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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.
During the last 30-45 minutes of Vocal Gym, our weekly group voice class, students take turns reading in front of the group, attempting to apply some skill that’s important to their personal development. I coach them for 3-5 minutes, then someone else takes a turn.
Last night, one of the students read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and his goal was to cultivate a sense of relaxation and ease in his delivery. That was a useful step, but the overall result seemed quiet and somewhat disengaged. In my follow-up, I suggested he breathe into his lower back and imagine his entire back vibrating with sound as he spoke.
The effect was immediate. As he read the text a second time, he sounded stronger and more expressive. But more importantly, there was a palpable sense of presence and connection in his delivery. There was something powerful and electric in the room. Several listeners actually exclaimed aloud at the difference. They didn’t just hear it; they could feel it.
Once again, this experience demonstrated what profound changes can take place just by cultivating an open state of being at a physical level. No one said, “Be more engaging,” or “Speak with more impact.” —And how would one set about doing that? All we did was establish the right physical conditions, and those qualities emerged, naturally and authentically.
I get excited about this because it’s so simple and straightforward, but ultimately so powerful. We could talk for days about what it means to be an engaging speaker—and people do, but the results are just concepts and ideas. Your body, on the other hand, is so accessible and your physical sensations very tangible. Anyone can learn to relax, breathe and cultivate resonance. That those skills so readily unlock your potential for powerful interpersonal connection seems almost miraculous, but it’s very real.
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.
“Breathe in the right place.”
“Breathe where it makes sense.”
“Breathe only at the punctuation.”
These precious gems of grade school wisdom are huge hidden traps for anyone learning to breathe well, as a speaker.
Your voice is a wind instrument. It requires generous amounts of breath to work optimally. If there’s inadequate breath in the system, everything suffers, and I mean everything. If there’s no breath to flow the sound out of your body, your only choice is to start squeezing sound from your body. You don’t feel good, you don’t sound good and you have no impact on your listeners.
The only “right” time to breathe is when you need to breathe. I don’t care whether you’re at the end of a sentence, the end of a phrase, or even in the middle of a phrase. The instant you feel that “I need a breath” feeling, you pause, allow a new breath into your body, and then resume speaking. Your need to breathe always takes precedence over the demands of the text.
That’s the difficult part for a beginner: letting go of those ingrained rules long enough to explore and master the universal principles governing voice and speech. When you’re too busy obeying the rules and “doing it right,” you can’t give yourself room to experiment and learn something truly new.
If you give yourself time and space to master the technique (connecting deep breath to sound), the application (speaking and phrasing) will emerge naturally, effortlessly and authentically.
So, long before you worry about whether you’re breathing in the right place, you should learn to
- breathe deeply
- release breath easily
- experience sound as vibrating breath
- release sound easily and generously
- feel words and phrases as sound vibration
- honor the rhythm of breathing and speaking
When those skills feel natural, you can begin to explore the connection between breathing, speaking and the demands of the text. But you’ll come at it with radically different priorities, and you’ll find there’s a lot more flexibility in that relationship than most people realize.
A rule says, “You must do it this way.” A principle says, “This works… and has through all remembered time.” The difference is crucial… Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form. —Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting
That’s not just true for writing, it’s true for breathing and speaking, too.
Back away from the need to produce the “right” result. Practice is not performing. Learning is not about getting it right. Spend time experimenting and cultivating crucial skills. When you command your own breath, you control your own process. You perform the task of speaking and presenting with a sense of confidence and ease. You’re in charge.
I’ve often thought about writing a post on common issues with women’s voices, but hesitated, fearing I might bring the wrath of the gender police crashing down on my head. But then I thought, “Hey, as long as I write a companion post on men’s voices—which might actually be longer, why would anyone accuse me of being unfair?”
Then an article by Katrina Onstad appeared in the Toronto Globe & Mail, “Up High or Down Low: What a woman’s voice says about her,” and I thought, “Okay, it’s out in the open. People are obviously interested. Maybe it’s not the minefield I imagine it to be.” Ms. Onstad didn’t quote any experts, but she obviously did her research. The first problem she identified, having a high-pitched voice, would certainly make my Top-Three list of speech problems for women, so let’s start there.
Having a voice that sounds high is a common problem facing my female clients. Consequently, they fail to project an image of authority and credibility. Listeners tend to associate high voices with youth, inexperience and even weakness. Opinions are dismissed and accomplishments are overlooked. Unfair? Absolutely. But remember, listeners aren’t acting rationally. They respond based on how that voice makes them feel. For strategies to enhance the perception of vocal depth, see the article, “Discovering a Deeper Voice.”
Having a voice that lacks strength or volume would be second issue confronting my female clients. It’s a serious handicap if your listeners routinely struggle to hear what you’re saying. The consequences are very similar to the one’s we’ve just discussed. Yes, there are many situations where a soft, quiet voice might be an advantage, but when the environment becomes more competitive and interactions become more assertive, a small voice is a big problem. For strategies to strengthen your voice, see the article, “Your Strong Voice.”
A third problem facing many female speakers is up-speak, a tendency to pitch the ends of sentences up instead of down. Since it’s a common characteristic of teenagers’ speech, it diminishes the perception of strength, confidence and authority in the communication of adults. In English, up-speak is appropriate for questions (e.g. “Did you like that?”), and for lists (e.g “I went to the store, the bank, the gym, and then home.”). But statements are generally inflected downward (e.g. “This is the way it’s done.”). When you catch yourself using up-speak, say the phrase or sentence again, deliberately inflecting the tone downward at the end. Notice how this makes your delivery feel stronger and more definite.
