Sunday, January 31, 2010

Your next role model: Harriet Richardson Ames

The next time you are about to give up on a goal, I want you to think of your new role model, Harriet Richardson Ames.

In this Cleveland Plain Dealer column, you can read the whole story:  She graduated in 1931 with a two-year degree, and, once the college offered a four-year diploma, she wedged in courses at night to complete it.  Forty years after getting her two-year certificate, she was ready to retire from teaching and wondered if she could get that diploma. She was short one course: Public speaking.  And by now, she couldn't take the class due to failing eyesight.
"I was already going around talking to panels," she told film professor Larry Benaquist, who interviewed her two years ago for a documentary about the college's upcoming centennial. "The ladies' circles had me come, the Rotary had me come -- I was already doing public speaking."
Administrators and faculty rallied around and figured out how to get her the diploma, handed to her the day before she died earlier this month at age 100.  The video above is from the documentary footage, in which she explains some of the mixup.

Now, about that goal you were going to give up on?

Friday, January 29, 2010

New! Get the 'Step Up Your Speaking' newsletter

I'm launching a new monthly newsletter, Step Up Your Speaking. Every month, you'll get a free, dense-packed issue focused on one aspect of public speaking, so you can have all of The Eloquent Woman's tips on that topic in one convenient place. 

I hope the newsletter format will serve as a kind of ready-reference for you--your own personal file of solutions for these and other public speaking challenges:
  • Speaking up in meetings
  • Preparing for a big speech
  • What to wear when you speak or present
  • Eye contact and engaging your audience
  • Becoming a dynamic speaker
  • Getting speaking engagements--and evaluating offers
  • Handling the new Twitter backchannel
  • Using language to make your speech sing
  • Strong starts and finishes
  • Graceful ways with Q&A
  • Your first speech
And much more!  I welcome your suggestions for topics you'd like to see handled in-depth in the newsletter, and hope you will forward this information to your colleagues and friends.  Using the Step Up Your Speaking monthly newsletter, you can focus on a new topic each month and improve your speaking skills over the course of several months or more.  Please leave a comment with what you'd like to see in the newsletter.

Go to the link below to sign up for this free newsletter:

The Eloquent Woman on Facebook has more than 1,800 fans. Are you among them? Fans of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook see additional content and get to weigh in on issues I'm thinking about covering on the blog in advance. Often, those reader comments and questions become the basis for posts on this blog.  You can also post photos, videos or presentations you want to share, ask questions, and start discussion topics on public speaking. Join the group and the conversation.

January's top tips for public speaking

January's most-read posts from The Eloquent Woman focused on improvements and inspiration to get your new year off to a great speaking start.  Check out these popular tips, news items and advice for public speakers:
  1. What's your vocal image?, a three-post-series by vocal coach Kate Peters, snagged top honors this month. She discusses vocal image in post 1, 3 steps for determining yours in post 2, and finally, how to improve your cadence, volume and clarity.
  2. What do you do when you stutter and lose your train of thought?  That's what a fan of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook asked, and this post offers ideas and suggestions for this two-part challenge.
  3. Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State, came in as the third most popular item on the blog this month for her advice to women: "Learn to interrupt."
  4. Why do speakers need a strong, fast start?  To get and hold their audience's attention, lest it slip away. This post explains why you have less time than ever to get started, and how to do it.
  5. Do women speakers apologize too much?  This post started great comments and conversation on the blog and on The Eloquent Woman on Facebook. Add your thoughts to the comments!
  6. Do you use notes--or not?  Readers chimed in on their preferences for written speeches, notes or nothing at all, and I asked some speechwriters to share their views.   
  7. New pages on the blog also proved popular.  This post helps you find the information I've added, including what got this blog started, my training services, what readers and trainees are saying and our speaker resources store.
  8. If public speaking lies "outside your box," it may be a good skil to learn as you age.  This post looks at what training in new skills can do to help the aging brain.
  9. Assess yourself as a speaker, and the better understanding you gain will help you make the process easier. This post guides you toward discovering your "speaker self."
  10. Miep Gies died at age 100, and this post on Anne Frank's protector--who only began public speaking late in life--looks at the inspiration she offers women in sharing their own stories.
Two more notes as January draws to a close:
  • The Eloquent Woman on Facebook has more than 1,800 fans. Are you among them?  Fans of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook see additional content and get to weigh in on issues I'm thinking about covering on the blog in advance. You can also post photos, videos or presentations you want to share, ask questions, and start discussion topics on public speaking.  Join the group and the conversation.
  • New! Step Up Your Speaking newsletter:  I'm launching a new newsletter, Step Up Your Speaking.  Every month, you'll get a dense-packed issue focused on one aspect of public speaking, so you can have all our tips on that topic in one convenient place.  Go to the link below to sign up:

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Attention! Why speakers need a strong, fast start

Two recent books on speaking and presenting get into some of the research -- and gut reaction --that goes into getting your audience's attention at the start of your speech or presentation. And, as with many types of advice about public speaking, there's real life as well as research for you to factor into your calculations.

In Scott Berkun's Confessions of a Public Speaker, he notes: 
There is a moment  at every movie, symphony and lecture, right before the show starts, when the entire audience goes silent...This is called the hush over the crowd, but really it's the moment when the crowd itself first forms...And when I'm the speaker, I know that special moment is the only time I will have the entire audience's full attention....What defines how well I'll do starts with how I use the power of that moment. The balance rests on a bigger question: how will I keep people's attention after that moment is gone?

