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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.

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 Inc.com 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.

Are you being heard? Putting amplification into practice.

Are you being heard? Putting amplification into practice.

Women in Obama’s administration developed a strategy called amplification to help each other speak up and be heard. Here’s how you can amplify your speech and amplify your reach.

BeSpoken March 2016 © Julienne Schaer
Bespoken Co-Founder Leah Bonvissuto

Female staffers in the White House are practicing effective communication skills with a tool they call amplification, where they repeat key points made by other women in the room. According to Juliet Eilperin’s September 13th piece in The Washington Post, “This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution—and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.” From the piece:

“We just started doing it, and made a purpose of doing it. It was an everyday thing,” said one former Obama aide who requested anonymity to speak frankly. Obama noticed, she and others said, and began calling more often on women and junior aides.

These women set an intention, took action, and practiced it—all necessary steps to change any ingrained behavior. It’s hard for women in the workplace to be heard but it’s only in recent memory that we were let into the workforce in the first place.  Women have always contributed to every facet of society, but only now are we taking ownership of our contributions. We are acknowledging how deeply the gender divide divides. We may be on the verge of electing our first female President, but we haven’t even done that successfully—yet.

The Roadblock

A report by McKinsey and LeanIn.org in September 2015 revealed that “at the rate of progress of the past three years, it will take more than 100 years for the upper reaches of US corporations to achieve gender parity.”  If we’re acknowledging it, why isn’t it getting better faster? It’s not just systemic problems preventing women from taking over the C-suite. This very conversation is a roadblock between women when discussing the gender divide. Many women reject that the responsibility is on us because the deck has been stacked against women throughout history.

In Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg writes that “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives—the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men.” Sheryl’s “argument is that getting rid of these internal barriers is critical to gaining power.” Sandberg has since recognized how hard it is for single parents to lean in and it’s important to view the practice as a guiding star rather than a road map.

How will the world change when we see our voices as primary rather than secondary to men? How will the world change if the default voice belongs to a woman and not a man? As we enter this new era, how do we let go of conscious and unconscious behaviors that are no longer serving us?

The Solution

Let’s not tell any woman what she should or shouldn’t do or say. Instead, let’s make sure every woman has the tools she needs to be intentional, aware and in control of what she does and says.

Many of us educated post-feminists are speaking up for the first time. We don’t want to admit it but we desperately want to be heard. It’s exciting and scary to do anything for the first time. Learning how to speak in public and articulating your thoughts, feelings and ideas can be terrifying. That’s why amplification put into practice is so inspiring. Women building executive presence need structures, techniques and safe spaces to develop these new behaviors.

The Tools

Amplification is just one tool that can help us develop communication and presentation skills and hold ourselves and those around us accountable. Here’s some others to help amplify your speech and amplify your reach:


Even if your knees are shaking, maintaining eye contact can make you seem more confident which can make you feel more confident. That’s why Chris Anderson, Head of TED, says it should be the first priority when public speaking: “Great speakers find a way of making an early connection with their audience,” he writes. “It can be as simple as walking confidently on stage, looking around, making eye contact with two or three people, and smiling.” Making eye contact not only jumpstarts a connection with your audience but, when maintained, it makes you and your message more memorable.


What happens to your breath when you’re nervous, unprepared or both? It becomes shallow and many of us experience shortness of breath or “air hunger”. Do you begin speaking at full capacity, or do you exhale that strength and support before speaking? Practice square breathing ahead of time so you can speak with a fully supported voice when stakes are high.  Not breathing deeply leads to habits we’re all guilty of (men too!)—vocal fry, uptalk and low volume to name a few. Slow, deep breathing also stimulates the parasympathetic reaction—which can have the effect of calming you down. Find more tips on deep breathing in our #BEprepared video series here.


A 2010 study in the journal Psychological Science notes that “women have a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior,” so they may be more likely to apologize. This is not a female problem since men are guilty of it too, but it does stem from a lack of confidence and a lack of practice.

The first step to UNapolozing yourself is awareness. Many of us apologize all the time and do not even hear it. You don’t have to use the words “I’m sorry” to apologize—though plenty of us do. Filler-phrases like “kind of”, “just” and “I think” undermine our authority when used unintentionally. We physically make ourselves small and call our thoughts, ideas and feelings into question before they even leave our mouths.

So go ahead. Take up more space. Be heard and understood. Practice the art of public speaking. Communicate consciously. Try saying things affirmatively and with conviction. Download Just Not Sorry, a Gmail plugin that alerts you when you’ve undermined your authority in an email. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to be an outside eye as you develop your communication and presentation skills. Develop systems together, designed for your voices. Hire a public speaking trainer. Be kind to yourself first and foremost. If these behaviors stem from how hard we are on ourselves already, let’s not add to it! Overdo it at first and notice how the world around you starts to follow your lead. If it doesn’t feel exciting and scary, then maybe you’re not going far enough.

UNapologize yourself this Tuesday, September 20th. We’re co-hosting a Twitter chat with New York Women in Communications, Inc. about how too many of us apologize way too often. Follow @BespokenNY and #nywiciChat for tips!



FOX_0187Inspired to help people own their voice and be heard, Bespoken was founded in 2014 by Leah Bonvissuto and Jackie Miller. Friends who met in acting school a decade before, Leah and Jackie channel years of professional theater experience into developing techniques to help people speak their story with power and precision.