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Free Your Voice (and the rest will follow): This Independence Day, liberate your voice.

Free Your Voice (and the rest will follow): This Independence Day, liberate your voice.

This July 4th, let’s talk about freedom of speech. Are you using your voice to get what you want, or is your voice holding you back? Follow these tips to free your voice. 

Our tagline at Bespoken is Own Your Voice”. For some, that means knowing what you want to say. For someone else, it means practicing how to say it. It can mean not feeling censored or oppressed, or feeling heard and vindicated. Knowing how to use your voice and own it is essential to public speaking and having effective communication skills. Is your voice serving you or undermining you? When communicating, is your voice is in sync with your thoughts and feelings, or are you swimming upstream? It may be time to free your voice.

Here, I share my own story in finding, freeing and, eventually, owning my voice. It’s a constant journey and I learn every day. I hope it is helpful in your own process towards vocal liberation.

Finding My Voice

As a kid, I had crippling social anxiety. I had plenty of close friends but in groups, I would clam up and couldn’t be myself. But as a theater kid, I could be whoever I wanted to be onstage.  I could play a role. There were rules we all had to follow, and they even told me what words to say. It was heavenly.

Even when I started directing theater, I played the role of theater director. The problem was that between shows, I lost my identity. That meant that I rarely took breaks between shows, often double booking myself and working 14-16 hour days all the time. In a rehearsal room, I knew who I was, but I lost my sense of self once I got out of my comfort zone. Being interviewed by the press or meeting with producers was harrowing. I didn’t own my voice and I didn’t know how to find it.

I was hiding behind my role as a theater director. It was time to leave my comfort zone and take a conscious break from theater. What happened after surprised me. Instead of going back to theater, my lifelong love, I became an entrepreneur instead. I found my voice through helping others free theirs. Helping others helped me help myself.

Freeing My Voice

We weren’t taught how to interact with others. We think it should come naturally, but for me, I needed a technique to help me connect with others in a meaningful and authentic way.

Inside Out

Before I could look outside of myself and connect with others, I had to look inward.  I needed to practice vulnerability and connection. For the first time, I started meditating and spending time alone. My father was a lifelong meditator, and we had dabbled in it in acting school, but I always thought I was supposed to turn off my thoughts before being able to “do it right”. Since that was impossible, I always felt like a failure. I started using Headspace, an app which taught me that meditation is not about getting rid of thoughts. There is no “doing it right”. Instead, it’s about not judging yourself for having the thoughts in the first place. That is the practice.

I read The Artist’s Way and took myself on dates alone. For the first time ever, I was asking myself what I wanted to do and I would do it. And yes, sometimes that meant being lazy and not doing anything. I started writing in the morning, which was cringeworthy at first, but helped me hear myself for the first time. My wants, needs and goals became clearer once I was able to listen amidst all the noise.

Outside In

Once I was able to listen to myself without judgment (a constant struggle to this day), I could begin to look outward. In safe situations, I practiced connecting and letting down my guard. I practiced vulnerability by not filling the silences and by allowing myself to be quiet with others. It was extremely uncomfortable but I slowly got more comfortable in the discomfort. I made big physical changes, like dying my hair platinum and changing my wardrobe. Embracing Embodied Cognition made me feel more confident because I would appear more confident which would in turn made me feel more confident.

Owning My Voice

Communication is a muscle and like any skill, the more you do it the easier it gets. Before now I had been avoiding situations that made me feel uncomfortable. I was always terrified that I would spark a panic attack, and when you constantly live in a place of fear it’s impossible to be present and connect with others. I started going to networking events nearly nightly, which happened to coincide with Jackie and I starting this company. The simple act of taking ownership over my fears helped me to move through them, instead of constantly avoiding them.

This Independence Day, I hope you begin the journey towards vocal liberation. Your process for finding, freeing and owning your voice will differ from mine but we all start from the same place: Acknowledging that we are not alone and recognizing that there is something we can do to take ownership over the way we interact in the world.

Why Finding Comfort in the Discomfort is Key to Confident Public Speaking

Why Finding Comfort in the Discomfort is Key to Confident Public Speaking

The phrase ‘old habits die hard’ exists for a reason. Especially when it comes to confident public speaking.

Making the decision to actively change your communication style can be daunting.  Even so, you’re ready to commit to making a change.  Maybe you’ve reached this point on your own.  Or a subtle suggestion from a colleague or friend that did the trick.  Or a not-so-subtle suggestion from your boss.  Regardless, you’re committed to doing what it takes to achieve your new public speaking style.Yet undoing old habits is difficult.  And changing how you speak when speaking publicly can feel counterintuitive to the way you’ve always known.  

So how can you overcome these uncomfortable sensations? And avoid them derailing you from achieving your communication goal? Acknowledge that different doesn’t equal bad.

A few weeks ago, a quirky client with a goofy sense of humor was preparing for a high-stakes pitch to potential investors. I encouraged her to employ a more direct and confident tone. She expressed concern that delivering her pitch in this manner felt “false”. And what’s more, seemed imprudent. Why would she want to purposely exclude the part of her personality that she found ingratiated her to many people?