I agree with Scott and in some ways, that helps you divide your talk into two important parts:  A strong start, followed by a presentation or talk that's planned to keep bringing the audience's attention up high, knowing there's plenty that will divert your listeners.

Some of this involves basic physiology.  Sitting passively slows people's attention. Berkun cites research by Donald A. Bligh, whose book What's The Use of Lectures? recounts using heart-rate monitors on students in lectures. Results? Audience heart rates were at their highest at the start, falling off through the rest of the lecture. Another researcher Berkun cites, John Medina, writes in Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School that your audience has a maximum attention span of 10 minutes. (That would be a total, not just for your beginning. Sorry.)

But Cliff Atkinson, author of The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever cuts an even finer standard for speakers and presenters, based on that technology backchannel tugging on audience members' attention. He says:
In a world in which your audience is accustomed to high-quality media at their fingertips, you need to capture their attention out of the gate. You must engage your audience within the first five slides or at least the first five minutes of your presentation.
You've got the idea.  Your sweet spot's a short one.  Here are 4 ways to make the most of it to enhance your audience's attention:
  • Start a conversation with the audience: Go beyond taking a poll of the audience, because they really want to contribute to your presentation.  Ask an open-ended question related to the topic, and let them share their thoughts--or tell them you'd like to put the Q&A up front.  It's a great way to get the time and information you need to calibrate your remarks.  Audience members like to hear themselves and like the potential surprise their fellows can bring to a presentation.
  • Enter the crowd--anywhere but the front:  Moving yourself into the audience is a great tactic for building rapport and for holding attention. All eyes will follow you.  Better yet, start talking with a portable microphone and by entering the crowd from the side or rear of the room, both for an added surprise and to shake up the norms of the audience.
  • Don't waste precious minutes on preliminaries and throat-clearing:  Forget telling them how very glad you are to be here today, how much you appreciate the invitation, that lame joke, talking about the weather, thanking the host committee or talking about yourself.  (There: I just saved you three minutes.) Speakers love to back into their talks obliquely in these ways, and they're just wasting time. You can weave your bio into your presentation where it's relevant and thank the hosts with a nice note.  Get right down to it.
  • Craft a strong opening statement: Instead. replace those niceties with strong content: A compelling question, an odd fact, your most surprising point. Here's the time to use an unusual prop and ask the audience to guess what it is, or to suggest a strong viewpoint. Jump right in.  You might try outlining a presentation as you normally would, then cutting out the first few preliminary slides or points and see where that gets you.
Of course, you need to calibrate your start to the overall time allotted for you to speak--don't waste five minutes of warm-up when you only have 8 minutes total.  Then work on the rest of your presentation using the tips below to figure out how to keep attention up high after your strong--and fast--start.

Related posts: Do women speakers apologize too much (especially at the start)?

Answering your questions on starts that fall flat or get shaky

When the speaker needs to catch her breath

When you have to introduce yourself

Why you may want to avoid starting with a joke

What to do when you're losing the audience

Share your accidents (& saves) on the podium

They don't happen all that often, but sometimes accidents do happen to speakers up on the podium, in full view of the audience--or right before they go on.  Your ability to make a quick save and help the show go on might, under those circumstances, be your most important presentation skill.  A sense of humor doesn't hurt, either. 

Take a lesson from this very visible mishap that struck the master of ceremonies at a special ceremony in Ireland at an event honoring then-U.S. Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith.  At the end of this article on art catastrophes in today's New York Times lies hidden this gem of an anecdote.
To commemorate the event, a piece of Waterford crystal was carved in the shape of an American flag with eagles. It was a big, glittering hunk of glass that would be presented by the master of ceremonies, Donald Keough, an investment banker.

But before Mr. Keough or anyone else could get their hands on the crystal, another speaker heading for the podium brushed past the sculpture. It toppled off the back of the stage.

Mr. Keough looked down at the remains and took a deep breath.

“Madam Ambassador,” he announced, “you’re going to receive more pieces of Irish crystal than anyone in history.”
Sometimes the accident happens to the speaker, as you can see in Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh's post from Twitter, above. Have you had to make a quick save up in front of the audience? Share your accidents and saves in the comments. I'd like to amass a collection of quick-on-your-feet solutions--and they don't need to be grand ones, just what worked for you--to encourage speakers and presenters that we can overcome these hiccups on the way to a memorable talk.

Monday, January 25, 2010

TED's curator tells what works (or not) for speakers

TED--the conference known for its amazing speakers, sold-out seats and extensive web presence--this week shares the thoughts of its curator, Chris Anderson, who answers reader and viewer questions here. Among the topics he covers: speakers he's regretted inviting and why, why some talks never make it to the website, what unknowns have in competition with superstar speakers and more. An insightful read and resources for all speakers.

Ask The Eloquent Woman: A stutter interrupts

I ask for reader questions here and on The Eloquent Woman on Facebook, sometimes by asking new readers to share their challenges in public speaking.  And this week, Valerie Bempong said, "Alright. Here's a challenge: Stuttering and losing your train of thought."

It's a two-part challenge, and a bit of a riddle. Is it the stutter that's interrupting you? Or is the loss of your train of thought what prompts the stutter?  What do you do when you're supposed to be "ready," but your body is saying, in effect, "stand by?"

