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9 Tips for Effective Public Speaking (from Finding Your Resonators to Re-learning How to Sit)

April 05, 2018 | Filed in: Your Career

In high school, I was a competitive public speaker. As you can imagine, I was very cool—and comfortable in front of a crowd of hundreds of judge-y teens. Over a decade later, however, I found my public speaking abilities severely diminished, especially at work. When I was competing, the stakes always felt high, but they never had the real-life implications of needing to nail a pitch or hold my own on an industry panel. As a professional, I found myself freezing more and more often.

So when an opportunity came up to work with Casey Clark and Julie Fogh, founders of Vital Voice Training, I jumped at the chance. Over the course of an hour with them, I learned that I had been doing almost everything wrong; and together, we rebuilt my posture, my breathing, even the way I sit in a chair. Below, my nine main takeaways.

Tip #1: Don’t Try to Sound Like Batman

Like many women, I’m conscious about the pitch of my voice. When I speak in front of a crowd, the last thing I want is to sound unserious or young—two things I associate with a higher-pitched voice. One of the first things Casey and Julie emphasized is that there is no “one way” to sound authoritative.

As Casey put it, “The interesting thing about authority that I’ve learned, seeing our clients’ individual interpretations of it, is that it comes in all these different expressions. The more people step out of that narrow notion of what authority sounds like, and show us those variations, the more we can blow up that unconscious bias and just move on from it.”

In other words: Forget what you think “the person in charge” should sound like. Odds are, that voice is deep and male, and you’ll set yourself up for failure trying to sound like something you’re not.

Tip #2: Trust the Chair

Next, Casey and Julie taught me how to sit in a chair. That’s right—I’ve been sitting incorrectly this whole time. I’m a victim of what Casey and Julie call “Good Girl Posture.”

“This is especially common for women,” Casey told me. “Our bodies tense in the center. We’re very perched and appear very eager, but there’s no gravity to our posture.”

What’s the solution? Julie coached me through it: “Sit in a chair for a moment, and don’t adjust yourself to the chair—adjust the chair to you. Trust that chair’s got you. I like to say ‘Let your butt be big.'”

As I sat there, I could feel myself sinking into the chair’s surface, as though the chair was an extension of my own body. I could feel how much more relaxed I looked—and, in turn, that made me feel more calm.

Tip #3: Go Big

Once we had sitting handled, we worked on my arms.

“Our arms are heavy and we hold them so tightly to our bodies,” Julie told me. “But our arms can never fall off. They’re hooked in. Knowing that, you don’t have to do so much work. You can let gravity happen.”

To help me let go of my arms (weird, I know), they had me stretch my hands out to either side, visualizing energy coming out of my finger tips. The exercise made me feel really big, like I was taking up a lot of space—in a good way.

“If you ever have to give a presentation,” Casey told me, “Go in the bathroom, find a stall, and do this exercise. ‘Power posing’ got very hip for a while—remember Wonder Woman arms? The problem is that you can be doing Wonder Woman arms and still be completely crunched in the center of your body. Taking space starts in the center of your body and goes out from there, from your core through your limbs to your fingertips.”

Tip #4: Establish a New (Bodily) Normal

Casey and Julie both come from a performing arts background, and they coach singers in addition to speakers. They emphasized that, whether you’re singing or speaking, it’s important to align your body.

“‘Debauched kinesthesia’ is a term we use to describe how our bodies get used to what we do to them,” Casey told me. If you walk around hunched over all the time, your body identifies that as normal. Even if you get a massage that temporarily realigns you, you’ll start to re-hunch after a while. Often, when we do experience proper bodily alignment, it feels really weird.

But the benefits of alignment are huge—for your voice and your breathing. Casey and Julie prodded me so that I was sitting up straight with my chin slightly tucked, creating a single straight line in my spine. This allowed me to take in full, deep breaths—the kind where your ribs expand, but your shoulders stay relaxed. Having access to those deep breaths is incredibly reassuring, especially in a high-pressure situation like a speech or presentation.

Tip #5: Get to Know Your Resonators

Here’s where things get more technical: Your entire body is an amplifier for your voice.