We could also talk about vocal fry, the tendency to speak with a slightly raspy or scratchy tone, especially at the ends of sentences. Men tend to do this just as often as women—maybe more often, but that doesn’t make it okay. Vocal fry is also very common among adolescents, so it can convey a sense of reserve and uncertainty for business professionals. Listeners might not be conscious of what they’re hearing, but they’re still left with the feeling that the speaker is holding back and not willing to engage fully in the interaction. See the article, “Vocal Fry,” for a more detailed explanation and recommendations for eliminating this trait.
Of course the four issues I’ve mentioned are not unique to women’s voices; they show up with my male clients as well, in varying degrees of frequency. But when I consider the vocal challenges confronting my female clients, over all the years I’ve been in practice, these few show up most often. The good news is, none of them are mysterious or difficult to fix. With a bit of technique and ongoing practice and awareness, every woman can cultivate a voice that’s strong, clear, resonant and effective.
When someone asks what I do for my clients, I rely on this mnemonic: CCRRS. It stands for clarity, confidence, rate, resonance and strength. Those are the top five elements most clients want to improve. Number six would be impact. Every once in a while, someone says to me, “I just want to have more impact as a speaker.”
To make an impact as a speaker, you’ve got to put something out there, right? And obviously your voice is the major vehicle for that process. Since the voice is a wind instrument, that means spending breath as you speak. So, at a concrete physical level, making an impact involves putting your breath into the room. Generously.
You’d be surprised how often you hold back your breath when you speak. Need proof? Take a deep breath, say a phrase or sentence out loud, and notice how much breath you have left at the end. Why don’t you use all your breath? Isn’t it odd that, in the very act of reaching out to make a connection, you unconsciously hold back? You probably aren’t aware of it. You certainly don’t mean to do it. But those old habits are always there, working in opposition to your intention, undermining your impact.
One of the best ways to learn the feeling of generously giving away your breath is to play with lip flutters. It’s difficult to describe what I mean, so I’ll just show you. video 1 It’s almost impossible to flutter your lips and hold back at the same time. You’ve got to go for it. You’ve got to put your breath out there, generously, and allow it to happen. It’s a very concrete, physical way to discover the feeling of being fully engaged and available whenever you speak.
When that’s easy and comfortable, with no sense of pushing or forcing, add voice to the lip flutter. video 2 (Some find this easier than lip flutters with just breath. If that’s true for you, you might skip the first step—but you can’t skip this step.) Are you giving away your breath as generously on the voiced flutter as you were on the flutter with just breath? When that’s going well, seamlessly transition from a lip flutter to a vowel sound. video 3 Make sure there’s no break between the flutter and the vowel. Does the vowel sound feel just as free and engaged as the flutter? Then try fluttering your lips and merging into a simple word, with the same easy, generous feeling throughout. video 4 It’s probably best to use words that begin with vowel sounds, such as “away” or “own,” or perhaps /h/ sounds such as “hello” or “highway.”
This is how you should feel when you speak, this sense of no hiding, “You can have it all.” You can’t control how your listeners respond; you only control what you put out there in the room. So don’t fail make an impact because you didn’t give them anything to respond to. When you use only part of your voice, then they get only part of you.
By using your breath generously, allowing it to pour out of you as you speak, you engage your whole voice, and that tends to engage your whole being. Being fully in the game, you’re much more likely to make an impact.
I have an ambivalent relationship with WIRED magazine. The topics featured in each issue are always so fascinating. When I look at the cover, I get very curious. But I resist the temptation to pick it up and start reading. Because it’s all a tease.
In my experience, a WIRED article rarely delivers what the title promises. I’m always disappointed when I give in, decipher those weird unreadable page numbers, and take the time to read the content. It’s like watching a TV program where people search for ghosts in a haunted house; never half as gripping as the trailer promises.
Well, last week I picked up the January issue of WIRED and read an article called “Trials and Errors,” by Jonah Lehrer. It turned out to be a happy exception to the rule. Three paragraphs were particularly thought provoking, and hopefully the copyright gods won’t strike me dead for reprinting them here.
“This assumption—that understanding a system’s constituent parts means we also understand the causes within the system… defines modern science. In general, we believe that the so-called problem of causation can be cured by more information, by our ceaseless accumulation of facts. Scientists refer to this process as reductionism. By breaking down a process, we can see how everything fits together; the complex mystery is distilled into a list of ingredients.
“The problem with this assumption, however, is that causes are a strange kind of knowledge… although people talk about causes as if they are real facts—tangible things that can be discovered—they’re actually not at all factual… We look at X and then at Y, and invent a story about what happened in between. We can measure facts, but a cause is not a fact—it’s a fiction that helps us make sense of facts.
“The truth is, our stories about causation are shadowed by all sorts of mental shortcuts. Most of the time, these shortcuts work well enough… However, when it comes to reasoning about complex systems—say, the human body—these shortcuts go from being slickly efficient to outright misleading.
Trials and Errors, Jonah Lehrer, WIRED, January 2012, pp. 105-106.
I see this all the time in the field of presentation skills training. People assume that by observing successful presentations and breaking them down into the smallest components they can come up with a list of ingredients, the recipe for a great speech. The result is something lifeless and mechanical or so bloody complicated it has no hope of practical application.
Communication is complex. No matter how much skill and experience we bring to the process, there will always be an element of mystery involved. We can only keep reinforcing the fundamentals and exploring what it means to be fully engaged and fully available, connected to our self, our message and our audience.