We don't give enough credit to speaking as a complex cognitive activity, but downloading information from your mind to your mouth is far more difficult than we like to make it seem.  Stuttering is a visible, audible example of that, and some research suggests that it's not anxiety that causes stuttering, but that stuttering can cause anxiety in speakers.  And anytime a speaker is interrupted--whether by an audience member, a noise outside the room, an alarm or her own verbal disfluency--it's easy to get off-track and off-message.

This New York Times article on stuttering and a search for treatments notes that stuttering is rarer in women, with male stutterers outnumbering their female counterparts 4 to 1.  And a study described in another Times article suggests that "Just thinking about language can be enough to set off a chain of events in the brain of a stutterer that differs from that of someone who does not stutter." From the article:
Stuttering affects 5 percent of the population at some point in their lives, the researchers said. They said their study suggested that part of the problem might occur when a stutterer's brain becomes overloaded. Preliminary research, they said, shows that the brains of people who stutter also react differently when they are listening to words, not reading them.
One technique that works for speakers, whether they stutter or not, is using a three-part message to help you find your way back on track when you lose your train of thought.  You might look at such a message as your safety net.  You know you might get off track; in fact, you're planning for it, which may make it less scary.  Using a short three-part outline, particularly if you embellish it with memorable tools such as alliteration or analogy, means you're circumscribing the amount you need to quickly remember.  Let's say I want to talk about a proposal before the city council that's expensive, flies in the face of conventional wisdom, and is something I'm enthusiastic about supporting.  I might say it's a "big, bold, beautiful" proposal, using "big" as my cue to discuss the dollar amount, "bold" to counter the naysayers and "beautiful" to share my satisfaction.  If I'm mid-talk and forget that "bold" comes after "big," I just need to move on to "beautiful" and can be thinking about other "b" words, knowing that's where my outline is going--I don't need to waste time searching my mind for dozens of other options.

Of course, you'll need to plan and practice that message ahead of time--and it's not a guarantee that you won't stumble while speaking.  But it can be a useful lifeline, and, with enough practice, may help you feel more confident when you approach a speaking role.

You also may find that anxiety about messing up your speech is a factor, as one reader did in When the speaker needs to catch her breath.  That post includes breathing and relaxation exercises to help you get control over your voice and breath, two important tools for any speaker.

Readers:  Share your questions for "Ask The Eloquent Woman" here or on The Eloquent Woman on Facebook, and you'll get your answers on the blog!

Related posts:   More about my coaching and training services

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

New pages on the blog

The Eloquent Woman blog is expanding with new pages to provide you background on my services, trainee feedback, resources and even the backstory of the blog.  I'm delighted to share these new pages and will be adding more in the near future. In the meantime, please feel free to leave a comment with your suggestions about what you'd find most useful--or your reactions to these new pages. I appreciate your feedback! Here are the new pages:
  • About this blog: Read the story of the trainee who got me thinking about women and public speaking...and more about my approach to this topic.
  • Coaching and training services:  This page lists many of the skills you can learn from me in everything from message development to speech delivery.
  • Speaker resources store:  Go here to find the books, electronic tools and presentation supplies I recomment for you to buy. I'm an affiliate, which means I make a few pennies when you purchase from these links. 
  • Feedback from trainees and readers:  Here, you can see reactions to my training and coaching from men and women who've used the blog, participated in a group workshop or had one-on-one coaching from me. 

Vocal image, part 3: cadence, volume, clarity

(Editor's note: I asked vocal trainer Kate Peters to share a guest post on one of her specialties, helping speakers develop a great vocal image--and she's generously provided enough material for a three-part series. The author of Can You Hear Me Now? Harnessing the Power of Your Vocal Impact in 31 Days, she blogs about vocal impact on her blog, Kate's Voice. There's a lot of specialized information here for you. Part 1 looked at defining your vocal image; part 2 helped you discover your own vocal image, and this post focuses on how to improve.)

Working with Cadence

Do your sentences inflect up or down? Do you sound like you’re asking a question when you’re not? Perhaps you sound like you’re demanding something or giving orders when don’t intend to. When one’s voice is raised at the end of a sentence, it invites conversation from the listener. When the voice falls at the end, it sounds definitive and tends to close off comments. A good speaker knows when and how to use both types of cadences.

Working with Volume

Can you hear yourself on your voice recordings? Are you whispering? Shouting? Contrast is an important part of communication; it’s a good idea to change your volume from time to time in order to keep people’s attention. You can use volume to add drama to what you say. Try emphasizing your words by speaking more quietly at times, without diminishing the energy. Note: Speaking softly does not necessarily mean speaking with less intensity. Sometimes there can be more intensity in a quiet sound, which can also be engaging.

Working with Clarity

Your tongue and lips need to work independently of each other. If you find your articulation seems a bit “lazy,” try isolating your lips and tongue with tongue twisters. Try them slowly, repeating them several times and speeding up gradually as you improve. This is also a great way to warm up for a talk. Here are some to try:

• Unique New York

• Red lorry, yellow lorry, red lorry, yellow lorry

• Three free throws

• The myth of Miss Muffet

• Tim, the thin twin tinsmith

Final words

We all have a vocal image which others use to make conclusions about who we are and what we want. Through some simple exercises to strengthen awareness and through deliberate focus on improvement, we can make adjustments to our vocal image to match our message and intent.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

4 speech don'ts from the State of the Union

You might well think that the President's State of the Union speech -- coming up this week -- would be a worthy example of how a top leader should give a speech, something you can borrow from the next time you need to give an important, formal speech.

