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.

Inaction Drains Energy. Action Empowers

September 10th, 2010

I recently completed a project that had been on my plate for a year or more. Only procrastination and minor details prevented me from getting started. When I finally rolled up my sleeves, enlisted some assistance and finished the job, I was amazed at how energized and alive I felt. Only then did I realize my inaction had been sapping my energy that whole time.

If you have an idea, either act on it or drop it. The action you take doesn’t have to be large, it may simply be doing some research or hiring help. Or maybe your action might be to postpone action for six months, but do it deliberately.

Small actions generate power way out of proportion to their size. And ideas neglected are like a slow leak.

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?