Finding Your Speaking Voice

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Windows on the World 2015

If someone had told me when I was growing up that I would one day earn my living by speaking, I would have said,”No way!” As a child, I was constantly teased about my voice–too squeaky, too mousy, too soft spoken! So to become a professor, and a frequent presenter in a variety of settings at that, I had to learn to find my speaking voice; I had to learn to own my voice as something that was unique about me–to think of it as an asset and not a liability.

I did not benefit from a formal speaking forum like Toastmasters International. I wish I had. Rather, I learned how to become a public speaker on the job. Being in the academy, I learned the importance of having good organizational structure for a presentation, of voice modulation, how to maintain eye contact, and to watch for vocal interferences.  Knowing how to cultivate good public speaking techniques has indeed helped to make me a more polished speaker; however, it is not what I think is most critical in making me or anyone not merely an effective public speaker, but an impactful one. Allow me to share with you three strategies that have helped me, and which I think will also help you find your voice to achieve speaking success:

1. Recognize that it’s not about you: Early in my career, I was intent on being “the presenter”–the one up front with the information to share with the waiting audience. The problem with this stance is that it separates you, the presenter, from your listeners, when the goal should be to connect you with them. Even if you have important information to share, it should be from the perspective that information is co-constructed between you and them–the audience.

When I give the same presentation to various groups, it is never the same presentation.hernandez presentation It changes because the audience is different and our combined interaction creates a unique information sharing experience. The information exchange in each context is as much about what I have to say as it is about what the audience has to say to me, non verbally and/or verbally. In recognizing that, I have learned to  privilege their presence above my own, and I listen to their needs as I speak and I am willing to accommodate as I go along, choosing to tell a joke or not, to know when to linger on a point or not, or to clarify further. Most importantly, when we choose to approach a speaking engagement in this way, the audience can feel it; it makes them more receptive to what we have to say. So recognize first of all that it’s not about you. It’s about the audience and the message.

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Presentation at University of the Virgin Islands

2. Be Authentic: Every year my husband sets up a tripod and we take a family photo with our girls in front of our Christmas tree. Even I will admit that the photos often look Hallmark ready. Perhaps, the only thing that might make them better was if we had a boy and a girl–but there’s no helping that any more!!

When we do send our photo out to our relatives and friends, we get lots of “Oohs and ahhs!” But what they do not see are  the dozens of photos that did not make the cut; the many freshening ups I did with the kids hair, and me begging them to please focus and smile. The perfect family photo is all a facade, isn’t it?

To find your voice in public speaking, it should be your goal to dispel the facade of the perfect speech or the perfect presenter. Lose the pretension and be real with the audience!  They do not want a perfect speech or a perfect presenter. What they want is a message and a presenter with whom their own imperfect humanity can connect.

Last November, I spoke at a church my family has attended for the last few years. I would guess that the Christmas card photo is pretty much the image that members of the church see of us each Saturday. However, when I spoke that morning, I referenced the time when I only had one pair of shoes for church. After the presentation, I received many compliments. Finally, a lady come up, hugged me hard and said,”Wow, I did not realize that you were one of us!” Others wanted to share their own one pair of shoes stories with me. I had broken through the facade by keeping it real.

3. Speak from your Pain and Your Passion: This is the hardest  skill to master. But if you want to provide added value in you presentations, you must learn to own your story and tell it with conviction and power. No matter what the topic is that I am called on to present, I look for ways to connect it to my pain and my passions because I know that these are my secret ingredients.

We live in an age of information obesity. Almost any information can be found with  a few taps on a keyboard. Yet, you and I own something valuable that cannot be found using Google–our story, our convictions, and no one is as qualified as I am to tell my story, as you are to tell your story. Now it is indeed hard to master this skill because it requires discipline to speak about your passions with conviction but not with anger; it requires courage and discipline to speak about your pain without falling apart at the podium. But then again, it’s okay if your voice quivers a bit. It’s okay if a tear falls because it tells people that you are just like them–human. Aspire to speak from your pain and your passion.

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Kappa Presentation with Jean

In 2009, my best friend Jean passed away after a 5 year battle with cancer, and I was asked to give a tribute at her memorial service. I did. But I am sure if that speech were evaluated on the basis of technique, it would be viewed as an epic failure. I cried my way through almost every major point, runny nose and all, with frequent pauses to compose myself all the way to the bitter end. I was a mess! And yet, as I listened to the audience through my tears, I heard and saw them laughing at my funny recollections, grieving with me this loss, and waiting patiently for me in those moments when I needed to compose myself. Someone had even gotten up from the pews and come to the podium to hand me some tissue.

I can now look back on that presentation as one of my finest hours in public speaking because I was applying these three strategies: I recognized that in that moment it was not about me but about giving my friend a tribute she deserved; I was being authentic about the feelings in my heart; and I was speaking through my pain and my passion with this same soft voice. I had come a long way in finding my speaking voice. I wish you every success as you continue to advance towards finding yours.

* A slightly different version of this post was given as a presentation to the Toastmaster Group of Tortola, British Virgin Islands on March 1, 2016.