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Outside the Speaker's Bubble

a newsletter about speakers and speaking

The Speaker's Bubble is that wrinkle in the time/space continuum you experience whenever you speak, and experience even the slightest bit of pressure to perform. It's that place where your heart rate speeds up, just a little. Where you hear your blood pounding ever-so-slightly in your ears. Where you turn various shades of crimson, or feel short of breath. All these are purely normal physiological responses to the stress of "the-one-versus-the-many." There are ways to control this stress; excellent speakers know this. So do experienced leaders. My Communications Conditioning practice teaches speakers of all skill levels how to deal with stress and present like pros! I can give a practical road map of strategies to make anyone a better communicator for life.

Click here for a schedule of my upcoming workshops.

Tuesday
Apr102012

April 2012

Friends when we need them

I was astonished the other day when the Washington Post ran an article decrying Bruce Springsteen's use of a teleprompter onstage during his current tour. Apparently this isn't exactly news, as The Boss has been using said device for the past couple of tours, at least. Thankfully, Nils Lofgren came to Springsteen's defense on the WaPo blog on April 3rd. As Lofgren says, the prompter enables his bandmate Springsteen to be more spontaneous, to give a better show because he is not rummaging around in his brain for half-forgotten lyrics. He can read from the prompter and thus direct his energy to creating his music and connecting with the audience.

There seems to be a huge misconception that if you need help remembering your words while speaking or performing, you're just not doing your job. See Rick Santorum's thoughts on this from the campaign trail. Whether they call it "speaking from the heart" or "off the cuff," impromptu speaking is highly prized by people who seem to think preparation is for sissies!

Really?

Think about it. Do you really want to sit through speeches that are just "popping into" the heads of speakers as they are looking at you? Waiting for something to "come to them" that seems coherent and relevant? Have you ever been that unprepared speaker, hoping that inspiration will strike when you need it most? What were you thinking then? Probably something along the lines of, "darn it, I really should have prepared!"

I counsel my clients not to fall into this trap. Because it is a trap. It is simply not true that preparation equals lack of authenticity. On the contrary, preparation shows you care about your audience. You respect it enough to take time to organize your thoughts, then to make sure they are put together in a way that makes these thoughts comprehensible to listeners. Short sentences. Active verbs.

The fact of the matter is that many folks who claim to be speaking extempore are really super-prepared. They just like to create an aura of mystery and make you think they can be brilliant at the drop of a hat! Of course they will never tell you their secret.

An aide, not a crutch

But you already know this. When you think about it, you know that to effectively deliver your message you need to prepare. You need to make sure you are saying what you want to say how you want to say it, in a way you can repeat if necessary. Memorizing such a speech might be desirable, but that takes time. Lots of time. And no one has enough of that, certainly not people in leadership positions.

Good--even great--speakers use notes. It's a fact. You don't notice because their delivery is so confident. Often they have planted their notes on the podium so you don't see them. But they are there. I know. So be like the pros. Prepare and practice. Memorize your opening two lines and your final line. And take your notes. Only professional actors are expected to perform without them. After they have rehearsed.

Tips you can use!

Don't lock your knees
If you stand with locked knees, you throw off your natural alignment, making breathing less efficient. Every member of a chorus knows standing with locked knees can lead to fainting!

Say "thee" before a vowel
When you have "the" before a word beginning in a vowel or a silent consonant ("h" as in "honor"), pronounce it with a long "e" sound. It flows better and eliminates an unattractive glottal stop.

Avoid vocal fry
Some may find it sexy but when you use this "creaky voice" it's hard to understand. If you growl your words you might be doing lasting harm to your voice, too.

Wednesday
Mar072012

March 2012

Happy Women's History Month!

In 1987, Congress declared March Women's History Month. This expanded Women's History Week, which had been celebrated since the '70's. Women's History Week originally included International Women's Day, which itself has been celebrated -- internationally -- since 1909. My history with WHM does not go back that far: it dates to 1993 when I started criss-crossing the country, performing my solo historical drama, Off the Wall: The Life and Works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I had a great time over the years traveling to 180 campuses, museums, libraries, and federal offices, meeting feminists, historians, students and theatre-goers in 26 states - and the District of Columbia!

Lessons from "the road"

It was during this time of wheels-down, mad-dash-to-venue, set-up-show, scramble-into-costume & hit-the-stage that I developed much of the technique I share with my clients today. I had been studying the art and craft of acting for years, but the nuts and bolts of being my own stage manager AND "star of the show" compelled me find a warm-up that worked. Every time. So I devised a quick vocal/physical warm-up that I could do in my private dressing room (rarely) or the closest women's restroom (more often than not). As Desirée Armfeldt sings in Stephen Sondheim's brilliant musical, A Little Night Music: "Hi ho the glamorous life. . . !"

Nothing makes you invent your own best 15-minute pre-performance routine like the prospect of carrying an hour-long solo show. . . and keeping enough vocal and physical energy (not to mention presence of mind) to do a 15 to 20 minute Q & A after!