I'm here to tell you: Don't do it.  And I'm not alone. Today's Washington Post (free signup needed to see content) polled former presidential speechwriters, most of whom acknowledge it's a speech designed to do too much--despite being a grand national event.  Instead of putting do's from this speech in your playbook, make sure your next formal speech adheres to these don'ts you can cull from the State of the Union:
  1. Don't try to please everyone.   Nixon speechwriter Lee Huebner calls the State of the Union a "schizophrenic speech," and no wonder.  It's supposed to be sober and uplifting, mix workaday concerns and grand national drama, and share specifics while waxing eloquent.  Make sure your formal speech has a focus and sticks with it.  You won't please everyone, anyway.
  2. Don't decorate it like a Christmas tree.  In part due to pressure from federal agencies, in part to show a command of a wide range of issues, the State of the Union winds up gilded with presents and decorations for everyone.  Before your own speech topples over, pare the extras and make sure your central message is clear and uncluttered with asides and extras.
  3. Don't mention those heroes in the balcony.  Reagan speechwriter Aram Bakshian now rues the day he wrote in a mention of Lenny Skutnik, who dove into the Potomac to rescue a survivor of an Air Florida crash. It was the first time a president referred to a hero sitting with the First Lady in the visitors' gallery, and it's become an overdone tradition since.  Make your thanks and praise of audience members, committee members and others profuse and private, so your speech's precious amount of time is focused on your message.
  4. Don't use the clock that comes with your position.  There's no audience that thinks the speaker was too brief, and you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks the State of the Union is short enough (except for special interests looking for a mention).  No matter how formal the occasion, brevity is your friend.
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Friday, January 22, 2010

Who should get women speaking opportunities?

If there are no women speaking on the program for a conference, meeting or presentation, who's supposed to change that? On those rare occasions when the absence of women on a program is noted, the debate runs along two lines: Those who think women aren't working hard enough to get on the program, either by not asking or by failing to accept invitations, and those who think that program organizers don't search enough for--or just fail to consider--women speakers.

On her Smarterware blog, Gina Trapani shares her opinion this week:
Conference organizers, editors, journalists, and CTOs are desperate to get knowledgeable women onto their speaker rosters, mastheads, source lists, and staff. (I know, because they ask me!) There are many opportunities for those of us who don't look like Bill Gates, but it's up to us to make ourselves visible, eligible, and take them.
There's been a lot of discussion on this blog and elsewhere about the issue of getting women on the program, and you can read more about it at the related links posted below. Implied in the "you just need to ask for it" opinions, one sometimes senses a glimmer of "stop complaining," a subtle way to silence debate; at the same time, many women still find themselves reluctant to seek out speaking opportunities, or find them difficult to secure despite asking.  And historically, since ancient times, there have been many more decades in which women were kept silent or discouraged from speaking than otherwise, making this a powerful cultural taboo that exists to this day in some parts of the world.

In a comment this week on the blog, Kate Peters offers more evidence of this underlying problem by pointing us to "an interesting article in the Daily Blog of the Harvard Law Program on Negotiation (of which I'm a proud alumnus). The article notes that women are penalized more than men for self-promotion and for negotiating assertively--but those penalizing them may not realize they've taken a sexist action. From the article: 
Many social psychologists would argue that most of this sexism was not intentional. Scholars have noted a societal shift during the past few decades from explicit sexism to implicit sexism. Explicit sexism is quite visible; the sexist actor (typically) is aware of his biased behavior. By contrast, perpetrators of implicit sexism are unaware of the bias in their actions. Even people with a strong desire to be fair engage in sexist behaviors that they’re not aware of.
So my take on the debate is that everyone's right: Organizers should do more, and women who want to be heard should do more. Maybe we can meet in the middle on this one--but in any case, let's do so with an awareness of the historic, cultural and societal forces guiding our choices.  (Hat tips to Joe Bonner for pointing me to Trapani's post and to Kate Peters for sharing the Harvard blog post.)

Related posts:  Organizers: Get women on the program (video)

Can men help to get women on the program?

Historic examples of women's difficulty getting on the program

Research on what it takes to get women on the program

Can Twitter help women get on the program?

Become a fan of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Madeleine Albright: "Learn to interrupt"

Speaking up in meetings continues to be, for many women, the most common public speaking challenge they face. This fresh advice from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright offers you a shortcut to rising to that challenge. In an interview on Womens Media, she said:

I tell women to act in a more confident manner. You need to learn to interrupt. Ask questions when they occur to you and don’t wait to ask. Also, you don’t need to ask permission to ask a question. Be a risk taker; business appreciates risk takers. This trait is desirable in prospective leaders.

I want to emphasize: Don’t be a woman with a chip on her shoulder. I see many women with this attitude. They don’t accomplish as much as they could. Others don't want to assist them with their concerns.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Gillibrand gets a vocal critique

Every day in January brings news coverage of speeches, as elected leaders give their "state of the..." pronouncements and special elections require stump speeches. But it's rare that I see a male politician's voice get the going-over that New York Senator Kirsten Gillbrand just got in the New York Observer. And since we're talking about vocal image this week on The Eloquent Woman, it's good to get a look at how Gillibrand's voice shapes her image in this article.

