Finding Your Speaking Voice

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.

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.

Jean and I
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.

Inhabiting the Thin Places

imageAs the bus made its way to this “where-in-the-world-are-we-going” corner spot of Washington State called Sumas, the organizers  of the Multi-Ethnic Leadership Institute 2015 sponsored by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities assured us that Cedar Springs Christian Retreat Center was worth the effort. “The food is great!” “The grounds are beautiful”. Under my breath I muttered, “Well, I will just wait and see about that!” For one thing this was Father’s Day weekend, and I was going to be away from my family. For another thing, I was already thinking of the almostimage twelve hour wait at the airport that I would have to endure on my flight back to Philly the following week. However, the next words from the lead organizer mouth made me turn away from the window and  pay attention: “Cedar Springs Christian Retreat Center is one of those thin places on earth”.

Hmmmh? I had not heard this expression before. Thin places? So to Google I went. I  learned that the Celtics say that heaven and earth are only three feet apart. However, in some places the distance is even smaller. A thin place is  a place where that distance is breached and we are able to get an unfiltered glimpse of God’s glory. Metaphoric or literal, what an intriguing concept!

So here I am the morning after the dreaded flight back to Philly without more than a few hours sleep, and I must admit that I have been in one of those “thin places”– Cedar Springs Christian Retreat Center. And perhaps, my greatest takeaway is that while I would highly recommend a trip like mine, the  trip though helpful is not a prerequisite.  If you are interested in finding and inhabiting thin places yourself for respite and spiritual nurturing, read on. I suggest three such destinations  in our lives.

imageThin Places in Nature: Seek out and connect with the natural world as often and as frequently as you can. There is a voice that speaks to us so loudly in nature–in the songs of  birds, the wind in the trees, raindrops falling on the rooftop, crickets chirping in the bushes, and even bullfrogs croaking beside a pond well into the night (inside joke). Ah, I must admit, that though I am a crafter of words, I am  at a loss to adequately describe it. But I can tell you this from experience. If we train ourselves to listen well to the language of the natural world, we would  hear love letters to God from his creation and love letters from Him read to us in the rising of the sun, the rebirth of spring flowers, and the ebb and flow of waves along the seashore.

Thin Places in Relationships: Find the thin places in your relationships. When this diverse group of christian educators and administrators gathered together to talk about leadership development, many things happened. We prayed together, sangimage together, listened to stories and words of advice from senior leaders, climbed a mountain (Yes, a mountain!), and sat together family style and ate many delicious meals. And let me say here and now, the organizers were SO right. The food was Yum-OH!! But more than the food was the spirit of community these encounters engendered among us as we passed the biscuits, commented on the bounty of fresh produce, and scraped the last bit of french toast from the bowl. Between mouthfuls and expressions of: “This is SO good!” we shared stories about our own lives, our aspirations and desires for advancing towards our God given purpose. Many bonds were formed, and on the final day as we gathered for our last worship encounter together we sang: “I need you, you need me. We’re all a part of God’s body….You are important to me. I need you to survive.” There was hardly a dry eye in the room as we caught a fresh glimpse of God’s glory and infinite purpose expressed in each others face.

Thin Places in Spiritual Development:  Make time for spiritual development. Our spiritual selves are often the introverted sides of our personality–so quiet and unobtrusive that it is easy to ignore how critical it is to our survival.  However you conceive God to be, make time to connect with Him. I firmly believe that our spiritual selves are nourished when we “get connected”, and I am NOT talking about Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram etc. etc! Get connected/reconnected by nurturing three important relationships in your life: your relationship with yourself, others, and your God.


At Cedar Springs, sans TV and heeding the wise counsel from the retreat organizers, we disconnected from the Internet during our sessions, instead we made time for early morning walks around the grounds or to the prayer garden, and mid afternoon hikes though the woods and to the top of Haystack mountain. I started each day in pray asking God: “What would you have me do today?” When we nurture our spiritual selves, we are opening up a soul-window to heaven that provides us with an unfiltered view of God and a thin space for Him to connect to us.

You don’t have to travel to Cedar Springs Christian Retreat Center in Sumas, Washington to inhabit a thin place. (Though, I’ve got to tell you, it is so worth the trip!). The good news is that we can find and inhabit thin places if we act intentionally in the following ways:

imageSeek out nature, early in the morning, in the middle of the day, when the sun sets, or whenever, and listen well.

Cultivate authentic relationships with those around us and God’s glory will be revealed in those relational spaces.

Make time to  nurture our spiritual lives by choosing to get unplugged for a day or more and spend time with self, loved ones, and our God.

If you can do this, you’ll find thin places are well within your reach. Moreover, you will be thanking me for this timely travel tip to this worthwhile destination where the views are spectacular! I guarantee it!