The 4-Word Secret to Confident Public Speaking

I work with a lot of clients on a wide variety of skill sets. For many, the primary focus is public speaking. The story is common: You’re confident in front of your team, but things change when you have to speak to larger groups, high-stakes audiences or groups of people you don’t know as well. That’s when your heart starts to race, your palms get sweaty, your face flushes red, and worst of all is the stream of self-defeating “what if” scenarios that start to race through your mind.

What if I draw a blank?
What if I do something wrong?
What if they don’t like me?
What if I don’t sound like an expert?
What if I can’t answer their questions?

These self-defeating questions are what is referred to as “head trash.” It will pile up, fester, and become overwhelming unless you take action to get rid of it and replace it with something more productive.

When talking to one particular client whose head trash was getting the best of her, I said: “I’m going to tell you a secret that will change everything. It’s just four little words, but they’re the secret to speaking with complete confidence. I want you to write them down in big letters, and tape the message to your computer, bathroom mirror, laptop, door or anywhere you’ll see it regularly. Will you do that?”

“Yes,” she agreed, and grabbed her pen.

Then I told her the secret: “IT’S…NOT… ABOUT… YOU.”

She wrote it down, then stared at it, digesting its meaning.

“Here’s the key,” I explained. When you give any presentation, your focus should be on customer service. Your primary responsibility and goal is to ensure that the audience has the best experience possible. Is your topic important? Is it interesting? Do you love it? Help them understand why, and share that passion with them.”

I told her, “Don’t be afraid to make eye contact. Each and every person there wants to feel like you’re talking to them personally. Like they’re the only person there. Look at each person with that goal in mind, to let them know that they matter to you. It makes them feel like they’re part of the event, and that’s critical.”

I could see that she was processing what I was telling her, so I continued. “Think about it: When you go to hear a speaker, do you sit there critiquing them the whole time, hoping to catch a mistake? Of course not. If they make lots of mistakes or flounder, that makes everyone uncomfortable. You’re just hoping that they’ll be interesting and give you some important information to make it worth your while to have shown up. You are rooting for their success, because if they do well, you’ll have a good experience, which is what you really want in the end. That’s exactly what your audience is hoping for from you too.”

She was quiet for a moment, so I asked, “How do you feel about that?”

“Honestly?” she said, “As soon as you said it’s not about me, I instantly felt relieved. I can focus on taking care of the audience, because it is important that they feel like they learned something important. Then it’s not about being perfect, whatever that means. Suddenly, it all seems like a very reachable goal. I know I can do this.”

So take out your “head trash,” and focus on serving your audience. You can start with thinking about what kind of speaker you’d want to listen to if you were in audience, and then work on letting those qualities shine through. Put the audience first, and you’ll find a confidence and level of connection you never imagined possible.

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Does your head trash get in your way of being a powerful, confident public speaker? If so, contact me at laura@vocalimpactproductions.com or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss them with me personally!

Changing Your Perception of Conflict

Have you ever taken one of those leadership style or personality “tests,” like the DISC assessment, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or Predictive Index? They’re all interesting and informative, with information about how we communicate and what we prioritize, but one thing I haven’t found on any of those commercially available tools is how people perceive conflict.

Note that I did not say how people handle conflict. In my experience, before you can deal with a conflict, a critical factor is whether and how people perceive conflict in the first place. Your perception of conflict is the catalyst that triggers your personal response to the situation.

That’s why it’s crucial to understand how people experience the concept of “conflict” so differently. At that point, it becomes crystal-clear why they engage in it or run from it the way that they do. More importantly, it tells you so much about how you need to handle the situation in a way both parties feel heard, respected and satisfied with the results.

First, it’s important to understand that conflict is not a yes-or-no issue. It’s a gray scale, with “peace” and “war” at the opposite ends, separated by a wide range of degrees of intensity, which might look something like this:

Different people will have different levels of personal tolerance for these degrees of intensity, much like your personal tolerance for spicy food. What is a pleasant sensation for one person is a painful burn for another, to be avoided at all costs.

These different degrees of conversational intensity, such as discussion, debate and argument, are always present. Then, the key is to recognize at what point on the scale you start to feel a sense of genuine anxiety, and when that anxiety reaches a level that is intolerable, which makes you want (or need) to end the conversation. This is when your “fight-or-flight” instinct tends to kick in, and your reflect response will be to fight or flee.

