Monday, June 25, 2012

From the vault: Finding your voice as a speaker

Writers are urged early on to start “finding your voice” – I know, I started out as a writer–but I’m not sure that speakers are. That, for most of us, makes an out-loud voice seem like thin ice on which to wander. Find your voice? In a room full of hundreds of people looking at you, expecting wisdom?

That ice can seem even thinner if you’re a woman, since women have been actively discouraged or outright forbidden to speak in public for so much of our history. Writing, traditionally, was an easier way for women to give themselves voices. You can always write undercover and under a pen name, as Jane Austen did, but it’s tough to speak publicly that way. Add in women’s stronger preference for speaking one-on-one, rather than reporting to crowds (wouldn’t you if you were forbidden to speak in public?), and it’s a no-brainer. So, even today, we talk ourselves out of it.

Another dimension to finding your voice as a speaker sets it apart from writing. It’s not just your words out there. It’s you: Your looks, your wardrobe, your gestures, your movements, your interactions with the audience. You are physically putting yourself on the line. That voice you’re finding comes out of you and into the air, in front of people, and they react (or don’t), clap (or don’t), laugh (or don’t) in real time. No book author gets that from readers when she’s writing.

By now you can tell that I’m thinking broadly about what your “voice ” is. It’s you, but also how you express yourself, and in speaking that involves more than your vocal chords or your words. We say people “give voice” to their thoughts when they speak. So for you as a speaker, the exercise is about finding your voice—and then giving it to your ideas. Here’s how you might try to do that:
Start with what you know. This will seem like a limited field of dreams, especially if you are young. But the only way to find out how you tell a story is to tell stories, your stories: the funny thing that happened at work, the coincidental meeting that led to a first date, how you got the idea to move to Houston. This will lead you to…

Pay attention, observe and listen. What were the details of what happened today: Who wore the red shoes? Who was snarky because she felt insecure? What’s a secret you heard and why is it a secret? Details like these not only help you create a mood, persuade or advance a story, but also will set your speaking apart from others’ efforts.

Use the vertical pronoun. I had a great boss and mentor who discouraged me from ever writing or speaking the word “I.” Today, I say that if you are going to find your voice, the vertical pronoun—his term for “I”—is the most useful, powerful and appropriate pronoun for you to use. No one can speak for you but you, so no one can deny you those statements. Plus, I can better tell who you are if you have an opinion.

Don’t throw away women’s vocal advantages. Honed by all those one-on-one connections, women excel at using emotion and connecting with their audiences. But too many women feel they need a sterner, masculine tone. Keep in mind that the most successful speakers among U.S. presidents, all men of course, were those who adopted that more emotive, personal style: Reagan, Clinton and Obama. Take back your innate strengths as a speaker, which will lead you to…

Pay attention to the stories you find it too difficult to tell right now. At one of the greatest times of personal challenge in my life, I stopped keeping a journal—the situation was too awful to contemplate. Those big life-changers may be too much for you to tackle today. But later, I promise, if you can bring yourself to share them in a speech, you’ll have the most compelling content and a riveting voice. You'll find many examples of these too-difficult-to-tell speeches in The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Women's speeches, such as Caroline Kennedy's eulogy for her uncle Teddy Kennedy; Elyn Saks's talk about her own schizophrenia;      Kayla Kearney's coming out speech to her high school assembly; Ruth Reichl's speech on not becoming her mother; Sophie Gustafson's speech about being a stutterer, and many more. Use them to get good role models and build up your courage.

Use three dimensions to make your voice sing. I get a much better sense of a speaker’s voice when she takes the time to think about her presentation in three dimensions, including how she dresses, moves through the audience, gestures, pauses, and listens actively to questioners without getting defensive. Remember, I’m watching as well as listening. Make those factors reinforce your voice.

Help give voice to others. One of the most effective speakers I’ve coached had a tough situation: Facing important members of his organization, each with competing goals, in the first week of his presidency—before he’d have time to address anything substantively. We decided his speech would ask all the tough questions he could anticipate that they would ask—not with answers, but to acknowledge that he understood their concerns. It got a standing O and reminded me all audiences hope speakers will say what they’re thinking and hoping. For whom can you be a public voice next time? Who will you represent when you speak? That consideration makes your voice much louder, and more important.
This originally appeared as a guest post, "Say it in your own voice, girlfriend!" on Kate Peters' blog "Kate's Voice." I've updated it to present it here.