The reporter used male experts in linguistics and politics, plus observations from one female reporter, to critique Gillibrand's vocal skills. The first, a sociolinguistics scholar at the University of Cambridge, noted:
...her voice quality is of the sort that is typically associated with pre-workforce-age white American females. Judging by the case of this woman, this speech pattern has now extended into higher age ranges...rising intonation pattern at the end of declarative clauses that lay people tend to associate with teenage girls.
The reporter's take? "Translation: She sounds more like the cheerleader than the class president."

If you've wondered whether it's true that your vocal image matters, here's some belittling proof that it does--when it's working against you. Check out Kate Peters' guest posts on understanding, identifying and working on your vocal image at the links below. (Photo by WDPGshare on Flickr)

Related posts: What's your vocal image? (part 1 of the series)

3 steps to find your vocal image (part 2 of the series)

Become a fan of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

3 steps to find your vocal image: part 2

(Editor's note: I asked vocal trainer Kate Peters to share a guest post on one of her specialties, helping speakers develop a great vocal image--and she's generously provided enough material for a three-part series. The author of Can You Hear Me Now? Harnessing the Power of Your Vocal Impact in 31 Days, she blogs about vocal impact on her blog, Kate's Voice. There's a lot of specialized information here for you. Part 1 looked at defining your vocal image and this post gives you 3 steps to discover your vocal image. Stay tuned for part three...)

To become aware of your vocal image you must first listen to yourself. Make several recordings of yourself speaking in different ways:

  • Record yourself talking aloud in normal conversation for two to three minutes.
  • Record yourself reading two pieces of contrasting material for two to three minutes. For instance, some prose from a mystery novel and some text from an instruction manual.
  • Record yourself giving instructions (perhaps directions to a local café) or giving a speech without using a script for two to three minutes.

After you make the recordings, listen to each one and give yourself some honest feedback. Write down how you think people hear your voice. For example, “My voice sounds shaky when I’m nervous,” “People may have trouble hearing me,” or “People may think I’m yelling at them.” You may want to ask others what they think as well.

Ask yourself how your vocal image compares with the impression you want to make. If there is a gap, you will need to work on it. When your sound doesn’t match how you represent yourself, people may question your integrity. You can close the gap by experimenting with your voice and recording yourself as above. Listen to the recordings over a period of time to increase your awareness. You can also keep a journal of daily observations of your vocal image, solicit feedback from your others or study with a voice coach.

Every day, people fail in their communication simply because the vocal image their words create through cadence, volume and clarity don’t align with their message and their intention. Make sure that yours do!

Related posts: What's your vocal image? (part 1 of this series)

What's your speaker presence?

Become a fan of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook

Thursday, January 14, 2010

What's your vocal image? part 1

(Editor's note: I asked vocal trainer Kate Peters to share a guest post on one of her specialties, helping speakers develop a great vocal image--and she's generously provided enough material for a three-part series. The author of Can You Hear Me Now? Harnessing the Power of Your Vocal Impact in 31 Days, she blogs about vocal impact on her blog, Kate's Voice. There's a lot of specialized information here for you. Stay tuned for parts two and three...)

For the first 30 seconds that you speak, people are more interested in figuring out who you are than what you have to say. Many of the cues they follow are in the sound of your voice—not just the pitch or tone, but the complete impression your voice makes. Here are some attributes that may be expressed simply through your voice:

  • Your education
  • Your emotional state
  • Your geographic origin
  • Your gender
  • Your age

The mental picture people develop of you based on the way you sound is called a “vocal image.” Your vocal image is the result of imitation and preferences combined with your unique physiological make-up. If you want to catch someone’s attention in those first 30 seconds and keep it, you need to know what your vocal image is and you need to make sure it’s aligned with your intention and message.

What makes up vocal image?

Your vocal image sends a message louder than words. Although our relationship with sound is largely unconscious, it affects everything from our responses to a speaker to our heart rate and breathing. Julian Treasure, in his blog Sound Business, writes in depth about the power of sound. “The human voice,” he says, “is the most powerful sound on the planet.” He also notes that “according to Richard Norton at the University of Chicago the average human ear can distinguish 1,378 'just noticeable differences' in tone. By comparison we can distinguish just 150 hues of colour. On this measure hearing is almost 100 times as sensitive.”

With so many discernable variations of sound, one can only begin to grasp the complexity of this fascinating science. For practical purposes, then, we’ll distill our examination down to three aspects of sound: cadence, volume and clarity.

Each of these aspects sends messages, intended or unintended. For example, a cadence of often-repeated vocal patterns may indicate you’re nervous. On the other hand, an angry mood may transform a voice from calm and soothing to loud and irritating. Let’s examine these aspects more thoroughly.

Cadence is the general inflection at the end of spoken sentences. This inflection can lead people to make conclusions about one’s gender, geographic origin, as well as one’s openness and flexibility.

According to Deborah Tannen, we hear a downward cadence as “closed” or “final,” with the extreme being “controlling.” Conversely, we hear an upward cadence as “open” and “flexible,” with the extreme being “indecisive.” Perhaps that’s why New Yorkers are stereotyped as abrupt and Californians as flaky!

Volume of voice, loud or soft, reflects moods such as confidence, fear, shyness and assertiveness. Speaking too softly can project a weak image; speaking too loudly may sound forceful or even angry. We often use volume to emphasize words or ideas and to provide contrast. For example, if you want people to listen to an important point, try dropping your volume rather than speaking more loudly. This unexpected contrast creates a dramatic effect, particularly if the point you are making or the piece of the story is something they don’t want to miss!