Warm-ups pay off!

I understand that my clients might worry about losing focus during their presentations, "hitting the wall" before the speech is over, or feeling too tired and a little bit cranky right before they have to do their thing. But IF they perform a physical and vocal warm-up, they can get themselves to the right mental place. And these concerns vanish. It is as simple, and as complex as that.

Like any good performance, a good speech -- whether onstage, at a podium, or around a conference table -- depends on you being fully there. And the best way to get there and stay there is to make sure you are relaxed, grounded and ready to go. Warm-ups are key. If you don't have one, try combination of yoga or dance stretches, singing exercises, and tongue twisters, and see what works. Or call me.

Tips you can use!

Banish the fidgets!
Nervous behaviors such as random hand gestures, rocking, and vocal tics can be controlled if you employ a deep breathing method that allows you to focus and stay in the moment. Fidgeting comes from nerves; if you can quell the nerves you can get rid of the fidgets.

Change up your tempo
If you are speaking for more than two minutes, make sure you build some variable pacing into your presentation. Even if your content is fascinating, a steady rhythmic pacing can put people to sleep. Especially important for lunchtime speakers to know!

Keep your knees "soft"
Locked knees can lead to fainting. Make sure you always keep your knees unlocked when standing.

Tuesday
Feb072012

February 2012

The transformative power of voice

Meryl Streep has done it again! She has given us a compellingly human portrayal of a larger-than-life character. As Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, Streep works her magic the same way she did as Julia Child in Julie and Julia: she offers the audience a glimpse of the life hidden inside a very public persona. Such a task might daunt lesser talents, but Streep has the discipline, talent, and courage to dive headlong into her character.
   
What always interests me about Streep's work is her willingness to embody her character to the point of transformation. And a very large reason we so readily see her as Sophie Zawistowski or Julia Child or Margaret Thatcher is that we so strongly hear her as these women.

Getting rid of "shrill"

Streep places great emphasis on voice as an integral part of any role she plays. So I found it very "meta-theatrical" that The Iron Lady includes a scene where Mrs. Thatcher learns to pitch her voice to sound less "shrill." Her male colleagues in Parliament accused her of being "screechy" and said they couldn't listen to her. In an interview on NPR in December, Streep explained this necessary step on Thatcher's road to leadership: "first Thatcher worked on losing her Lincolnshire accent; then she had to lose the light, airy voice she had acquired at Oxford - a voice that tended to screech when raised. To accomplish all that, Thatcher started seeing a vocal coach."


Apparently the great Laurence Olivier suggested to Thatcher's advisor Gordon Reece that she work with a theatrical vocal coach. Olivier, as a classically-trained actor, understood the importance of using voice to convey authority and power. This week it was revealed that Kate Fleming, a Hollywood vocal coach (who worked with Olivier and other stars, and was the voice coach at the National Theatre of Britain in the 1970s) worked with Thatcher over a four-year period.

It's you, but better

In her February 6th interview with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air Streep said "I think that voice lessons bring out a voice you already possess...." and that in Thatcher's case, "...what the voice coach did was enable her to deepen her voice, bring it to a place where men could listen to it."

To be a leader you need to make sure potential followers will actually listen. You have to convince them that you know what you're talking about. They need to be able to trust you to do your job, a job, perhaps, far bigger than theirs. So you need to convey authority and clarity. Therefore, you must never neglect your delivery. Don't give them any excuse to tune you out!

If you do not have a naturally deep, resonant voice, don't worry. A good voice coach can help. I have worked with many clients to develop their authentic leadership sounds. The strategies and exercises I share with my clients may be the same ones that vocally transformed Mrs. Thatcher (after all, I learned many of them at London's Central School of Speech and Drama, Olivier's alma mater). Such coaching helped Margaret Thatcher (MP, Finchley) become The Iron Lady. Powerful stuff!

Tips you can use!

Preview your space
Get into your space before you speak. Stand where you will stand. Do a sound check if you can, and make sure the podium is not too tall for you, and that the light is strong enough for you to read, but not so bright it blinds you!

Stand firmly on both feet
You need a strong base to stay centered and energized. And a balanced stance will cut down on that annoying and distracting swaying.

Read your speeches out loud
A speech is meant to connect with an audience that is listening to it, not reading it. Simplify sentence structure. Use active verbs, metaphor that is evocative (yet not too convoluted), and striking imagery.

Monday
Jan092012

January 2012

A New Initiative

Last month I was honored to be part of the Women in Public Service Colloquium sponsored by the Department of State and Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and Wellesley College.
 
The first day began with a wonderful kick-off: presentations and conversations with global leaders Hillary Clinton; Christine Lagarde; Atifete Jahjaga, the President of Kosovo (at 37, the world's youngest elected head of state); and Gloria Steinem, among others. And lunch in the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room is always a treat!

