voice

Obama “On Fire” in Iowa

If you’re looking for an example of someone who knows how to create a fire in the belly of an audience, look no further than President Obama’s speech last Friday in Urbandale, Iowa. There, Obama launched The Road to Charlotte Tour with a rousing rebuttal to the GOP convention platform last week.

There are numerous best practices to note in this speech, but the one I want to emphasize is the use of his overall energy. Obama is the epitome of a public speaker who knows how to “create performance combustion.” This is a term I use often to describe how a speaker can bring an audience to life.

When I talk about creating performance combustion, I use the metaphor of creating fire. As any good scout knows, to create fire, you need the three elements of heat, fuel, and oxygen. I like to think that these three elements correspond to the use of our body, our voice, and words. And just as fire requires that each of these elements be present to keep the fire glowing, the same can be said about the speaker’s use of physical energy, vocal energy, and verbal energy. The combination of our physical, vocal, and verbal skills creates something bigger than any one element can provide.

To be able to create a fire in the belly of our audience, we have to have that fire already burning hot in our own belly. That’s what Obama showed us on Friday. Let’s take a look at how he used each “element” of fire to intensify our experience—to rouse and excite the crowd.

  • Physical Presence: When speaking, Obama was erect, leaned slightly forward, and made direct eye contact. He used facial expressions that varied from serious and intense to warm, smiling and uplifting. He used his gestures, hands and arms modestly.
  • Vocal Resonance: Obama used volume that came in waves, sometimes soft and conversational and other times driving and forceful. . He used clear enunciation, a range of pitch from high to low, and plenty of well-placed strategic pauses. But the most commanding vocal skill was his use of inflection. He powered out those last few sentences loud and strong, holding nothing back, in full force and fury. His voice quickened our pulse and pulled us in.
  • Distinctive language: He used concise sentences. For example, when commenting about the GOP convention, he said, “They talked a lot about me. They talked a lot about them. But they didn’t say a lot about you.” He made use of the world “you” (the most powerful word in the English language) often. He gave clear and simple directions, as in, “Don’t boo. Vote.” Go to www.gottaregister.com or www.gottavote.com.

People always ask me what it takes to be a good public speaker. The answer is simple: You have to be willing and able to create performance combustion—especially with your voice.

So, in addition to recommending TED talks and C-Span when looking for examples of good and bad public speaking, today I recommend Obama’s speech in Urbandale. Politics aside, you will see speech skills and techniques in abundance and clearly available for analysis. I watch a lot of speeches. Some make me think, some make me sleep, but few make me feel. This one was invigorating. Obama, the candidate, has returned, creating fire once again.

I’ll be blogging about many of the speeches at the DNC this week and hope you will add your candid thoughts and comments to my posts. Stay tuned.

Use Your Voice to Make a Great First Impression

I recently had a phone conversation with a new client who had signed up for our Executive Immersion program. While our discussion was informative, it was also a little challenging. He spoke with a thick accent, had poor enunciation, rambled on and on, and spoke in monotone. I had to work hard to listen intently, process what he was saying, and then think of my own response. And this was on the phone! I could only imagine what it was like to listen to him present in front of a group. When we ended the call, he gave me a link to a video clip of him presenting. I immediately went to the site. Based on our phone conversation, my expectations were low. Imagine my surprise to see him presenting in front of a group and doing much better than he had on the phone. Not only were his voice and speaking pattern were much better, but he also smiled, carried himself well, came across as genuine and sincere, and projected energy. While he didn’t “combust” in front of the group, he wasn’t asleep at the wheel either.

When it comes to first impressions, we often think it’s only about your physical presence—how you look. But I’ve found that for presenters your voice and speaking pattern carry just as much weight. Your voice is your primary instrument when delivering information, so your enthusiasm, passion, and commitment to your topic must come across to the audience through your voice.

To develop your vocal potential and make the best use of your natural speaking abilities, I suggest you focus on three categories: vocal clarity, vocal variety, and vocal emphasis.