If you are someone who tends to have a lower anxiety tolerance for conflict, your scale may look like this:

For you, a conversation is only comfortable as long as you know that you will not have to broach any subject that will make one of both of you unhappy, because unhappiness reflects conflict, and conflict triggers anxiety, which is not tolerable. If you are highly conflict-averse in this way, it explains why you may tend to shut down or avoid having some conversations even if you know they are important.

Ironically, it is often through those efforts to avoid conflict that your anxiety levels will worsen over time, as problems are allowed to fester.

On the other hand, if you have a higher tolerance for conflict-based anxiety, you might view the scale more like this:

To you, a good intellectual debate is just that: a debate. A sport, to explore the differences in ideas. Maybe it’s to try to learn from the other person, or to persuade them to change their opinion. Either way, most comments are acceptable as long as you’re only attacking each other’s ideas, but not attacking each other personally. The related level of anxiety is just part of the sport.

If you have a higher tolerance for this level of conflict-related anxiety, it’s important not to confuse being callously blunt with being clear or efficient. Needless to say, this is no better of a leadership style than avoiding important conversations, if your goal is to build loyalty, trust and effective relationships.

I strongly encourage you to share these models with your team and have an open discussion to compare where people identify their own tolerance levels. Once you understand how you perceive conflict and at what point that conflict puts you in a state of intolerable anxiety, especially relative to someone else’s tolerance, you’ll be better able to understand why your response to conflict defaults a certain way. Only then will it be possible to discover what you need to do to promote open discussion in a way that creates trust, and increases productivity and overall success.

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Do you have questions or comments about handling conflict? If so, contact me at laura@vocalimpactproductions.com or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss them with me personally!

Think Your Voice Sounds Weird? Here’s Why.

If you’re like most people, when you hear yourself on a recording, your first thought is, “Oh my gosh, that’s not really what I sound like, is it?” The short answer is: yup, that’s you. Here’s a bit of insight as to why, and a few tips to make sure you sound your best, no matter what kind of voice you have.

Whether or not you generally like the sound of your voice as you’re speaking, it’s true that what you hear in that moment is different from what everyone else hears. That’s because you’re listening through two different mechanisms.

When you are listening to someone else, the “input” goes in your ear, hits the ear drum, and sends vibrations through the inner ear canal, which the auditory nerve takes up to the brain for interpretation. This is also how it works when you’re listening to yourself on a recording, which is like listening to another person.

On the flip side, when you speak, of course your own words come out your mouth and the sound goes into your ear for the same process we just discussed, but that’s only half of the input.

The other half is that when you speak, air comes up from your lungs through your throat and vibrates through your vocal cords, the “source” of your voice. But then those vibrations also ricochet off the muscles in your throat and mouth, in your nasal cavity, and create residual vibrations that hit the bones in your neck and head as well, sending their own pulses to the brain.

In essence, when you listen to someone else or a recording of yourself, you’re listening in “mono-sound,” or single track. But when you listen to yourself while you’re speaking, you’re listening in “stereo” or “surround-sound,” with a much fuller, richer sound.

It’s that “stereo” input through multiple channels that makes your real-time voice sound fuller, richer, more resonant. In other words, listening to yourself on a recording takes away half of your stereo input that you think your voice sounds rather tinny, thin, maybe even higher pitched. That why you probably feel like your voice not only sounds different on a recording, but that on the recording it sounds worse than you expected

So how can you ensure that everyone hears your best, most melodic voice? Here’s three quick tips that will help them hear your ideal sound.

First, hydrate. Make sure you drink enough water, because a dry throat, dry mouth and tired throat muscles don’t allow sound to flow easily. The “fine print” to this is that it also means you should limit caffeine (*gasp!*) prior to an important speaking opportunity, because caffeine is a diuretic that makes the problem worse. Caffeine dehydrates the throat and vocal cords, making you voice dry and scratchy, and making you cough or clear your throat over and over. Trust me, you don’t need the caffeine; if the meeting or presentation is that important, your adrenaline will carry you through with energy to spare.

Second, limit dairy. You’ve probably heard similar advice when you have a cold or allergies, and the rationale is the same: dairy produces mucous, which is what you’re trying to eliminate when you’re sick, and also when you need a nice, clear voice. Mucous gives you that sensation of perpetually needing to clear your throat as well, which is an annoying habit to hear time and again in any speech, presentation or conversation.