Clarity of sound is created by effectively using articulation mechanisms—tongue and lips. The perception of one’s articulation may suggest education level, economic status, geographic location, formality and informality. People who are more formal typically articulate more clearly. Culturally speaking, many believe there is a direct correlation between clear articulation and intelligence. This, of course, becomes problematic when we consider that people from different parts of the world have different styles of articulation.

In this post on Andrew Dlugan'sSix Minutes blog, Kathy Reiffenstein recounts speaking in Nigeria and Kenya. She found that even though the official language of those countries is English, it is different from everyday American English. If she used contractions, her audiences had more difficulty understanding her. The good news is that you can change your vocal image for the better. The question is how. Part 2 of this series will offer a three-step process to help you begin.

Miep Gies: A quiet voice that spoke out

Miep Gies, the woman who was the last surviving protector of Anne Frank and her family, died this week at age 100. She's the person who discovered Frank's diary after the Nazis raided their hiding place and took them to concentration camps. The New York Times obituary notes that she preferred a quiet life and avoided public speaking until her own story became known:
Mrs. Gies sought no accolades for joining with her husband and three others in hiding Anne Frank, her father, mother and older sister and four other Dutch Jews for 25 months in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. But she came to be viewed as a courageous figure when her role in sheltering Anne Frank was revealed with the publication of her memoir. She then traveled the world while in her 80s, speaking against intolerance....she began to travel widely as a living link to Anne Frank and spoke on the lessons of the Holocaust, often talking to schoolchildren who were reading Anne’s diary.
That's astonishing, in its own way: She started a public speaking career in her 80s, even though her preference seems to have been to remain quiet. I think that adds to her eloquence, and find myself struck by the power when a quiet person chooses to speak out. Perhaps that's because, as seems to have been the case for Gies, they're doing so not to advance themselves but because they feel passionately about their subject. In fact, the obituary notes that Gies and her husband would stay quietly at home on the anniversary of the raid, preferring to remember their friends rather than participate in public ceremonies. MSNBC has a previous interview with Miep Gies here . (Photos of Gies in 1999, right, and with her husband Jan Gies, on their wedding day in 1941, left, courtesy of the Anne Frank House.)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The speech question: Use notes--or not?

Every speaker has a choice when it comes to her words, and I've been wondering about whether speakers prefer speech texts, extemporaneous speaking or something in between. Over on The Eloquent Woman on Facebook, I asked readers: "Speakers, do you prefer to use a written speech, just notes or speak extemporaneously? Tell us what you do and whether it works for you." And it seems our readers (so far) have a slight preference for speaking without text or notes--but are ready to switch it up depending on the circumstances. Here's what you said:
  • Angelina Seraphina Belmonte said her preference is to "Speak extemporaneously."
  • Clarissa Lester Kenty said, "I typically use a detailed outline with notes. I tend to be quite versed on the topic of discussion and I love to interact with the audience. A written speech tends to place a wall between the audience and me while creating an unnecessary crutch for myself."
  • Christine Hardy Hutchinson noted that "I prefer to use a written speech but my fellow Toastmasters have always strongly encouraged me to speak extemporaneously... easier said than done." (She added a :( emoticon.)
  • Winnie Chung said she prefers to "speak extemporaneously but notes are good too, depends on the situation."
  • Emily Deck said it "depends on the topic and how well I know it. Sometimes it's easier for me to write my speech and then create notes from it."
  • Patricia Elrod-Hill said, "I much prefer extemporaneous speech, but with a few notes."
How should you decide which to use? A lot depends on your experience and comfort level, but here are some guidelines:
  1. Consider the setting and tone: A large audience, more formal event, or one in which you're responsible for accurately reading lots of details (such as people's names and citations during an awards ceremony) all are occasions that may call for a speech or at least a written script.
  2. What impact do you want to have on the audience? Even audiences in large auditoriums like speakers who get out from behind the lectern. Do you want to energize the crowd, work from their reactions or be able to interact directly with them? You may need to forego a text.
  3. How precise is your message? Giving a pointed policy speech often means you need to stick to your script and keep the words within certain parameters.
  4. Do you want soaring rhetoric? Composing it ahead of time may be your best option if you want language that stands out and rings in the ear of your listeners.
  5. Think about your feelings: If there are high emotions at play, you may want a mix of text and spur-of-the-moment speaking. Delivering a eulogy requires thoughts that come from the heart and should include some extemporaneous points, but you may want a text or notes to help you through it.
Share your considerations when you decide to work with a written speech--or without one. I'm going to invite some speechwriter colleagues to share with us their thoughts on what a written text can do to enhance your public speaking.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Do women speakers apologize too much?

Can everyone hear me? No? I'm sorry...

I see some of you are cold. There does seem to be a draft in here. I'm sorry...

I apologize for being a little late. There was just terrible traffic on the way here...

I would have liked to bring along some samples to show you during this talk. I'm sorry I don't have them with me.

I was so hoping the dean could be here today. I'm sorry I didn't make the arrangements early enough.

They're not the most compelling opening lines a speaker can make--but these are all actual opening lines I've heard women speakers utter. And they're all apologies.

They have one more thing in common: I've rarely, if ever, heard a male speaker open with an apology. But I've heard enough women speakers apologize their way through a speech's opening lines that I've begun to wonder why. Is it because women feel responsible, as speakers, for the conditions in the room, even those not under their control, like heat, lights and noise? Do they think the audience won't like them as well if they're a little late or a panelist doesn't show up or there aren't enough handouts to go around? Is it just a way to ease into starting a talk? Or does it reflect a more general anxiety about handling a speaking situation?