  • Vocal clarity is the ease with which a listener can understand what you are saying. Nothing is more frustrating than listening to a speaker and barely understanding every third or fourth word because of mumbling, poor pronunciation, or a foreign accent. That means you not only need to speak loudly enough for people to hear you, but you also need to form your words with precision (ex: “going” rather than “goin”) and then say them according to rules of acceptable pronunciation (ex: not pronouncing the “t” in “often”).
  • Vocal variety is the interest you generate in your listeners when you produce changes in your rate of speech and pitch. Therefore, speak quickly enough to keep the presentation moving along but slowly enough so everyone can easily grasp your message. Slow down at major points, especially when delivering more complex information, and allow your audience time to absorb the material. Additionally, adjust your pitch to match the emotional content of your message. If something is critically important, change your pitch to reflect that. Generally, a low pitch indicates seriousness and a sense of authority, while a high pitch shows enthusiasm and excitement. You will let the audience know your attitude toward your topic when you use variety to express the range and depth of your feelings.
  • Vocal emphasis is the way in which you accent syllables, words, and silence to stress importance and to give meaning to our sentences. Varying your inflection is one of the most important tools you have to project enthusiasm and conviction in your presentation. Without accenting particular words and syllables, speakers sound monotone and come across disinterested, bored, or lacking authority or expertise. Along with inflection, silence (or pausing) is a powerful tool for emphasizing a key point or creating a bit of drama. And remember, what may seem like a long moment of silence to you is actually a much needed information break to your listeners.

Obviously, your physical first impression still counts. But no matter how professional you look, if your voice and words don’t match your physical image, you’ll lose your audience. So be sure to work on all areas of your first impression—including your voice. When you look the part and sound the part, you’ll make a positive first impression that leads to greater credibility and higher esteem.

The Most Unusual (and Amazing) Speech Preparation Story I’ve Ever Heard

I just completed a week’s training with the faculty at the University of the Pacific, Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry. This is my third year working with them, so we’re practically like family now. During one of the breaks we were chatting about speech preparation when one of the women present, Bernadette Alvear Fa, Assistant Professor, Department of Integrated Reconstructive Dental Sciences and Director of Local Anesthesia Curriculum, mentioned that the most challenging preparation she ever did was when she was in labor with her son. In labor with her son? What?  Prepping for a speech while in labor was something I certainly never expected to hear from anyone. I just had to get the details, and since we were all comfortable with each other, she didn’t mind sharing (or me sharing this story either).

I first met Bernadette in June 2011 when she was in my training class. I worked with her on her physical, vocal, and verbal delivery skills as well as her message development, and I gave her various options for preparation strategies to implement. At the time, she was 12 weeks pregnant.

Bernadette explained that in the months that followed the training, she gave numerous lectures with her ever growing belly, each time using the skills she had learned in my class. She was becoming a powerful and confident speaker. Interestingly, as her son started to kick, move, and punch from within, he always remained silent when she was lecturing or speaking in front of large crowds.

On December 3, 2011, Bernadette was officially 36 weeks and 1 day pregnant. She completed a lecture with a colleague and had one more official lecture to provide to the faculty 10 days later. She had the slideshow presentation ready to go and had reviewed it with her co-presenter. Then, on December 10, 2011, something unexpected happened. Bernadette’s water broke at 6:45 a.m. When she and her husband arrived at the hospital, she breathed her way through a few moderate contractions and then sent  out a flood of emails to notify people at work that she would not be coming in on the following Monday and would not be giving her presentation (at least not “live”). Three hours later she had an epidural and decided it was time to work on her “voice over” for the presentation she was going to be missing on Monday. Since she couldn’t be at the presentation in person, she wanted her co-presenter to have her sections of the presentation complete. Talk about dedication!

According to the readings on the monitors, Bernadette saw that she was intensely contracting, and her son appeared happy as a clam and bouncing around joyfully. She asked all visitors in the delivery room to remain quiet, as the only microphone she had for the voice over was the one included in her laptop, which was low grade at best. Knowing she had to make do without her usual professional presentation tools, she drew upon the DeFinis Communications vocal delivery skills she had learned and did the entire voice over from her hospital bed while in labor.

Once complete, she emailed the presentation to her co-presenter. She then patted her belly and said, “Okay, son. Mommy’s done lecturing. It’s time to come out. We’re ready for you.” Forty minutes later, the world welcomed Christian Michael Fa. He waited patiently while his mom finished her work, enabling her to completely focus on the most important task at hand now—being his Mom.