Lastly, breathe! The way you breathe will directly affect the quality of your voice. Start with your posture. If you’re slouched in your chair, you limit the amount of air you can take in, which is the fuel for your voice. And as you run out of air, it “fries out,” with a frog-like, croaky sound. Some people also ramble on and on without taking a breath for fear that if they do, someone will jump in during that split second and cut them off. Once the air is mostly gone, if you keep on talking, that same vocal “fry” will creep in again.

If you can’t imagine what that sounds like, try this: recite the alphabet, but do it all in one breath; if you get to Z just start over again at A until you absolutely can’t squeeze out another letter. What does your voice sound like in those last few letters? That’s vocal fry.

Why does this matter? Because not only is it unpleasant and even annoying to listen to, but it sounds insecure, timid, and hesitant, which is a combo that connotes anything but leadership.

The lesson is that you need to remember to take a deep breath at the end – and often in the middle – of a sentence to re-fuel, so that your voice sounds as clear and strong at the end as it did in the beginning of a sentence.

So remember: Drink water, limit caffeine and dairy before speaking, and remember to take enough breaths while you’re speaking. This allows you to maximize the fullness of your tone, so the voice you hear in your head more accurately reflects the voice that everyone else hears when they listen to you… and that’s a voice the projects confidence, control, poise and power.

Who doesn’t like the sound of that?

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Do you have questions or comments about the issues in today’s post, want to know how to apply them, or how to help others with them? If so, contact me at laura@vocalimpactproductions.com or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss them with me personally!

Storytelling Lessons From Pixar

When I’m working with clients on their public speaking and presentation skills, one of the more common questions I get is, “I keep hearing that I’m supposed to tell stories, but where do you get your stories? I’m not a storyteller. How do you find them, and how do you know when to use them?”

There are lots of places where a well-timed, well-honed anecdote will be far more compelling than a dry, technical explanation.

You could use a story to describe your experience with other satisfied clients, sharing their problem, your methods, solutions, and their return on investments.

You could use a story to create a hypothetical picture of what might happen down the line if someone does or does not use a particular product or service.

You could use a story to draw an analogy, ideally something that happened to you, that can be used as an icebreaker or as a parallel or segue for the rest of what you want to talk about.

But what story should you use? That’s often the sticking question for many people. If only it was as easy as taking ideas from movies, but we can’t do that… or can we?

There’s little question in anyone’s mind that if you’re looking for entertainment, a little escapism, and a combination of laughter and tugging on your heartstrings, Pixar is an easy go-to. Their movies are made for children but in a way that adults get just as much enjoyment. And that’s particularly important if you have a kid at home who insists on watching Toy Story over and over (and over) again.

But now Pixar has become a resource on a whole new level: they’re actually offering virtual classes on the art of storytelling.

Pixar has teamed up with Kahn Academy to create a program called “Pixar in a Box,” offering a range of different creative training programs, and the newest series is “The Art of Storytelling.” While their short, interactive videos, transcripts, lesson plan and activity sequences are typically aiming for those in more entertainment-oriented industries, the exercises are great mind-openers to concepts and strategies that are very applicable in the corporate world.

The concept of using storytelling in presentations and the like is not new, although it certainly has become more popular in recent years. Pixar’s take on it gives it a new spin, along with a step-by-step tutorial on how to build a story that has impact. While you may not be looking to create a 90-minute animated comedy feature film like Inside Out, figuring out how to use these strategies to weave compelling and persuasive anecdotes into your presentations, discussions, and other exchanges is a true skill worth developing.

The key is about bringing information to life. It’s about painting pictures for the listener in a way that helps them personally relate to the topic at hand, where they can visualize what you describe, imagine smells and textures, and empathetically feel the emotions you want to evoke. If you’ve ever watched a Pixar film, you know they are the masters at this. (And if you have never seen a Pixar movie, that’s your first homework assignment this weekend! Try Finding Nemo or Monsters, Inc.)

Sometimes you know a story would be valuable, but aren’t sure where to start. Alternatively, I hear many people describing a situation that has the potential to be a good story, but inevitably degenerates into a rambling spiral of tangents and unnecessary detail so as to be counter-productive to the speaker’s purpose. This short series, full of animated videos tutorials with exercises that you can complete in five minutes or an hour as you like, is a great way to start with a clean slate, get your bearings and productively move down a well-lit path to figuring out how to craft a story that will achieve the impact you want to have on your listeners.

Do you need to go through all of the lessons like how to do storyboarding? Maybe not, but you never know! Maybe it will give you ideas for how to direct your IT department or graphics department on what kind of visuals you want in your slide deck. Or maybe it will get your creative juices flowing to help get you unstuck by doing different kinds of pencil sketches for 30 seconds instead of trying to compose in a linear format when you don’t know where to start and the blinking cursor is just staring at you on the screen.

The nice part is that you can skip any pieces you don’t feel like exploring and jump around to the parts that peak your interest. The series is currently under construction but the first lesson is already available.

So go ahead, at your next lunch break, take a peek, watch one of their videos (each one is just a couple of minutes long) and play with an exercise or two just to see what it stimulates in your mind and on the paper. You may just find you’re a natural storyteller after all!

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Do you have questions or comments about the issues in today’s post, want to know how to apply them, or how to help others with them? If so, contact me at laura@vocalimpactproductions.com or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss them with me personally!

The New Year’s Resolution You Want To Keep

If you’re like me, you probably hate making new year’s resolutions. They are something we do out of some traditional obligation, knowing full well that we won’t stick with it for more than a day or two at best. Then, to make matters worse, there’s a predictable little twinge of guilt for falling off the wagon, since resolutions are supposed to make us better people, somehow. Enough. I want to make this year different.

Decide for yourself that this year, the resolution will be about others rather than about you. Specifically, take an honest look at your relationships and the nature of your communication patterns with those people. Is there something about your collective dynamic that compels you to be excessively blunt, passive-aggressive, or indifferent? Do you shut down to avoid confrontation? This year, let your resolution be a gift to them – and to yourself: a shift in the way that you communicate, and, as a result, the start of a new, healthier and more positive relationship.

Here are three ways you can wrap your gift:

First, beware of what your eyes say, regardless of what comes from your lips. Even if you don’t say a word, you may not realize that your face is projecting your true opinions about what the other person is saying.

For example, do you roll your eyes, look away, or cock a single dubious eyebrow if you disagree with someone? These micro-expressions are signs of disdain, and convey the message loud and clear that you are not open to hearing what they are saying. It’s a sure-fire way to put people on the defensive.

Personally, I realized several years ago that when I’m concentrating on something, my eyebrows furrow. It doesn’t mean I’m angry or disagree at all, but that’s often how people misinterpret my “thinking face”. Ironically, they should be happy when I do that, because it means I’m truly listening and contemplating what they say. So it’s my responsibility to remember to “reset” my eyebrows to a more neutral, nonthreatening position.

If nothing else, be sure to make eye contact when someone else is talking. Resist the urge to multitask; don’t look at your computer or smartphone. Give them the gift of your full attention. At the start of a meeting – formal or informal, suggest that you both leave your phones off the table until you’re done. It might feel counterintuitive, and even counter-cultural, but the respect will be felt by everyone there.

Second, watch your choice of words. Small details in word choice can have a big impact on how people interpret what you say, and how they feel about it as a result. Try to avoid using absolutes, such as everything, never, everyone, nobody, and always… Statements like “Everybody thinks it’s a bad idea,” or “There’s nothing you can say that will convince me that…” show that you are not willing to listen, and that you think you’re right and everyone else is wrong. Moreover, they are a form of exaggeration, and exaggeration is melodramatic. Nobody likes to work with the “drama queen/king.”

Instead, to promote mutual listening, try hedging those statements. Try phrases like from where I stand …, on several occasions…, or It concerns me when … You can still clearly state your case, but it acknowledges that you are sharing your perspective, not claiming it to be “gospel truth.” It shows you are open to working together. Avoiding absolutes and related melodrama promotes productive conversation, and achieving a mutually acceptable solution.

Finally, engage people. We’re all busy, so I’m not saying you have to listen to someone’s life story, but make an effort to connect with them as individuals, not just as coworkers or employees. For example, when you’re walking down the hall or waiting for the elevator, don’t just give them the perfunctory nod that acknowledges their existence. Say hello and ask a simple question that shows interest in them personally. Is the company going to be closed for a holiday? Ask if they have plans for the time off. If they have pets or children, ask how they’re doing. It’s not forced “small talk” if it’s sincere. Just remember: a little effort goes a long way.

But you know what the greatest beauty of these tips is? The effort they require is a drop in the bucket compared to what you get back, so it becomes the resolution that you can – and actually want – to keep!

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Do you have a comment or question about how to comfortably and easily make this resolution? Click here to set up a 20-minute focus call to discuss it with me personally.