Speaking should always feel great. If it ever feels effortful, like strain or hard work, you need to examine what you’re doing. Ask yourself: If speaking was a feel-good experience, how would that change the way I communicate? How would it change the way my listeners perceive me?

Sample exercise 2: Noticing Sound Vibrations (Total Engagement)

Let your fingertips rest lightly on your lips. Close your eyes, concentrate on your sense of touch, allow an in-breath to flow down into your belly, then sigh out a delicate “M” sound: hmmmmm. Can you feel and cultivate sound vibrations on your lips? Do the same thing with your fingertips on your nose, then on the top of your head. Now place the palm of your hand on your chest and sigh out an extended “Ah” sound. Can you feel sound vibrations in your chest? How about your side ribs or even your back? Now rest your arms at your sides. Close your eyes and sigh out extended “M” sounds, or “Ah” or “Oh” sounds. Can you feel sound vibrations in your body without having to touch yourself? What parts vibrate easily? What parts don’t vibrate easily? Why not? Ask yourself: What would it feel like to have my whole body vibrating with sound when I speak? How would that change my experience as a speaker, or that of my listeners?

Sample exercise 3: Sound Forward (Generosity)

Stand in a large room or in front of a window overlooking an open space. With your eyes open, allow an in-breath to flow down into your belly, then sigh out “hmmmmm-aaaaah”. Feel sound vibrations on your lips, then, without changing anything, relax your lips open and allow sound to flow forward into the space. Open your arms outward as you open your lips, as though you were physically giving away the sound. There’s no need to push or “project”. As long as breath is flowing forward, sound will flow forward. If you feel your throat closing, or if the sound gets scratchy toward the end, you’re letting it fall back into your throat. (Notice how often this happens in conversation, at the ends of sentences.) Ask yourself: What would it feel like if every last vibration of sound could flow forward, outward? What would it feel like to use 100% of my voice, not just the 75% I’m used to, or the 40% that feels safe when I’m under pressure? How would that change my perception of myself at that moment? How would that affect the impact of my message?

Presentation Power: Cultivating a Commanding Presence

August 16th, 2010

I have long believed the whole point of presentation is to make a connection. Whether you are speaking to persuade, to inform, to sell or to entertain, if you fail to connect with your listeners you’re not effective. To make that connection you must be fully engaged and available. You must be open. Tension, bad habits, nervousness, lack of technique—all these factors tend to close doors right at the moment you need to be opening doors. My years of coaching experience have proven there are two crucial elements to powerful speech: grounding and breathing.

Grounding simply involves your connection to the ground and your awareness of being supported by the ground. With this awareness, your body tends to relax down onto the ground and your breath drops deeper into your body. Your voice sounds lower and you feel as though you are speaking with your whole being. It is one of the simplest things to practice and has a profound effect on your communication. Grounding alone can make you look relaxed, sound strong and feel confident as a speaker.

Breathing deeply is the closest thing to a silver bullet in a public speaker’s arsenal. There is almost no end to the list of things that improve if you learn to breathe well, and most common problems presented by my clients are in some way connected to breathing. The in-breath connects you to your message and makes you expressive The out-breath provides power lending impact to what you say. The ability to open yourself easily and fully as you inhale and to spend breath generously as you speak out will transform your performance.

Whenever I evaluate a speaker, the first two questions I ask myself are, “Is she grounded,” and, “Is she breathing?” If those two things aren’t happening, anything else I might suggest will be superficial detail. When those two things are happening, most other desired elements appear effortlessly.

Great presentation isn’t just about what we’re thinking. It’s about how we’re feeling. The openness I mentioned earlier is, especially, an ability to open downward. That cultivates depth at all levels of our performance, and that state of being lends substance and power to our presentations. We don’t have to make it happen; it will be there, spontaneous, authentic and effective.

What Did You Say?

June 7th, 2010

“I get so tired of repeating myself. Why can’t people get what I say, the first time?” Remember, you have the advantage of knowing what you’re going to say, before you’ve said it, so it’s easy to overlook the clarity of your delivery. Communication isn’t just about content; it’s about caring for the listener and making sure they get the message. Addressing potential obstacles to clarity ensures you are consistently understood.

Fast rate is one of the most common causes of unclear speech. Vowel sounds are shortened and words become a jumble of consonants. Slowing the rate of your speech gives you time to form sounds accurately and gives your listeners time to absorb what you’ve said. Learning to breathe while speaking is one of the most effective strategies for slowing down, naturally.

Mumbling often goes hand in hand with fast speech. When you speak quickly, your mouth doesn’t have time to open very far. Speech sounds get distorted while being squeezed through your teeth. Practicing jaw and tongue relaxation creates more openness in your mouth and encourages more precision in the formation of vowels and consonants.

A soft voice often contributes to a lack of clarity. Sound is the medium for verbal communication. When you’re not putting enough sound out there, your listeners have nothing to work with. Using more breath, feeling sound vibrations in your body and allowing your voice to fill the room will generate more power, without straining. Remember, your voice will seem louder to you than it sounds to your listeners. Get used to it.