Some women I've talked to have suggested this is an attempt by women speakers to make sure everyone in the room feels included and comfortable. I'm not sure that's true in the cases I've seen--to my eye, it seems to have more to do with the speaker herself.

So let me ask you: Do you find yourself apologizing at the start of a talk--or see other women speakers doing so? Why do you think that happens?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Finding words in a new language

Presentations and public speaking can seem challenging enough in your own language. Tackling a talk in English when it's not your first language poses unique, layered challenges--and that's true even if you've achieved fluency in speaking, reading or writing English. When I conduct public speaking workshops, I'm often approached by non-native speakers of English with a wide range of concerns--from word choice issues to figuring out colloquial phrases--and now I have a great resource to recommend to them. This article by William Zinsser focuses on writing English as a second language, but the principles in it will be just as helpful if you're putting together a presentation or speech. (And native English speakers will find some insights about other languages that may prove useful.) Zinsser originally delivered this as a speech to new international students at Columbia University's graduate journalism school in August 2009.

Here's what I think you'll find most useful in the article:
  • Insights on how we use words differently in English versus other languages, including fewer adjectives, more "suffocating" words with Latin roots and more Anglo-Saxon active verbs.
  • "Simple is good," advice that gets at the core of what works well in English, is approachable for a non-native speaker and essential for any speaker who wants to be clear. Zinsser thoroughly dismisses the notion that you need complex words in order to be taken seriously.
  • An emphasis on storytelling that the audience can follow, through a simple order of events, clear words, and active verbs that move the story forward.
Zinsser includes passages from clear English writing so the reader has examples of each principle. Just replace the word "writing" with "speaking," and you'll find this article an excellent path to redirect your pursuit of clear speaking in English. (A hat tip to Lisa Orange for pointing me to the article.)

A politician's pointers on public speaking

Much of the time, I like to describe Washington, DC, as a "small town with a lot of hot air," to reflect my town's ability to deliver more-rhetoric-per-square-foot than almost anywhere else. But in this article, former Congressman Lee Hamilton, does a great job describing why--in his view--public speaking's a critical skill for anyone who seeks a career in public service or elected office:
Members of Congress need to be good at a lot of things if they want to be effective, but chief among them is the ability to communicate....When I say "communication" I mean it in the broadest sense: formal and informal; one-on-one and before a mass audience; in writing, in speeches and in discussion; with small, friendly groups of admirers and in front of larger, not-always-friendly crowds; on television, on the radio, on the Web, and in print; in the formal setting of the House or Senate floor and sitting at a formica-topped luncheonette table over coffee and doughnuts.

Among the pointers Hamilton offers:

  • Learn to speak off-the-cuff: While politicians do deliver prepared speeches, "more often they have to speak off the cuff, weighing the import of their words even as they say them....for lots of us it's a skill we learn with practice, and it's invaluable to a politician."
  • Be flexible and prepared for topic changes: "More than a few times, I've prepared for a public appearance only to have my speech become irrelevant when some national issue became the only topic people were interested in discussing."
  • Give thought to how you are presenting your points: "Speak clearly: don't slur your words, don't let your voice fade - you'd be amazed how many people have difficulty hearing."
  • Bring energy and passion to your speaking: "If you don't believe what you're saying, your audience won't either."
  • Let your speaking fit the medium: "You'll be much more convincing on television if you speak conversationally than if you come across as angry or impassioned; but before a crowd, speaking conversationally will just put the audience to sleep."
  • Listen to your audience--they might teach you something: "Being a good politician means being a good conversationalist, not simply scoring a few rhetorical points and then going home."

How to do all that? Hamilton recommends practice as the only way to learn these skills and to become comfortable with your public speaking. Can't argue with that one.

Related posts: See all our posts on public speaking by women in politics

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

2 more high-tech tools for speakers

The new year seems full of innovations that you can turn to your advantage as a speaker. This week, I shared an electronic way to nudge yourself to practice speaking. Here are two more high-tech tools for you to try:
  • Create your own flash cards online on, to help you memorize important points before your next speech--whether you have a specific set of points to express, a series of facts, or your own brainstormed list of tough questions you may get, along with the right answers. You can choose to work with popular lists of facts to memorize already loaded on the site, or create your own. Great as a practice tool if you have particular points you want to reel off without checking notes.
  • Globe-trot as a paperless speaker: Readers of this blog know I'm a fan of using the Amazon Kindle instead of carrying paper or notes when I speak from a text--there's no shuffling noise, no dropped pages and all the advantages of portability and even a variety of type sizes, and you can email your Word or PDF documents to the device. This week, Amazon announced that the larger-format Kindle DX, with a bigger display screen, now offers global wireless, so you can travel the world and download books and documents--including your speeches. As Kindles hold hundreds of documents, this is especially useful for speakers with heavy travel schedules and lots of speeches--in draft or final form--to tote with them. Since you can mark or clip pages, sections and whole documents, and add notes, it's really a full-service speaker tool.

