IMPACT: It’s a Product of Wind Power

January 18th, 2012

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.

REDUCTIONISM: Putting All the Pieces Together

January 4th, 2012

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.

VOCAL FRY: Get Out of the Gravel

December 7th, 2011

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.

FREEDOM VS FORMULISM: From Mechanical to Mastery

December 2nd, 2011

I’m starting to realize there’s a pattern to the majority of questions people ask about public speaking and presentation. We’re looking for simple solutions to complicated issues.

That’s a problem. Communication is complex. After all, it’s about human interaction. And we all have enough experience to know that anything related to humans takes complication to a whole new level!

But humans also prefer certainty and simplicity. We don’t like things to be complex and iffy. So we constantly come up with rules, manuals and prescriptions to guide us through the chaos. We look for for tips and tricks that are guaranteed to work in every situation.

But rules never cover every possibility. So we make more. Pretty soon, the rules just add to the confusion and complexity.

Formulism is defined as a strict adherence to prescribed forms. It shows up in art, religion, ethics—even in math. And maybe it’s okay, even necessary, for beginners. The trouble is, prescription creates rigidity. We get up tight trying to remember and obey all the rules. We become disconnected, focused on doing it right, rather than being present to what’s actually happening. In this respect, formulism stifles peak performance rather than promoting it.

Can you see how this relates to presentation and public speaking?

The antidote is Freedom. We must accept that communication is complex and the outcomes uncertain. It’s not for dabblers and slackers. We must work to develop concrete skills rather than manufacturing end results. Instead of making up rules for eye contact, we should be cultivating our ability to be engaged, open and connected to our listeners.

Bringing crucial skills to the interaction, trusting we have what it takes and allowing ourselves to be aware and present, we can apply our skills in unique ways that are highly relevant to the situation. That’s true expertise.

When we commit to the way of freedom, in communication, we discover a sense of confidence and serenity. We’re not trying to be perfect, but effective. We become present for our listeners, projecting a sense of, “I get you.” We bring enhanced creativity and spontaneity to the situation. And we communicate with greater relevance and ultimately more impact.

STAYING POWER: Cultivating Vocal Stamina

November 7th, 2011

I recently did a consultation with someone who worked as a corporate trainer, so she spoke frequently, for extended periods of time. She reported that her voice was usually gone by the end of the day, sore, raspy and almost inaudible.

What’s happening here? The most likely cause is that she’s overworking her voice, and that can happen in two ways. The most obvious possibility is that she’s consciously trying to “speak up” and “project” her voice, so she ends up pushing and straining. The muscles of the voice are not big, strong muscles, so they don’t perform well under a lot of pressure and fatigue quickly under those conditions.

Another culprit can be unconscious tension. Muscular tension creates resistance on your voice, much like friction creates resistance for moving parts in a machine. You have to exert more force to overcome that resistance and that wears on your voice.

One very common source of unconscious tension is the tongue. Many speakers unconsciously pull their tongue back and down every time they make a sound. The tongue is a fairly large muscle, especially in comparison to your vocal folds, which are about the size of your thumbnail. When your tongue pulls back and down, it’s like an elephant sitting on a mouse. It becomes a lot harder for your vocal folds to vibrate under those conditions, so you have to use more force to overcome that pressure. Once again, your vocal folds quickly fatigue and become irritated.

So what’s the right way to cultivate vocal stamina? To paraphrase Kristin Linklater, the strength of the voice does not lie in muscular effort, but in breath and resonance. You’re a wind instrument. Your voice is powered by breath. To find more voice, you must move more breath. (The tricky part is doing that without tension.) At some level, everyone knows this, but few people have actually experienced real breath support, as it relates to speaking.

While breath is the power of your voice, resonance is the amplification. Resonance takes the small buzz produced by your vocal folds and expands it into the unique sound that is your voice. In a perfect world, you want every open space and every square inch of your body vibrating with the sound of your voice. That way, you spread the effort around, rather than making your vocal folds do all the work. Not only do you strengthen your voice, you also make it deeper, richer and more expressive.

There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to speak all day, in a fairly large room, without frying your voice. You accomplish that by making sure your breath is doing all the work and your whole body is acting as a giant sounding board. In this way, you produce the maximum amount of sound with a minimum of effort. Your voice easily fills the space without you feeling as though you’re yelling. Your listeners are drawn into the experience because you are fully engaged, fully available and powerfully present.

SAY AH! Finding More Space

September 23rd, 2011

You wouldn’t believe how often I see people who don’t open their mouths enough, when they speak. Yeah, I can hear you saying, “Gimme a break! My grandmother could have come up with that.” But the consequences of this pervasive little habit are quite profound, including

  • Weak voice- because less breath flows out when your mouth isn’t open far enough
  • Mumbling- because speech sounds get distorted being squeezed through your teeth
  • Speaking too fast- because your tongue can move really fast when your jaw isn’t moving
  • Lacking credibility- Have you ever heard someone say, “He’s lying through his teeth!”

What can you do about it? The best approach would involve jaw relaxation exercises, and that’s what I recommend. But since most people just want to jump to the result, here’s what I suggest. Look in a mirror. Normally, you want to have at least one finger-width of space between your upper and lower teeth, on average. Some sounds will be even more open, some less. But on average, a finger-width.

For practice, you should go for two finger-widths. Very open. Use a mirror. The visual confirmation of openness is very important. You’ll be surprised at how easily your mouth starts to close up. If you’re not watching, you don’t even know it.

Start with single words, such as “spa,” “fad” and “high.” When that isn’t so hard, move to phrases, such as “father’s spa,” or “jazz lab,” or “fly high.” When you have the feel of that, try sentences, such as, “My father travels in style,” making sure you’ve got a least a thumb-width of space between your teeth, on the stressed vowel sounds. When sentences are easy, try reading paragraphs in front of a mirror. Remember, you’re looking for an average of one finger-width of space between your teeth. When that doesn’t feel so strange, try speaking with more openness in everyday conversations.

If you haven’t been speaking with a relaxed sense of openness, this might feel very strange and unnatural. You’re not used to allowing sounds to emerge from your body with so much space. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong; it’s just different. So play with it until the feeling is familiar, until it feels like you.

When you are able to speak in public with a relaxed sense of openness around your mouth and jaw, you will reap some significant benefits.

  • Your voice will be stronger- more openness leads to more breath support
  • Your articulation will be clearer- more openness encourages more precision
  • You will speak at a relaxed pace- more openness means your jaw has to move a bit further, slowing you down
  • You will appear strong, confident and credible- take my word for it

Those are all major elements of successful communication—and all have a connection to opening your mouth. You know I hate gimmicks, shortcuts and superficial techniques, but this is something that anyone can understand. And it’s not hard to practice. So open up!

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.

STAGE FRIGHT: A Colleague Weighs In

August 3rd, 2011

I met Lizabeth Phelps at a seminar, recently, and immediately sensed a congruence in perspective. Here are some of her thoughts regarding stage fright. Points 3 and 4 would appear on any list I might have written. Have a look, and then read the follow-up post that expands on her main points.

BEING PRESENT: Noticing the Details

July 27th, 2011

I was in the middle of a training session the other day, introducing an exercise I’ve been through hundreds—maybe thousands of times. Sometimes in those moments, I must confess, there’s a part of me that whispers, “Oh my God, gimme a frying pan. I wanna smack myself on the head, right now.” It’s so tempting to shift into AutoPilot and go through the motions.

Of course, the professional side of me whispers back, “Get a grip! This isn’t about you. This is about your client. It’s completely new for them. And besides, they’re paying for your undivided attention.” Oh, right…

You know what I do in those moments? I focus on the details. I raise the bar on my own performance. As I’m speaking, I ask myself, “Is every vowel sound vibrating fully? Is every consonant sound articulated cleanly? Is every word spoken with openness and connection? Am I practicing whatever technique I’m preaching at this very moment?”

Then something interesting happens. I get present. I get out of my head and into the room. I’m truly with my client again, fully available. Not because of the self-talk. Certainly not because of my discipline. Just because I focused on the details. Paying attention to details heightens my awareness, sharpens my focus and restores my capacity to be attentive to the person in front of me.

I realize I’m essentially talking about my own experience of mindfulness in the context of my work. Mark Williams (The Mindful Way Through Depression) writes that “slowing things down and deliberately paying attention to each aspect of our sensory experience can reveal things that we may have never noticed before.” That’s important for anyone who wants to experience life more fully. It’s even more important for those of us who aspire to any level of excellence and expertise in our work.