Speaking with an accent can make it difficult for others to understand you. Most accents lend character and personality to communication, but sometimes they lead to confusion and even frustration. Learning to improve a few strategically selected language skills will often produce dramatic improvements in clarity. An experienced speech coach can help you identify those critical elements that will give you the most leverage for progress.

Failure to speak clearly is not a minor inconvenience; it has serious implications for your personal image and professional success. Addressing the underlying causes enables you to communicate fluently and distinctly. By effortlessly connecting with your listeners, you increase your confidence and make others more responsive to your message.

For further details, please contact Jay Miller, Toronto Voice and Speech Coach at:

Slow Down, Please

June 5th, 2010

Many business professionals speak too fast. Do you? It might be your natural energy, and it’s often intensified by nervousness. Regardless of the cause, it’s a serious impediment to effective communication. It makes you difficult to follow. Worse, you can be perceived as lacking steadiness, presence and credibility—not the impression you strive to create!

You already know telling yourself to slow down works for about 30 seconds—then it’s back to the usual “rapid fire.” There is a solution! Four characteristics common to fast talkers provide clues for genuine, lasting change.

If you speak too quickly, you’re not breathing well. Speaking fast makes it difficult to take a breath. Racing through your sentences forces you to grab very short, shallow breaths. Sound familiar? Remember, it takes time for a deep breath to sink into your body. Cultivating the ability to breathe while speaking will automatically slow your speech. You won’t have to think about it all time.

If you speak too quickly, it’s likely you have jaw tension. This prevents your mouth from opening very far and tends to distort your speech. Speaking fast and “mumbling” usually go hand in hand. The fact is, it takes time for your jaw to open. When you speak with a sense of relaxed openness around your jaw, you won’t need to worry about speaking too quickly.

If you speak too quickly, you’re not harnessing the power of your whole voice. Resonance is largely connected to vowel sounds, and it’s something you can feel. Speaking quickly shortens vowel sounds, so resonance suffers. Your voice becomes shallow and one-dimensional. Developing vocal resonance automatically slows you down. You actually begin to enjoy the feeling of sound vibrating throughout your body, like a massage!

If you speak too quickly, you may need to pay more attention to your listeners. As a quick-thinking individual, it might be difficult to articulate thoughts as quickly as they occur in your head. You become focused on the content of your speech, and less focused on your audience. Be attentive to your listeners, committed to delivering the message effectively, and you will instinctively find the right pace.

Mastering your speech rate takes time. Learning to breathe, relax your jaw, discover resonance and shift your focus won’t happen overnight. But if you practice these basics, you will enjoy the benefits of relaxed and confident speech patterns. You will transform your ability to communicate well.

For further details, please contact Jay Miller, Toronto Voice and Speech Coach at:

Managing Nervousness

June 4th, 2010

It would be difficult to find an activity more fraught with fear and anxiety than public speaking. Invent a pill for stage fright and you’ll be an instant billionaire. Until then, it may be reassuring to know you’re not stuck with an acute condition. There are natural remedies to keep the symptoms of nervousness under control.

One of the easiest ways to reduce nervousness is to rehearse. If the actual performance is your first experience of the speech, no wonder it’s nerve-wracking. When you’ve been through the presentation several times, you know how it sounds, how it feels, how it flows. You’re on familiar ground. In addition, every run-through will result in improvements. Why blow off the benefit of that process?

The ability to physically relax under pressure is the most overlooked skill of public speaking. The problems you face as a speaker are usually not head problems or content problems; they’re body problems. Your hands shake, your heart pounds, you can’t breathe, and so on. Cultivating the ability to be comfortable in your body puts you miles ahead of the competition. But this knowledge alone doesn’t make a difference. That state of being must be practiced, or it won’t be accessible onstage.

The most powerful thing you can do to manage nervousness is breathe well. Like most people, you already know that, but few people practice it. So, under stress, your body goes back to its familiar habits: small, shallow, tense breaths—or even holding your breath. All the main symptoms of stage fright have a direct physical connection to breathing. If you make deep, open, relaxed breathing a habit, you have a powerful tool for managing, if not eliminating, nervous energy.

Allowing your voice to resonate fully is a less obvious strategy for managing nervous energy. If your voice feels small and weak, that’s exactly how you’re going to feel at other levels. If you engage your whole voice, feeling it vibrate throughout your body, and sense it filling the room, you set up positive feedback that helps you feel strong, expansive and confident. The sense of “putting something out there” channels nervous energy in a constructive way. You become proactive.

There are no magic pills for curing stage fright. But, there are critical skills you can develop to prevent nervousness from hijacking your performance. Yes, skills require practice, but they are effective. Mastery takes time, but it beats being a victim. So, start now, and discover how it feels to have the quiet confidence of a pro.

For further details, please contact Jay Miller, Toronto Voice and Speech Coach at: