THAT BODY-VOICE CONNECTION: Finding the Magic

September 19th, 2011

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.

BE THE CHANGE: Embodying Skills

September 6th, 2011

During my holiday, I tried to finish a book that’s been on my shelf for some time, The Anatomy of Change, by Richard Strozzi Heckler. This is one of those books that contains really great insights and resonates so well with the concepts I teach, but sadly I can’t recommend it because it’s so difficult to read. (Kristen Linklater‘s Freeing the Natural Voice is another one in that category.) Now, I’m no book critic, but when a smart guy who likes to read, and loves to learn, struggles to get to the next page, something tells me it’s the writing.

Now that I got that off my chest, I’ll share one quote from the book that keeps resurfacing for me in the middle of lessons.

“At the time of the race, the runner must let go of the [training] and concentrate fully on the race. He must be in union with the things he has practiced, because he is no longer practicing. He now needs to be those things.”

I love this concept, and of course it’s true for any kind of performance, including public speaking and presentation. It’s not enough to know what you’re supposed to do. It has to be in you at that point, part of your being. Yes, “conscious competence” is one stage of learning, and there’s nothing wrong with being at that stage. But it’s not the end of the road. You aspire to “unconscious competence”. When you’re at the front of the room, and all eyes are on you, it’s too late to be thinking about grounding, breathing and resonance. You have to be grounded, breathing and resonant.

How do you embody skills?

  • Practice. Time and repetition help to change muscle memories.
  • Feel what you’re doing. Don’t just think about it.
  • Go slowly. Give your body a chance to absorb what’s happening.
  • Focus. Pay attention to one thing at a time.
  • Enjoy it. If it feels good, you’re more likely to retain it and return to it.
When I’m in the middle of a breathing lesson, and my client asks, “Do you breathe like this all the time,” I can only smile and say, “When I’m thinking about it, yes. When I’m not thinking about it, I hope so.” Embodying skills is the journey of a lifetime.

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…

Getting Your Feet on the Ground

October 28th, 2010

Gerda Alexander, a 20th century bodywork practitioner, said security is greatly connected to feeling your bone structure. What did she mean? By noticing your capacity to support yourself at a physical level, you feel your potential to support yourself at other levels: mentally, emotionally, socially, professionally. Confidence is not an abstract “something” we have no way of grasping. Confidence, as a feeling, already exists in your body.

This would explain why people feel stronger and, yes, more confident, just by feeling their feet on the ground. It’s a simple approach yielding disproportionate benefits. One client recounted, “I had a difficult conversation with my boss last week, so I made sure I was feeling both feet on the ground, and I was surprised how strong I felt in that interaction.” Being grounded connects you to your surroundings, keeps you present, and that increases confidence.

How can you develop this skill so it works for you, even under pressure? Take your shoes off. Close your eyes and notice the sensations you feel in your feet, sensations of temperature, texture, weight and so forth. Notice if you are standing on your whole foot, or focusing your weight into just part of your foot. What would it feel like to allow your whole foot to support your body, not just part of your foot? The overused part might feel grateful.

Next, ask yourself if you are standing on your bones. If your bones are acting like pillars to support your body, then the large external muscles might be able to relax over that framework, like clothes draped over a hanger. Scan through your body. If your bones are supporting you, you might be able to relax your legs, unclench your bottom, let go of your belly, soften your lower back, drop your shoulders or lengthen the back of your neck. What muscles are working too hard, just to keep you upright? When you perform simple tasks, like standing, with economy of effort, you free yourself to focus on other things. You feel more “able.”

If you’re standing on your bones and your feet are fully in contact with the ground, your whole body is able to relax downward onto the ground. This enables you to breathe deeply. Your voice is more likely to engage with your whole body. You begin to feel you are speaking with your whole being. The effect is often immediate and noticeable. Of course, making that an everyday experience, something that helps you, even under pressure, takes some practice.

You can practice grounding whenever it crosses your mind: brushing your teeth, waiting in line, standing in the office talking to colleagues. At any moment, you can ask yourself, “What is my connection to the ground, right now? Am I aware of the ground supporting me at this moment?” Then continue doing whatever you were doing, noticing what difference it makes. It quickly becomes a feeling you wouldn’t want to live without.

You may not control what life or work throws at you, but you can access your unique strengths, be fully available and connect with maximum impact, by developing a secure foundation for strong presence and peak performance.

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.)

Generosity
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.

Good Vibrations: Putting Your Best Voice Forward

August 9th, 2010

Is your voice attracting others or pushing them away?

Several months ago, I received a call from a prospective client. The voice that greeted me was strong, friendly and confident. Instantly, everything inside me wanted to say, “Wow! You seem like a great person. I want to work with you!” We had a pleasant conversation, and after hanging up the phone, I marveled that my response had been so immediate and powerful. After all, I’m a voice coach. I’m supposed to be listening objectively.

More recently, I received a voicemail that, within seconds, created the very opposite reaction. It had nothing to do with what was said (just a simple request for information). But the sound of this voice instantly raised red flags at a gut level. The voice seemed immature, suspicious and defensive. I actually shivered and said aloud to myself, “Ugh. Stay away from me!”