Buy the Kindle DX

Related posts: Testing the Kindle on the lectern

New Kindle offers more features for speakers

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Speaking science: train your aging brain

Did you come late to wanting to learn public speaking? Worry not--picking up speaking as a new skill could be among the ways you can keep your aging brain in shape. Even better if public speaking is beyond your normal range of behaviors and skill sets. In "How to Train the Aging Brain," New York Times reporter Barbara Strauch talks to scientists who suggest that you need to challenge your tried-and-true knowledge base in middle age and beyond to boost your brain power and create new neural connections. From the article:
Such stretching is exactly what scientists say best keeps a brain in tune: get out of the comfort zone to push and nourish your brain. Do anything from learning a foreign language to taking a different route to work. “As adults we have these well-trodden paths in our synapses,” Dr. Taylor says. “We have to crack the cognitive egg and scramble it up. And if you learn something this way, when you think of it again you’ll have an overlay of complexity you didn’t have before — and help your brain keep developing as well.”

I've found this to be true in my own experience, having just taken up guitar lessons at age 50--it's an experience that really pushes me into new and unfamiliar territory, and had led me to more creative thinking. (I even find it helps me with training, as it's a situation in which the roles are reversed and I'm a beginner student.) If public speaking is a skill you've avoided until now, or put off trying to learn, you've now got a new reason to try. The article busts a few myths, like the thought that you lose brain cells as you age, and offers some insights into how your brain works when you're trying to remember something on the tip of your tongue, another useful insight for speakers.

Hunting speaker resources for women

I'm excited about the new Amazon-powered Eloquent Woman store, because it gives me the chance to share new books, presentation tools and electronic resources with readers, all in one place. Included is a special section just for books about women and public speaking, and I'll be expanding all the sections in the days and weeks to come. (If you have a recommendation you'd like to see here, please leave it in the comments.) Disclosure: I receive a small fee for products you order through this store. I welcome your feedback in this new resource!

Monday, January 4, 2010

An electronic nudge for speaker practice

Need a regular prompt to rehearse for that presentation? A gentle nudge to keep your practice sessions on track? Now you can try an electronic prompt in the form of HabitForge, a website that lets you enter a goal--say, practicing the opening of your speech for a half-hour daily--then sends you an email each day to inquire whether you were successful in reaching that goal. The site aims to get you to take that step every day for 21 days, in order to make it a habit; you can keep your goals private or publish them so others can "cheer you on." (Coming soon: The ability to get a prompt only on certain days of the week, rather than every day.) Hat tip to Lifehacker, where you can read more about HabitForge.

Get a better handle on your speaker self

You may tell yourself you're no good at speaking--or succeed one time and do poorly another, for reasons that escape you. But if you haven't taken the time to think through factors like your personality type, gender and how you handle anxiety, you won't really know.

Before you work on skills development or practice, consider these factors to build a better understanding of who you are as a speaker:

  1. Are you an extrovert or an introvert? If you're an extrovert, you'll find yourself energized by being in front of a crowd; introverts are more likely to be exhausted after giving a speech or presentation, and may want to spend time alone. Extroverts like to think while they talk, which can be a plus and a minus when speaking extemporaneously (they're fluid, but may need to edit themselves on the fly). Introverts prefer to plan their responses. You can be a great public speaker either way, but to prepare well, you need to know your personality preferences. To find out more specifics about your personality type, try a book like What Type Am I?: The Myers-Brigg Type Indication Made Easy or check with your organization's human resources department to see if they offer an assessment. Once you know what to expect of yourself based on your personality type, you can adjust your speaking choices accordingly.
  2. Are you a woman or a man? Men and women speak about the same number of words in a day--roughly 16,000--but men do more speaking in public, and women speak more in one-on-one encounters. So women may feel somewhat more uncomfortable, or just less practiced, when speaking in public settings, from meetings to speeches. Women also may have more trouble getting on the program to speak than men do, which contributes to lack of practice.
  3. How do you handle anxiety? Some speakers get anxious before, during and even after they speak. How do you react--and how do you handle it? Have you explored deep breathing, exercise and other relaxation techniques--as well as practice, the best antidote for nervous speakers? If you've done those things, a psychologist can help you learn whether your anxiety represents something more serious, such as a social anxiety disorder.
  4. How do you react to uncertainty and problems? Speakers face all sorts of variables that can and do go wrong, from broken audio-visual systems to less time than they prepared for. Are you the type of person who says, "Of course the wi-fi will work?" or do you plan for what you'll do when it fails? When you're faced with unexpected problems, do you find yourself disappointed again and again--or do you move into problem-solving mode quickly? Are you likely to assume the best-case or the worst-case scenario? Putting yourself in plan-B planning mode before you speak, rather than assuming the best-case scenario, is a trait that's saved many a speaker. And realizing what you can and can't control is key. You can't always control the circumstances, but you can control how you react to them.
Once you've figured out these aspects of your speaker-self, you can focus your training and practice accordingly. That's much better than trying to "fix" things that come with the speaker package that is uniquely you. or assuming you're not a good speaker because you're an introvert. I don't mean that you should use these factors as excuses, however. Introverts can be outstanding, dynamic speakers and you can use anxiety to advantage when you speak--but it's best to understand the place you're starting from, and the place to which you normally revert, when you're preparing yourself as a speaker. A final tip: Share these insights with a trainer to get the most out of your training.

Related posts: Can public speaking come naturally to you?

Who talks more: Men or women?

Women, anxiety and speaking considered

Social anxiety disorder and public speaking

Factor in your speaker personality type

What does it take to get women on the program?

Need training? Here's what to ask the trainer

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