Finding Your Voice(s)

Image courtesy Flickr User Hamed (CC BY 2.0)

Image courtesy Flickr User Hamed (CC BY 2.0)

If you’ve ever taken a class (or read a book or article) on how to speak effectively in public you’ve probably heard the refrain, “find your voice.” Usually this is meant as an exhortation to let your unique, authentic, personal style shine through no matter what the talk or situation. While there is great value in knowing your style, I suggest that speakers who aspire to move beyond the novice level should seek to find not only their voice, but their voices.

Expanding your Palette

We all have a natural speaking style or “voice”. Our voice is more than just our timbre, accent, or pacing, although these characteristics are certainly part of our overall style. Our voice may also be colored by our tendency to be either casual or formal; highly structured or stream-of-consciousness; sedate or inspirational. Whatever your natural speaking style I assure you, there are situations to which it is well-suited and appropriate, and situation to which it is NOT well suited. There will be situations where you own natural voice, or style, will detract from your goal, and the adoption of other styles, will enhance your ability to get your message across.

Since the ultimate goal of any speaking engagement is to effectively communicate with the audience, and (hopefully) create some change in their thinking or behavior, it is therefore important to be able to tailor your style to a specific audience, in a specific time, at a specific place. That is why it is helpful to have a palette of voices to choose to from depending on what we are trying to accomplish in any given talk or training.

Step One: Know Thyself

The first step to effectively using many voices is to be aware of your natural style. You must know what it is you do, if you want to consciously choose to do something else. While painful for many, there is no better way to learn your own natural voice than to video yourself speaking. (yes, I’m afraid you then need to watch the video. Repeatedly.) Once you know and are comfortable with your natural voice, the next step is to begin expanding your palette of styles. Ideally, you should be able to choose from a variety of different styles, changing or modifying your natural voice as the needed. Some situations will call for a casual folksiness, while others will call for a confident professionalism. There are situations that require upbeat enthusiasm or inspiration, while in other situations your effectiveness will be increased by a sober, dispassionate style. Being able to slip into appropriate styles at the appropriate times will greatly enhance your effectiveness as a presenter.

Step Two: Know Others

There is really only one way to consciously incorporate other styles into your speaking toolkit: Watch other speakers with an eye for differing styles, and then practice speaking like they do. A great resource for seeing top tier speakers with markedly different styles is the archive of “TED Talks” available at: http://www.ted.com/ . TED Talks are eighteen minute talks billed as “riveting talks by remarkable people”, and boy do the speeches live up to the hype! After watching a few TED Talks, you’ll quickly see that there are a myriad of effective styles. Watch Sir Ken Robinson (http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html)

 

 

and then watch Tony Robbins (http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/tony_robbins_asks_why_we_do_what_we_do.html).

 

 

They have vastly different styles. Watch their body language and use of gesture, their pace, their level of formality and choice of words. Each talk is brilliant and engaging, but in very different ways. Try watching one TED Talk every week and keep a notebook with notes on the elements of each speaker’s style, and how those elements make them more or less effective. Also think about when and how those elements might increase your effectiveness if you were able to use them at will.

Step Three: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? (Practice)

Once you know your own style, and have identified elements of other speakers’ styles that you might like to use, the next step is to get out there and start speaking. In addition (or instead of) speaking to community groups, colleagues, or library customers, consider joining (or starting) a local Toastmasters chapter. Why Toastmasters? Because the very structure of Toastmasters requires you to give many speeches in a variety of styles. Some speeches require you to focus on body language, others focus on being inspirational, persuasive, funny, well-researched, or simply to-the-point. Another great benefit of Toastmasters is that you will receive detailed constructive feedback on all of your speeches—which is at least as valuable, if not more so, than watching yourself on video. Finally, Toastmasters gives you an opportunity to see others giving speeches, so you can continually observe a variety of styles noting what works, what doesn’t, and why. Toastmasters offers speakers that rarest of gifts; a place to try new things and practice in a safe environment.

Speaking in Voices: Putting it All Together

Whether you choose to join Toastmasters or not, I encourage you to try on new voices and find some safe forum for giving talks that are outside of your comfort zone. Learning to speak in a variety of voices is like learning to act outside of your natural personality style: All of us can do it – and to be effective there are times when all of us have to do it– but it takes conscious effort and energy.

One example of how this looks when it all comes together is a short talk (albeit with a long name: What do a leaky roof, a greasy spoon, a bear sighting, and a man with a tortoise in his pants all have in common? Watch this lightening talk and find out… ) I recently did on Effective Presentations at the Pres4lib Presentation Camp. The talk was highly stylized and was very much outside of my own natural presentation style. A number of people who saw this talk but had not seen me speak previously assumed that they were seeing my natural style. In fact, what they saw was the result of specific choices, made to support a specific goal.

Making Conscious Choices

I knew that the presentation was going to be after a lunch and part of a long, full day, so I made certain style choices with a goal of getting and holding the audience’s attention, and re-energizing them to get through the rest of the afternoon. The choices I made to achieve that goal were:

  • speaking with greater vocal variety (varying speed and pitch)
  • using many engaging visuals
  • using humor
  • increasing movement and gesture
  • using no notes (the first time I’ve done a truly noteless talk—but I wanted to be more free to move/gesture)

All of these conscious choices were outside of my natural style, which meant that this seven minute talk took more time, energy and preparation then many longer talks I’ve done. Many of the elements (the visuals, the humor, the gesturing, the vocal variety) I had practiced as separate skills in many Toastmasters meetings over the past few years, so when it came time to put them together I was able to choose from a fairly rich palette of voices.

My ultimate goal is to be able to easily choose from many styles (Inspiring, Passionate, Funny, Serious, Whimsical, Practical, Irreverent, Self-deprecating, Authoritative, Provocative, Authentic, Motivational, Challenging, Helpful, Informative, Scholarly, Folksy, etc.) and body/voice techniques (Pitch, Inflection, Speed, Volume, Diction, Pauses/silences, Gestures, Body Language, Eye Contact, etc.) and effectively create the right mix, at the right time, for the right audience.

What’s Your Story?

I’d love to hear from you about how you’ve developed your style. What are you tips, tricks and triumphs? Who inspires you to reach a little further, and stretch just a little bit more out of your comfort zone? If you have any good links to videos that you’ve found helpful let me know (or better yet, add them to this shared bookmark group: http://groups.diigo.com/groups/clenert)