I sat mesmerized listening to her story. She could have easily turned the lecture over to someone else to prepare the voice over, and I doubt anyone would have noticed. But powerful women never give up! Bernadette was determined to follow through with the commitment she made and had the presence of mind to use the skills she learned in our class to prepare a voice-over presentation in this most challenging environment. In a room filled with stress, anticipation, adrenaline, and the frenzied activity of nurses and beeping computer monitors, Bernadette stayed cool, calm, and focused. As a result, she did an amazing job on her voice over…even while in labor.

Ever since women entered the workforce, they’ve had to creatively overcome the challenges of balancing work and home. In this case, Bernadette went the extra mile. She used her determination, perseverance, and optimism to balance these two forces in a way I’ve never seen before. If a woman can do what Bernadette did—be in labor and prepare a complex, technical dental lecture—then surely women are capable of anything, whether it’s leading a company, saving lives, or delivering a powerful  presentation under usual circumstances.

Bernadette is a true leader in her company and in her life. Christian has a lot to look forward to growing up with a role model of loving mother and confident professional.

Do you have an unusual or amazing speech preparation story? Share it here. We’d all love to read it!

This blog is part of my Wednesday for Women blog series, where I feature stories, resources and information to help women gain greater influence, power, and confidence in their professional and personal life. Please enjoy these Wednesday blogs and forward them to the powerful women in your life.

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Let Me Call You Sweetheart…and Other Workplace Communication No-No’s

Recently I was having an email exchange with a gentleman I had never met before. During the course of our communication, he replied to one of my questions by writing, “Well of course, silly.” “Silly”? I’m sure he meant no disrespect in his word choice, so I brushed the incident off. However, it got me thinking about all the times I’ve heard men (bosses, clients, vendors, and co-workers) refer to women in the workplace as “sweetheart,” “darling,” “love,” “honey,” and even “babe.” I know I’ve been called all sorts of pet names on many occasions. Have you?

No matter what type of workplace communication it is—an informal meeting with management, a formal presentation to a client, or a phone inquiry to a vendor—showing professionalism and respect is key. As such, pet names have no place in workplace communication.

So how do you get people to stop calling you “honey” and other such names? The most effective way is to take a compassionate and direct approach. This is one of those communication challenges that require tact and diplomacy so you don’t trigger defensiveness in the other person. Essentially, you’re giving constructive feedback—and that requires skill.

While the issue of pet names in the workplace can be a touchy subject, women have an opportunity to raise awareness. Being called “sweetheart,” “honey,” or any other pet  name can make a woman feel less respected, belittled, undermined, not taken seriously and consequently uncomfortable. And I’ve found that men either don’t even know it’s an issue, or they play it down and think women are making a mountain out of a molehill. So it’s a matter of taking the time to educate and inform men in order to help each other communicate professionally and respectfully.

Here are some pointers to help you navigate this situation.

  • Set boundaries early. Sometimes people perceive a relationship to be casual in nature when it isn’t. That’s why it’s important to set boundaries early on and to maintain those boundaries throughout the relationship. If you let the issue slide and allow someone to call you “sweetheart” for many months, changing that behavior may be a bit more difficult. It’s better to call it out the first time you hear it.
  • Decide if it’s worth the effort. Is being called a pet name a “small annoyance” to you, or is it something that gets in the way of smooth communication and productivity? For me, the “silly” comment was a small annoyance. However, I’ve been in situations where being called a pet name was a bigger, ongoing problem. In many cases, it’s best to overlook and disregard the small annoyances and focus on the bigger challenges.
  • Think about the other person first. If you decide the issue needs to be addressed, first consider the person you’ll be confronting. Does he need a sit-down formal meeting about the issue, or would a short casual comment correct the situation? Sometimes a quick, “Rather than call me ‘sweetheart,’ can you please call me… (insert your name),” works wonders. Other times the person may need more insight into why the pet name is disrespectful.
  • Plan your “script.” If a formal sit-down meeting is warranted, carefully plan what you will say and how you will say it. Include both power words and emotional words to convey sensitivity and certainty. Remember to use “I” sentences so you stay focused on the issue and not the person. For example, “I have noticed that I get called ‘honey’ a lot, and I find that term disrespectful (unprofessional, condescending, etc.). I’d prefer if everyone in the office, including you, call me by my proper name. Can I have your support on that?”
  • Keep the tone light, but don’t make a joke out of it. You want to send the appropriate message and make sure it’s acted upon, so being overly jovial or too stern may not help you get the desired results. If there’s an edge to your voice, the other person may take offense to your words; if there’s too much humor in your voice, the other person may not take you seriously at all. Therefore, keep your tone professional but not too formal.