After successfully explaining how self-deprecating quips and unrehearsed comic relief could easily backfire(!) we spoke at length about finding comfort in the discomfort.  In other words, communicating differently in order to effectively get what you want may feel like “not being yourself” but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Awkward sure.  But an important indicator that you’re actively working on implementing the change you set out to achieve.

Maybe you are often complimented on your warm and easy-going nature.  Or lauded for your ability to quietly and deeply focus on a task.  Yet these same characteristics that make you ‘you’ may not serve you when public speaking.  And letting go of them can be uncomfortable.

Most detrimental public speaking habits tend to rise to the surface making them easier to identify and correct.  

Some that come immediately to mind: overuse of hand gestures.  Employing unnecessary fillers such as, “like” and “sort of. Formulating a response before the other person has finished sharing their thought. But for many of us, beneath these superficial facets of our communication style live characteristics deeply rooted to our sense of self.  Which can be linked to powerfully potent feelings such as fear and our sense of self-worth.  Examples include the sound of your own voice. Making direct eye contact to invite your audience’s gaze.  The cadence and pace of your speech.  Even something as simple as standing up straight when speaking publicly can trigger feelings of intense vulnerability.

In his recent article for Forbes, “Communicating Effectively In Times of Change,” David Villa shines a light on the importance of a strong sense of self when working to lead external change. “I believe that all great leaders possess an understanding of their own behavior [and an] understanding of their own thoughts and feelings. I feel strongly that the same holds true with internal, self-propelled change as well.

Embracing the sound of your voice as it fills the room, slowing down and giving your audience time to absorb your ideas – can trigger discomfort.  Reminding yourself that this discomfort is not bad but quite the opposite is important.  It’s proof that you are doing the hard work required to replace longstanding bad habits with good ones and are taking control of the impression you want to make.



Leadership + Communication: 3 steps to becoming a better leader

Leadership + Communication: 3 steps to becoming a better leader

Is it possible to be a good leader without being a good communicator? Here, we explore the connection between leadership and communication. 

At Bespoken, we are passionate about helping leaders improve professional communication skills. Over the past month, we’ve worked with leaders at AIGLinkedIn and AOL, and in the fields of tech, healthcare and finance. We frequently help leaders at Columbia Business School find their voice and own it. Across the board, it’s impossible to separate good leadership from effective communication skills. Yet, leaders often lack solid communication skills. For others, it can be the one trait preventing them from rising to a leadership role.

Research backs up the connection between leadership and communication. Businesses lose $37 billion per year because of employee misunderstanding. According to another study, the cumulative cost of communication barriers is $26,041 per employee. On the flip side, companies with leaders who are highly effective communicators report 47% higher total returns. And Best Buy found that for every percentage point it boosted employee engagement, individual stores reported a $100,000 annual increase in operating income.

In 2015, we contributed an article to about leadership and presentation skills. Of course, how you present yourself as a leader is vital, but we believe that the ability to communicate effectively leads to true organizational growth and change.

Want to be a better leader? Communicate more effectively. Improving communication and presentation skills means changing lifelong behaviors. These changes don’t come overnight, but you will see an instant boost in communication skills by implementing these three tools:

Be Receptive 

Do you know that we spend 70-80% of our waking hours communicating?  We spend 45% of that time listening and yet, the average listener only remembers 25% of what is said. Bad listening leads to mistakes and employee dissatisfaction. Practice active listening: Pay attention, look at the person, ask questions and visualize what they are saying. Not only will you be able to act on the information more efficiently, but when someone feels heard they become more emotionally invested and are more likely to do good work.

Be Present

When someone needs your attention, give it to them. Even if your mind is racing with to-do’s, make yourself physically available by uncrossing your arms, standing (or sitting) up straight, and making eye contact. Bringing your whole self to a conversation will help you more clearly address the issue at hand and prevent other problems from arising.

Be Precise 

Being deliberate and clear in your communication is key. Before a huddle or difficult conversation, really think about what you want to say. Articulate your goal for the conversation in one sentence, then jot down notes and practice it once or twice to be sure the words you choose accurately reflect your goals for the conversation. Remove any grey areas by recording yourself to make sure your words cannot be misinterpreted or taken the wrong way. Adding a minute or two on the front end can save hours of backpedaling on the back end.

Want to change your communication style? Embrace growing pains.

Want to change your communication style? Embrace growing pains.

Working on changing your communication style? Patience + awareness = success.

Last weekend I ran a workshop with my friend Lisa Pertoso, founder of Follow the Fear.  The focus was ways to amplify your voice in the workplace.  We dug into techniques designed to help you advocate for yourself as well as others who may be lacking a voice.  While debriefing an exercise on how to speak from a commanding and rooted place, a participant shared she felt fake speaking that way.  She said the sound of her own voice was forced and unnatural.  I then asked the rest if she seemed forced or unnatural in any way when she had spoken to the group.  Not one single person said ‘yes’.  Everyone expressed quite to the contrary. She seemed confident, in control, and powerful.  All the ways we want to seem when we’re advocating for ourselves.

