Finding Your Voice
by Claudia Brogan
Just recently I had the very odd and unsettling experience of literally losing my voice for several days. And by that I mean that I couldn’t make a peep: not a low quiet chuckle, not an encouraging “Uh huh, you bet!” when a friend was telling me a story, not a sweet little “Thank you” when a kind person opened a door for me.
With all the colds and springtime bugs going around, perhaps this malady has happened to you. (Though I wouldn’t wish this on my worst adversary!).
It unnerved me a bit, and it felt like I was living in a little bubble. Like I couldn’t really connect or interact in even the simplest ways with those around me.
That experience has caused me to think carefully about how this idea relates to speakers and presenters. One of the key skill sets for each one of us to do is to “Find Our Voice.” Here are three specific ways that I think this relates to becoming better speakers.
First of all, find your voice by studying what you sound like. Listening to the actual sound and mechanics of your own speaking voice can be a challenge and make a person feel self-conscious. You may be one of the folks who has moaned when you hear an audio tape of what your speaking voice sounds like. Part of that is because when you speak, what you yourself hear are the sound waves that travel through bones, tissue and your sinus cavity before they get to your own auditory equipment. Each voice has a unique version that only its owner can hear. Meanwhile, the sound that others hear from you will differ greatly from that, in timbre, in pitch, even in volume.
One skill for us each to learn is to examine the very sound of our speaking voice (using an audio tape, and seeking honest feedback from trusted peers). Examine especially whether your voice is breathy (from high up in your chest) or comes from lower in your diaphragm; ask whether the pitch sounds nasally or natural—you will find that by opening your mouth more widely, you will have rounder tones. Also ask if your volume carries strongly enough across the room. Keep in mind it may sound louder inside your head: adjust, though, by speaking up more loudly if needed, until it feels more natural for you. Speak up, speak loudly, be heard.
Make peace with your very own voice, in all its uniqueness and variety. Don’t try to sound like the velvet deep tones of Lauren Bacall or the high pitch of Pee Wee Herman. Find your own natural tones, ask for feedback about pitch and breath. Then help your own voice speak for you.
Secondly, find your voice by expressing your very own opinions. During debates and panel discussions, sometimes we can feel overwhelmed or even intimidated by those who speak most forcefully. After someone near us has expressed a strong, well-worded opinion, we utter a simple “Me too” kind of response.
Pay attention to the next time this happens.
If you are one who often echoes, mirrors, or encourages others with comments of support and “Me too” – just notice that. Learn to pause before giving that automatic response. Ask yourself if you have something unique to add, or even check to see if you disagree. You don’t have to be disagreeable when disagreeing. Try using the phrase “Well I see it differently” or “On the other hand” or “Have you ever considered, though?”
Look for situations and discussions when you can find your own voice, when you can express your own particular view, when you can agree to disagree. Most times people will respond well, will listen with care, and will appreciate a fresh perspective.
The more times that we speak up with new ideas or statements in small everyday conversations, the stronger we will be as speakers. Expressing ourselves, our very own selves, is the way we offer our own flavor to the world around us.
Third, find your voice by resisting the use of jargon or tired words. Have you been to enough meetings and presentations when you felt like what you heard was a parade of jargoney-words?
One funny item I’ve seen is a Bingo card of jargon. A friend sent this to me as we were headed into a plenary presentation at a big conference. The point she was making was to prepare ourselves for a litany of industry jargon that we were about to hear. Sure enough, nearly every single word or phrase on that card was spoken that morning: including a new paradigm, making a sea change, giving us a straw man, being a change catalyst, having a sacred cow.
Each of these catch-phrases represents a phrase or concept that suffers from over-use. These phrases are now so tired that they have stopped conveying a real or useful or vivid idea.
Be alert to the next time you hear a list of buzzwords like these. Notice and be aware of what that feels like as a listener: tired, empty phrases that do little to paint a vivid picture.
Then the next time that you are invited to speak, challenge yourself to avoid catchphrases. Or if they are ‘the norm’ and are expected in your arena, at the very least, you can provide a swift synonym or re-phrasing. Speak a vivid example or provide a metaphor: paint a picture or give a fresh image to go along with the tired phrase.
Three ways, then, that we can each be aware of our own voices:
Find your voice by examining the actual sound, volume, and pitch of your own speaking voice.
Speak up to voice your own opinion and perspective. Avoid “Me-Too” conversations.
And finally, resist jargon and tired words. Find a fresh way to say what you mean.
Claudia Brogan is a speaker, trainer and facilitator who helps organizations by coaching presenters, leading collaborative meetings and problem-solving with groups and teams. Reach out to see how she can help you.