Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Feb 21, 2011

Please Speak Up

Instructor, Caroline Bender

File this under things the Finishing School will tell you that clearly no one else will:  You need to speak up.  Young ladies, this is not what we fought girls' gym, coffee runs, taking the notes in any meeting, and junior deputy assistant titles for -- for you to mutter, mumble, and talk in a high-pitched voice through a clenched jaw while looking at the floor.

Oh yeh, I am riled up now.  And you'd better believe I am not, like.... ending every phrase....?  in a, like... question...?  This behavior is exactly what we mean when we use the term "can't get out of your own way." 

Somewhere along that way, you have retreated from the awesome, cartwheeling, chatty 9-year olds you were into skittish pinch-voiced wallflowers, and it is holding you back.  I am not speaking to the 14 year-olds (though heaven knows we should be working on this with you) but to women in our workforce, 20s and early 30s, who can not command a room -- because we can not hear them.  Recently, I was making a purchase at a counter, and I could not hear the total price spoken to me by the cashier.  I said, with open FM throat, "I'm sorry?"  And, god bless her, she repeated it loudly. ( well, more loudly)

You may believe you have a soft voice, or a high-pitched one.  This does not prevent you from projecting it, and your ideas, to your audience (of 1 or of many).  A swallowed statement tells others
- what you say is not important
- you are not important enough to say it
- you are not sure about it
- you can not be bothered

And we know none of that is true.

Think of the women you admire in your workplace.  Think of the ones who command the respect of others, the ones everyone attends to when they are speaking, the ones other speakers choose to direct their eye contact to.  Pay attention to the way they speak.  Even our beloved Tess McGill knew what Katherine Parker had going on; her ethics and motives were questionable, but people listened when she spoke.  (That's a Working Girl reference, required viewing here at BWFS.)

We know you would be working on this if you only had some tips, so here a few ideas for how to improve your vocal projection, and by extension your professional confidence and standing.  You will be surprised by the results.

Listen to yourself - Record meetings that you attend, and especially those that you lead.  This can be done the old-fashioned way, with a hand-held recording device, by phone through your conference line, or on-line using a meeting management tool like WebEx or LiveMeeting.  In all cases, you'll want to announce to attendees that you are doing so, and ask if there are objections (this is actually a legal requirement in some states, so best to do it for all.)  It is not appropriate in all situations, so use your best judgment.  You do not have to tell people why -- you may say, for example, you've found it helpful for note-taking and action items (which it is).  Play it back on your own time and critique what you hear.

Work on your growth areas in small bites - Assess yourself on volume, "listenability," and content, of course.  I once worked with an experienced accomplished co-worker whose information bank I needed to draw from often.  Unfortunately, he did not modulate his pitch to a single degree.  My brain worked so hard to find the spaces between his words and the ones that required "punch," that I couldn't hang on to his meaning.

Experts recommend about 8 notes in your spoken words.  And the last word of the sentence should not be so much higher that people think you are asking a question.  It suggests uncertainty. Even high-pitched voices can project confidence -- any listen to NPR ought to convince you of that.

Identify your "um" noises - might be "like," "ya know," "know what I mean," or actually "um..." and "uh..."  Concentrate on letting them go.

Study others - speaking of which, here are some authoritative women's voices of varying types that share the commonality of holding your attention.  You don't need to be Oprah Winfrey to rule the platform, though she is a great bar to set.  (editorial note - these are mostly Youtube links.  We apologize for any ads you must endure)

High - Yeardley Smith (aka - Lisa Simpson, no one's shrinking flower).  Compare Yeardly to her interviewer, and you'll see the key difference
Low -  Rachel Maddow.  Here she is with a tableful of female tenors
Soft -  Katie Couric.  In this clip, Katie also talks about voice and body calibration.  Good tips here too.
Loud - Linda Ellerbee.   Way before her time -- TV had little space for her, since David Brinkley was still on the air.
Accented -  Nothing says authority like Christiane Amanpour
Impeded -  Ask Connie Chung if a lisp is a show stopper.  Then ask Sarah Vowell.
(and just for fun, Sarah on Rachel)

Practice - at every opportunity.  Privately, try reading aloud, singing in the shower, talking back to the TV, imitating actresses you admire.  Publicly, practice your meetings and presentations before you give them.  If you have mentors you trust to critique your work, take them into your goal and invite them to coach you before and  after your presentation.

There is a Toastmasters chapter within an hour of you -- maybe even less, maybe even on the job.  Toastmasters International, founded in 1924 is dedicated to "improv[ing]...communication and leadership skills, and [helping members]  find the courage to change." 

Learn when to stop speaking, as well as when to speak.  An opinion expressed well in a few words is always stronger than a filibuster that doesn't hold water.

Believe you can - You will see the rewards of positive speaking almost immediately.  Use the reactions of your audience to build on your confidence.

Repeat - The more you work on the things you want to improve, the more you succeed at doing so.

Outside Reading
The Eloquent Womanhelping help women with public speaking techniques, eloquence and confidence
DVD: The Stress-Free Guide to Public Speaking and Presentations

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