Find Truth in the Size

This moment from last week’s workshop highlights an important sensation that happens when changing your communication style.  And it’s not only our clients who experience it.  I’ve gone through it as well. A favorite assignment of mine from my days as a drama student is when everyone was assigned a monologue from a role they’d never be cast in.  For example, my teacher gave a strapping guy with a football player-like build one of Juliet’s speeches to Romeo. As a 20 year-old woman, I performed a soliloquy of King Lear’s.  The speech is in the middle of the play as Lear begins his descent into complete madness. Tackling the scene was thrilling and terrifying at the same time (much like public speaking, I think!) because it demanded an immense amount of energy.  It wasn’t until after the assignment was over I realized why my teacher had specifically assigned that piece to me.

Firstly, my teacher was trying to encourage me to make bigger, bolder choices as a performer.  Secondly, and more importantly, he was trying to get me comfortable with a different sensation as the sensation of being ‘big’ was not my usual way on stage.  For those of you looking to change your communication style, awareness of this difference and embracing it is key to your success.  Modifying your performance when public speaking hinges on embracing that it will feel and sound different.  And that this difference isn’t bad, it’s just…different.  As in not the way you’re used to it feeling.

Change takes practice…and time.

We say over and over that communication is a muscle.  And just like a muscle that is not used to working in a certain way, it takes time.  Time to build your confidence in and embrace a new communication style.

To work through unfamiliar sensations as you practice here are few things to try.  Videotape yourself.  Ask a friend to lend an outside eye.  Work with a coach. You could even keep a journal where you track over time how you’re feeling.  Regardless of what you do though be sure to extend yourself a little patience and remember— change takes time.

Conquering Your Fear of Client Cultivation

Conquering Your Fear of Client Cultivation

The biggest fear for female entrepreneurs? Attracting new clients.

As someone who started my own business relatively recently this September, 2016 study by Hiscox (a leader in specialized business insurance) resonated with me.  DNA of an Entrepreneur surveyed 1,000 U.S. business owners and found the biggest fear of female small business owners surveyed is not being able to attract new clients (24%).  I imagine any number of thoughts such as these pass through the mind of all entrepreneurs: Will potential clients find value in my idea? Will they trust in my ability to deliver as promised?  Will I deliver my pitch convincingly?  If we pull back the layers of this fear I think we’ll find at its root a crisis of confidence.  Which can be conquered by taking command of your communication skills. Start by asking yourself, “What’s my communication style?”

Know Your Communication Style

Peter A. Garber of HRD Press created a communication questionnaire we like to use with our clients.  It starts by asking you to pick the communication style that best describes you: Outspoken/Direct | Quiet/Reserved | Thoughtful/Analytical | Friendly/Unassuming.  I appreciate these are broad categories.  You can certainly be quiet and also thoughtful.  But in my experience most people identify strongly with one category more than the rest.  It then goes on to ask, “In what ways is your communication style misunderstood by others?”  I find this question particularly important because it acknowledges that we’ve all been misunderstood at one time or another. And it encourages an ability I believe we each have to take a step back from these situations and identify what went wrong.  Honoring that you have your own unique communication style is the first step to understanding how to shape your communication skills in business to your advantage.

Can nerves be a good thing?

I imagine another facet of this fear of not being able to attract new clients is, “Will I make a good impression?”  The factors that inform the impression someone has of you are multifaceted to be sure.  Through our work we’ve found that two of the biggest are our physical choices and vocal tone.  When pitching a new client, nerves are sure to be running high.  This is precisely when unconscious physical habits such as, playing with the pen on the desk or fixing our hair unnecessarily kick in.  It’s our subconscious way of diffusing nerves.  Think of them as unconscious self-preservation tactics.  I find this comforting, actually.  It’s easy to look at nervous ticks as things that make you a ‘bad’ or ‘weak’ at business communication skills.  But at their root their just your system’s (misdirected) way of helping you succeed in that moment.

Take a deep breath.

Nerves also affect breath.  Have you ever experienced a time when you were nervous speaking to someone and ‘lost your air’? I have.  Counteracting this is where technique comes in.  One way we like to practice is by placing one hand on your upper chest and one on your abdomen just above your bellybutton.  Take an inhale isolating your breath into your top hand.  Then do the same with the bottom hand. Notice which sensation feels familiar and which awkward.  Over time the goal is to breath into your bottom hand – your diaphragm.  Breathing into the top half of your chest put unnecessary strain on your vocal chords and creates a roadblock of sorts for your voice.  Breathing into your diaphragm creates a supported foundation to communicate from. Check out our xxx video for step-by-step instructions.

Recruiting new clients may never be a breeze but understanding your communication style and how to shape it will lead to higher rates of success when communicating in high-stress environments and change feelings feelings of fear to excitement and anticipation.