The Power of Voice

The next day I worked with 40 global leaders who had been selected to participate in the Emerging Women Leaders in Public Service Forum. The theme was "The Power of Voice." Dr. Rangita de Silva de Alwis, the director of the forum, had asked me to serve as a resource, giving participants guidelines for effective public speaking and critiquing their speeches. I am glad she had the vision to include presentation technique on the agenda. All too often high-level trainings focus almost exclusively on the importance of content. Delivery, which is just as important (if not more so), is generally discussed very briefly, if at all.

This request posed a creative challenge: to offer constructive criticism to speakers using their second (or third) languages, who had just put content together in committee without much chance to practice. But the presenters knew their talking points inside out, so I was able to give them specific pointers on shared vocal production and presentation issues. Despite limited preparation, each speaker communicated the essence of her message with crystal clarity. They were all deeply committed to their cause (achieving UN Millennium Development Goals) and spoke with passion borne of battles against the status quo in their home countries. As Arig Bakhiet from Sudan said: "Even when these women are speaking in a language they are not fluent in, the feeling, the commitment they have for the subject comes through." She was right.

The Need to Commit

Of course, preparation is key. But knowing what you are saying is never enough. You need to be clear on your underlying intentionality: why are you saying what you are saying?

Nothing gets your message across more clearly than your commitment to it. If you are fully invested in your need to communicate, you will find it easier to connect with your audience. Whether you are speaking out of a desire to add to the conversation, jump-start the dialogue, or share best practices, you are turning passive listeners into active (if momentarily silent) conversation partners. You have a much greater chance of being heard when you cast them in that role. If you are trumpeting a triumph, announcing an achievement, or otherwise monologuing, your audience is aware that you don't think you need to fully connect with them. Protocol may dictate that they stay seated and appear to be listening. Mentally, though, they have left the building.

Tips you can use!

Make eye contact
Pick at least three different areas of the audience to focus on, for example: up front on the right, in back at the center, mid-way up on the left. And make sure you give each side equal time!

But don't hide
If you're one of those who is afraid of actually locking eyes with a listener, audiences can tell! Look with intention at the space between the ears of two people seated beside each other. Each one will think you are looking at the other.

Avoid dangly or shiny objects
Leave the chandelier earrings at home. Ditto your polished metallic disk pendant or extra-large diamonds. Things that dangle can mesmerize your audience, and shiny, sparkly things that catch the light can blind them. Either way, they are distracted and your message gets lost

 

Tuesday
Dec062011

Holiday 2011

Happy Holidays

Ho! Ho! Ho! In the midst of the December rush we have so many things on our minds . . . places to go, people to see. Who has time to cultivate new business, meet new clients, and make new connections? After all, most people we know are either winding up projects at year-end, focusing on office parties, or figuring out how to get through the piles on their desks in record time so they can leave early to do some holiday shopping. I hear from clients and colleagues that they just can't make time for new connections this month!

Hellooo 2012. . .

But you know what that means: you wake up in January and have to pay. While frantically catching up on the work you let slide during the "festive season," you also need to go out and look for new opportunities, so you can really get ahead in the New Year. Talk about the "morning after". . . !

But it doesn't have to be this way: you can "party smart" if you resolve to use the social gatherings you attend over the next few weeks as networking opportunities. Go prepared with an idea of who might be there and what you can talk to them about. Have a good social networking speech ready (and I don't mean the Zuckerberg kind). When the inevitable "What is it you do, again?" question comes up, you should have one or two sentences that succinctly convey what it is you do, and what excites you about it. Write them out at home and practice them in front of your cat, in the shower, in the car on the way to the party. The goal is to sound natural, conversational, and not at all like you are giving a sales pitch or elevator speech. If you do a good job of this, your conversation partner (and it is imperative you think of him/her this way--not as listener or audience!) will ask some questions which you will answer. Then it will be your turn to find out about him/her.

Do more than get your foot in the door

This strategy allows you to actually get to know a person---someone who might be a potential client, partner, or other valuable connection. I liken this short speech-ette to entering through the door and standing in the vestibule/foyer/front hall. If all goes well, you can leave with an invitation to come in farther: for lunch, coffee, or a meeting in the office in January.

All networking is about making connections, and establishing relationships. What better way to start than at an event that is relaxed and full of holiday cheer? Just be sure to have plenty of business cards handy. A charming "It's been great talking to you, but I won't monopolize you tonight. Let's have coffee after the New Year" spoken as you offer your card just might be the most important meeting you have had all year. See--networking can be fun!

Tips you can use!

Listen to your larynx
Whether you cheer front of your TV as you watch a bowl game, or shout in the stands as the Caps play, you need to back off when your throat starts to hurt or your voice feels strained. What was "sexy" when you croaked your way through Monday classes in college is less acceptable now that you are paid for what you do every day.

Drink less, drink more
Have fewer alcoholic drinks and more water. Especially if you're giving a toast or making a speech. There's a fine line between relaxed and tipsy. And don't forget: alcohol of all kinds dries out your throat.

Stay healthy
Getting plenty of sleep and eating right may be hard to do this season. But when you get rundown, your voice often sounds worse than you feel. Maintain your energetic sound by staying healthy!

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