“The hard structures of your body—your bones, the cavity of your chest—are resonators,” Casey said. “We all have the same resonation chambers, but they’re all shaped a little differently.”

We then took a tour of my resonators, starting with the chest. (I won’t attempt to capture the sounds that I made during this exercise—just know that they were embarrassing and yowling cat-like.) Further up are your mouth resonators. The curved interior of your mouth amplifies your voice, just like the curved walls you’d see in a concert hall.

Finally, there are your nasal resonators, which can seem like the enemy—they are what make a voice sound high and (horror of horrors) shrill. But they have their own kind of power: “They’re the voices that cut through, even in a crowd,” as Casey put it. And when you can breathe deeply and activate all three resonators—chest, mouth, and nose—your voice projects effortlessly.

Tip #6: Go High (if You Want To)

In the past, when I have tried to alter the way my voice sounds, it has always been to make it sound deeper. But Casey and Julie identified my natural pitch as fairly high.

“You’re not Minnie Mouse—don’t worry,” Casey told me. “But that brightness that you get from your nasal resonators is useful, because it can give you that extra edge to cut through any noise.”

Moreover, when I consciously try to move into a lower register, I get tired and have trouble projecting. I always thought it was shortness of breath due to nerves, but it turns out I was fighting my natural vocal range.

Tip #7: Remember Who You Are

What does your name have to do with public speaking? For one thing, it’s an incredibly powerful place to begin.

Julie told me this story: “I have a friend named Carol, and she is incredibly charming. One day, I asked her what her secret was, and she told me that when she approaches someone new, or speaks in a group, she’ll say, ‘Hi, my name is Carol,’ taking care to pronounce each syllable in her name, and then she’ll pause. People really respond to that. Your name is not the prelude to the information you have to share. It is the information you have to share.”

This tip won’t work in every situation—your co-workers of many years might look at you a little funny if you begin a presentation by introducing yourself. But in new or nerve-wracking environments, it’s something you can always come back to.

“Just like your voice, your name carries with it the weight of your personality and your past,” Casey told me. “Your identity deserves to have some space in the room. It’s an offering that helps you create a relationship with those you’re speaking to, and then you can move on.”

Tip #8: Breathe Through Your Feelings

Nerves don’t come out of nowhere—they’re activated by feelings like anxiety and shame. Fighting them creates muscular tension, which leads to all of the issues that stifle your voice (hunched posture, shortness of breath, and so on).

“If you allow yourself to feel these emotions, you’ll realize that it’s just like a wave,” Casey said. “We get into trouble when we fight against how we’re feeling—when we insist, I’m not nervous. When we suppress feelings, we freeze. That’s a terrible way to live in the moments where you really want to ‘show up.’ Take that deep breath that expands your ribs, which will signal to your brain I don’t need armor. I’m okay.

Tip #9: Interrupt Right Back

So, you’ve worked on your breathing, you’re owning your posture, and you’re introducing yourself by name before you plunge into your presentation. But what about the dreaded interruptor?

“Many of our clients come to us speaking way too fast and running out of breath,” Casey said. “It’s rooted in a mindset of ‘I can’t take a moment to breathe, because if I cede the floor, then somebody’s going to interrupt me,’ and you just keep talking until you run out of breath.”

For many women, being interrupted is both jarring and familiar, especially if you are taking your time to finish a thought. For those moments, Julie recommended two things: “Call it out. Say ‘Please don’t interrupt me,’ or ‘I wasn’t quite finished,’ or ‘Hold that thought.’ The second thing is to use your breath strategically.” You’ve probably heard it around a conference table or two—a little intake of air from a woman who’s beginning to answer an aggressive question, only to get totally steamrolled by the same person who interrupted her. Julie suggests: “Take a full breath—and interrupt them right back. Don’t wait for them to pass the baton back to you. Just grab that fucking baton.”

Speaking in public can be nerve-wracking, but conquering that fear is powerful. Part of the equation is feeling confident in what you’re wearing, and that’s where our Power Play collection comes in. 

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Sarah Devlin is the former Director of Content for MM.LaFleur. She's worn many different hats over the course of her career — from writer and web editor, to social media editor and marketing strategist — but her hardest-won title is Kardashian Historian. Read more of Sarah's posts.

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