Of course, any conversation like this hinges on trust. Therefore, before you rush in and state “Don’t call me ‘honey’ anymore,” you need to determine whether you trust the other person enough to give them feedback, and whether they trust you enough to receive it. If trust is lacking in the relationship, you may need to work on it first before addressing other issues.

Ultimately, communication is the key to highly productive and satisfying relationships, and it’s everyone’s job to focus on, improve, and develop effective communication skills. And because women tend to have higher relationship and communication skills than men, it falls on our shoulders to raise the bar, set expectations, and be strong role models so everyone can participate fully, feel included, and bring their best to every communication situation.

Have you been in a situation where someone repeatedly called you a pet name at work? I’d love your comments on how you handled it.

This blog is part of my Wednesday for Women blog series, where I feature stories, resources and information to help women gain greater influence, power, and confidence in their professional and personal life. Please enjoy these weekly Wednesday blogs and forward them to the powerful women in your life.

Sign up for our monthly newsletter to receive valuable tips, techniques and updates on the latest news and events from DeFinis Communications.

Speaking With Conviction…Over the Phone

I have been working with a recent college graduate who is seeking an entry level job in sales and he is finding that many of the positions available are cold calling, telemarketing positions. While I am not certain that sitting behind a desk, on the phone for 80-100 calls a day, is the best fit for this young man, his job search got me thinking… What does it take to properly convey your message and deliver a captivating presentation over the phone?

Even if you’re not a telemarketer, you’re likely giving phone presentations every day. Think about it…we live in a world saturated with technology. Tools like Skype, GoToMeeting, and Telepresence are common in business, and you probably use them often. Yet, how much thought have you given to using these presentation options effectively?

When you’re using any one of these tools, you are essentially giving a presentation over the phone. You have to deliver your ideas without the benefits of a face-to-face meeting, or you have to speak to an image on a computer screen. When you’re faced with these situations, how can you use your public speaking skills and prevent your message from going down in flames?

Here are a few things to remember when trying to be persuasive over the phone or when videoconferencing:

Vary your vocal emphasis and inflection.

You’re on a conference call and your presentation is on the computer screen via GoToMeeting. You are talking about profit and loss margins, ROI, and, synergy. You’re using as much business jargon as you can to impress your clients. However, you forgot one thing: your shining personality!

Too many speakers deliver bland presentations in live settings, let alone over a conference call. To be compelling and interesting when you’re not physically there, you need to vary your vocal delivery. Using emphasis and inflection on key words helps your audience stay engaged.

Don’t let yourself drone on in order to get through your meeting. Rather, give your audience the opportunity to glean extra meaning from your words with some variety in your intonation and some diversity in the range of your voice.

Pay attention to your clarity and speed.

When speaking to a group in a live public speaking situation you always want to articulate clearly and talk slowly. When speaking to a group over the phone or via your computer, you need to pay extra attention to these points.

I cannot stress this enough. Producing a clear voice and a clean sound from a computer microphone or a speakerphone is difficult. Words will inevitably be lost due to static and choppy internet connections. So open your mouth, raise your volume, enunciate clearly and slow down.

When you speak slowly and articulate clearly, you enable your audience to catch every word, even if there is static or connection choppiness, so they don’t lose the entire meaning of your content. Give your listeners the chance to keep up and they will give you their full attention.

Smile and enjoy yourself!

While your audience may not be able to see you, they certainly know when you are smiling. Whenever you deliver an exciting and emotional presentation, whether in person or over the phone, feel it! Show your emotions through your facial and physical gestures; your audience on the other end of the line will absolutely be able to follow along.   

When you are excited and smiling, your voice naturally changes pitch. It is just as easy to recognize those speakers who enjoy themselves over the phone as it is to recognize those who simply run through the motions. Therefore, enjoy yourself and let your colors shine through. Your virtual audience will thank you for it with their rapt attention.