If a voice and speech coach, someone who listens very carefully, even analytically, can be affected so immediately and deeply by the sound of another’s voice, how much more must the average person be affected at unconscious levels by the voices they encounter?

Since you’ve been speaking since infancy, and giving very little thought to the process, you are probably using only a fraction of your potential voice. Furthermore, it’s likely your voice is distorted by tension, bad habits and lack of technique. To make matters worse, you assume this voice is natural, that it can’t be changed, like your height or the color of your eyes.

I’m happy to say that everyone has the potential for a good voice. A good voice isn’t necessarily a big voice or a deep voice, but it’s clear, resonant, expressive and effective. It doesn’t just sound good, it feels good and communicates well. Your best voice makes others want to be with to you.

Finding a voice that is powerfully attractive to others is a very straightforward process. First, you must get comfortable in our body. Tension is the enemy of your voice. Then you must learn to breathe and speak with your whole body, not just with your mouth. You have to engage the entire instrument. And finally, you must learn to be generous with your whole being. You must give yourself permission to come out and play, to really put something out there for others.

When you master these three principles, your body becomes relaxed and energized. Your voice becomes strong and powerful. Even your thinking becomes positive and creative. You begin to express who you really are, have a significant impact on others and start living the life you are destined to live.

You find so much more than just your voice.

The Power of Breathing

July 20th, 2010

What is required to communicate with impact? If you want to affect your listeners, you must give your self. Giving your self involves giving your voice. And, at a most basic physical level, giving your voice requires giving away your breath.

Speaking with only a trickle of breath yields only part of your voice, so your listeners get the feeling you’re pulling back and not really committing to your message. Speaking with a generous outflow of breath tends to engage your whole voice. Your listeners feel they’re getting more of you—that you’re confidently standing behind your message.

How can you make sure you’re engaging your breath most effectively?

Optimize your in-breath. The quality of your voice will never exceed the quality of your breath. If your in-breath is small, tense and shallow, your voice will be small, tense and shallow. If your in-breath is deep, full and relaxed, your voice will be deep, full and relaxed. Inhale slowly, through your mouth, and invite the breath to sink as far down into your body as possible. Don’t worry about the pause; it’s never as noticeable as you think. Imagine your breath channel being so large you could drive a truck through it, and the walls of the tunnel being smooth as glass. Allow nothing in the channel to obstruct the flow of breath in any way.

Spend breath generously. Speaking is just another way of exhaling. You’re a wind instrument. Using more breath will make you feel better and sound better. Making one breath last a long time is stupid and counterproductive. Use it up! The next one is free! Practice “wasting” all your breath on just three or four words. Picture breath pouring out of you as you speak. When you use your breath generously, you will automatically sound stronger, more resonant and expressive. You will be engaging.

So making an impact means putting some breath behind what you say. Maybe that’s what Ilse Middendorf meant when she said, “If a person finds his way based on the experience of his breathing, he finds his own power and creativity.” Breath is the power of your voice. When you speak with lots of breath, you actually feel your own strength, and that makes you feel—and sound—strong, at other levels as well. Your listeners will sit up and listen.

For further details, please contact Jay Miller, Toronto Voice and Speech Coach at:
http://voiceandspeech.com/contact.html

Discovering a Deeper Voice

June 6th, 2010

When asked to describe a good voice, one of the qualities mentioned most frequently is “deep.” Everyone wants a deeper voice, believing it will project authority, strength, sexiness or whatever. Assuming it’s all about pitch, they press their voice down into the lower end of their range. Then they wonder why their voice tires easily and feels uncomfortable after any length of time. Their voice always seems “stuck” in their throat, and it actually sounds higher to other people.

I agree a good voice has a certain quality of depth, but it’s not necessarily related to low pitch. It’s more about having low resonance in your voice. Think of pitch as the actual “note” you are speaking. Think of resonance as the “space” you are using to produce the sound. Finding deep resonance in your voice requires attentiveness to three essential components:

  • The first is relaxation. Muscle tension stops sound vibrations. Tension anywhere in your body prevents the spread of sound vibrations. This restricts your voice to your throat and mouth and makes the sound seem higher. Feel the ground under you, allow your whole body to relax down onto the ground, and your voice will tend to drop into your body and sound deeper.
  • The second is breath. Breathing well relaxes the body at very deep levels, creates more space on the inside and keeps the channels very open. The quality of your in-breath will always set up the quality of your voice. If your in-breath is small and shallow, your voice will tend to be small and shallow. If your in-breath is full and deep, your voice will tend to be full and deep.
  • The third is space. Think of a bass drum. Its size and its large interior space tend to emphasize the lower frequencies of its sound. The same thing will happen with your voice if you enhance the feeling of open space inside your body.

Some people get lucky and seem to be born with voices that sound confident and authoritative. The rest of us have to develop it. You might not sound like Lauren Bacall or James Earl Jones, but the good news is that everyone, including you, has the potential for a voice that is warm, resonant and strong. With some training and practice, you can learn to relax, breathe, and be expansive, cultivating a genuine sense of depth in your voice that others will find appealing and attractive.

For further details, please contact Jay Miller, Toronto Voice and Speech Coach at:
http://voiceandspeech.com/contact.html