When you follow these three tips, you’ll be able to give virtual and phone presentations that engage both the hearts and minds of your listeners….and that inspire them to action.

Rebecca Black: Public Speaking & Life Lessons from a 13-Year-Old Pop Sensation

Have you heard of Rebecca Black yet? If not, you probably will soon. She is a thirteen-year-old girl whose parents hired Ark Music Factory to produce a music video for her. If you haven’t seen it, here it is. But I warn you…while Rebecca is a sweet young teenager who may indeed be the next Miley Cyrus, I doubt you’ll be amazed at this video.

 

After her music video Friday was produced and released on March 14, 2011, it went viral on YouTube. As of this writing, it has had over 84 million viewers. She has been awarded just over 210,000 “likes” and over 1.6 million “dislikes”. So yes…she is famous for being among the most disliked people on You Tube, and her song has been dubbed “the worst song ever made”! But fame or infamy…all press is good press, and reports show that she has made well over $1 million for her efforts.

I don’t agree that Rebecca Black has little musical talent and poor performance skills, or that the video is insipid and of poor quality, or even that the song is imbecilic. All those things may be true, but overall, Rebecca comes across well. She looks comfortable and confident in front of the camera, has a sweet smile, relates well to the crowd she is singing to, and has a certain freshness and innocent appeal.

But obviously what I think matters little. (Aside from the fact that she’s getting some positive free press from me!) The point is that this young girl made a video that went viral, most people dislike it, and yet she has still fallen into the arms of success. Celebrity in the internet age is nothing short of phenomenal. But rather than sit around scratching our heads and wondering how this happened or rush to her video and click “like” or “dislike,” we’d be better off thinking about the lessons we can learn that can help us succeed. Here are a few:

  • Embrace risk. Of course, not every young girl has the parental support and resources to fund a project like this, but aside from the steep investment (approximately $4,000) what sticks out for me is Rebecca’s willingness to take a risk and put herself out there with absolutely no guarantee of success. If she had talked herself out of doing this video for any reason she would never be experiencing the fame and success she is enjoying today. How many of us lose faith in our projects and ourselves before we’ve even had a chance to test the concept? So even if you don’t have your parent’s funding, find a way to take a risk.
  • Go public with the best you have. While perfectionism is an important skill for success, sometimes it can get in the way. Nothing in Rebecca’s video is perfect. Yet its ability to work or not work, depending on your perspective, has given it a life of its own. How many of us are paralyzed by our desire for perfection before releasing our work to the world? Realize that perfection in anything is simply not possible. Do your best, and let it go.
  • Increase your expectations. Fantasy is usually not a recommended strategy for building a realistic project plan, but vision is a necessity. A strong, clear vision provides a better chance for success than just about anything. Even if the forces are against you, when you have a clear vision there is always the possibility that success is within reach. So why not think big?
  • Welcome the unexpected. In any project plan it’s important to have a Plan B or a “what if.” In Rebecca’s case, her stardom was generated from a completely unexpected source—her success sprung from a well of “dislikes.” The most unpopular girl on YouTube is also the most famous. She and her family could have run from this unusual development—but they didn’t. Sometimes the journey to our goal can take an unexpected turn and we get what we want in ways we can never imagine.
  • Be grateful. What do you do when you take a risk, give it your best, think big, accept the unexpected, and are successful? There’s only one thing left to do…think about all those who helped you along the way, including the unpredictable hand of fate. Then ask yourself, “For what and to whom am I grateful?”

Even though I doubt I’ll download Rebecca’s song into my iTunes any time soon, I do admire her willingness to take a risk and put her work out there. She’s proof that when you think big and go for your dreams, you can be a success…regardless of what other people think.

How Not to Stumble from Mumbles

I once knew a man who had such a serious problem with mumbling that everyone called him ‘Mumbles.’ He spoke in his own private language, sounding as if his mouth was filled with a mixture of peanut butter, guacamole, and oatmeal. Sometimes you could understand the beginning of his sentence, but by the time he got to the end it was mystery meat. Mumbles was a talented carpenter who helped us with the renovation on our house. But because we couldn’t understand much of what he said, we had to use our Architect as an interpreter. How the architect understood Mumbles…I’ll never know. To me, his sentences were impossible to decipher.

Unfortunately, mumbling is a common problem. I have known and worked with people from many industries who have mumbled: accountants, engineers, CEOs, celebrity sports figures, and many more. So yes, even intelligent, powerful, and talented people can sometimes be incoherent. Mumbling is a universal problem that stretches across every strata of society. The good news is that it can be overcome.

Mumbling doesn’t have a single root, but it can be linked to a number of vocal behaviors that seem to collide in a perfect storm…often ending in incoherence. Mumbles seemed to have all the elements that led to incoherent speech: he spoke too fast, he neglected to articulate his “ing” endings, he enunciated poorly, he spoke in a very soft voice, and he used long rambling sentences, causing him to run out of breath.

I’ve learned that you can’t cure a mumbler with just one technique or skill. Like most skills of public speaking, the cure for mumbling is holistic. Because mumbling is connected to many other behaviors, if you identify the less obvious you can often find the techniques that will lead to coherent speaking.

Here are some cures to try:

  • Raise your voice—speak louder than you usually do.
  • Use strategic pauses—pause after every second or third word.
  • Give every word its value—say each word as if it were the most important word in your sentence.
  • Use inflection—emphasize key words with force and power.
  • Enunciate—exaggerate your diction and clearly overstate each syllable of every word.
  • Use short sentences—keep them between 8-13 words.

 

Once you’ve had a chance to practice these skills you should then evaluate your progress. If you know people who have heard you mumble, ask them to listen for changes and improvements. Leave yourself a voice mail message every day for a week and listen to your progress. Video yourself at the dinner table, in a conversation at work, or with a friend and listen for changes in your voice.

I can only imagine how much business Mumbles lost on a regular basis because prospects and clients couldn’t understand him. So while mumbling can be overcome, it takes some sleuthing to uncover the cause. But once you know what you’re dealing with, you’ll have a real chance to make changes and become a coherent, articulate, and polished speaker.

10 Cool Tips to Warm Up Your Voice

Last week, I worked with a client who was having trouble controlling and projecting his voice. While he had a deep voice with a low, appealing tone, it was a bit raspy and extremely monotone. He also complained that his throat “hurt” when he gave a long speech and that when he tried to speak up and project, his voice “gave out.” He said he practiced before each speech but it didn’t seem to help his vocal delivery. It was clear to me that one best practice he needed to add to his preparation regimen was “vocal warm ups.”

 

 

I explained to him how important it was to warm up the vocal chords. Not only does a good warm up protect the vocal chords, but it also strengthens vocal resonance, which is so important for delivering an effective presentation. He realized that with a little work and practice he could build his vocal stamina and protect his voice. As an added benefit, he could also build his professional presence and strengthen his credibility. So I’m happy to share a few vocal warm ups with you.

 

Here are ten cool exercises to warm up your vocal chords. They are really fun to do, so go ahead and get carried away.

 

  1. Take a deep breath in and yawn as big and wide as you can.
  2. Use your fingers to vigorously massage your temporomandibular joint (TMJ). It is located at the top of your jaw on either side of your face above your cheekbones.
  3. Open your mouth as wide as you can and stretch your mouth and face from side to side. Try to stretch your whole face into each ear.
  4. Open your mouth wide and make circles with your lower jaw.
  5. Blow a “raspberry” for 3 seconds out, and then inhale for 2 seconds. Repeat a few times.
  6. Say consonants out loud (such as vvvvv, or mmmmm or ttttttt, bbbbb).
  7. Add a vowel to each consonant Veeeee,  Meeeee, Teeeee, Beeeee, etc.
  8. Say out loud: Bumble, bumble, bumble, bumble, bumble, bumble beeeeeeeeeee.
  9. Place your hands on your belly, inhale deeply, and then exhale making a “huh, huh, huh” sound. Don’t force it. Use your belly and diaphragm to strengthen the sound.
  10. End with my favorite tongue twister: “Red Leather, yellow leather.” How many times can you say it clearly? Let me know how you do.

 

Okay, you may feel a little silly doing some of these exercises, but I promise they will help you. And besides, isn’t summer a great time for acting silly again? These exercises are working nicely for my client, and if you practice them frequently you will soon feel improvement too. So go ahead and knock yourself out. When you have strong vocal resonance, you’ll leave your audience speechless.