UNToday Article by Laura Penn, PhD

This article appeared in the June 2021 Issue of UN Today

By Laura Penn, Ph.D.

I just finished yet another virtual meeting where the experience left me feeling numb, deflated, and unfulfilled. Sound familiar?

The pandemic started more than a year ago, yet I ask myself, why haven’t more people upgraded and elevated how they speak online by now? Why are they stuck doing the same lacklustre speaking repertoire in online meeting, after online meeting?

To help you to understand my quandary more clearly, let me invite you into my recent virtual conversation…

We will call the person I was talking to, Ed. For starters, Ed was cast in a dark shadow. Besides the stale, badly lit office he was in, complete with cluttered, asymmetrical shelves in the background, the only other thing I could see was his silhouette from the chin, up – a curly-haired head, wearing over-the-ear headphones. No facial expressions were visible and there was no body language. During the call, the sound was muffled and I struggled to focus on what Ed was saying. Frankly, I don’t remember much of the conversation and I left our meeting feeling empty.

Spurred on by this negative experience and by a history of so many similar encounters in recent months, I am writing this article to tell you that virtual meetings are here to stay and that it’s time to professionalize how you show up online. So roll-up your shirt-sleeves and let’s fix this.

To elevate how you speak online, begin by noticing that something is wrong

Pay attention to how you feel before, during, and after your online meetings. Ask yourself these ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions:

Before the meeting

• Do I feel unprepared and tense?
• Am I very, very, very nervous?

During the meeting

• Do I feel tired and like I want to give up and totally disconnect?
• Do I feel like I lack control over what my presence, my voice, and my body are doing?

After the meeting

• Do I feel unsatisfied with my speaking performance?
• Do I dread the next meeting?

If you answered ‘no’ to the majority of these questions, you are on a roll. Go for it! You are self-aware, you care about how others perceive you and you have invested in yourself to improve your online speaking repertory. Keep elevating and innovating, and rising to be the best version of yourself every time that you speak online. Aim to improve something new in every virtual conversation that you have. Never stop.

If you answered ‘yes’ to the majority of these questions, it’s time to switch-up your game and massively improve yourself. You are stuck in a rut of bad habits and low standards and you need to radically up-skill in order to rise into showing up as the best version of yourself. Stop dallying the shadows and get to work.

It’s time to professionalize how you show up online

To help you to imagine what this looks like, consider the rock stars of effective camera/online communication – newscasters, the professional ladies and gentlemen who grace our television and computer screens with updates about the state of our world. When broadcasting in their studio environments, they all have something in common, they:

• Have neutral backgrounds which look sharp and clean and don’t usurp attention from the newscaster

• Have lighting which enables viewers to clearly see facial expressions and body language

• Wear lapel microphones, ensuring excellent sound quality

• Can be seen from the torso up (unless they are standing) with their arms and hands clearly visible

• Wear makeup, especially powder to prevent “shine” and eye makeup to enhance the communication of the eyes

• Are well-groomed and wear professional-looking outfits which support their credibility

• Speak clearly and concisely with vocal variety and engaging emphasis

• Are organized and well prepared with their content

Get inspired! and borrow as much from this list as possible to help you to professionalize how you show up online.


The elements I have highlighted here are an excellent starting point for those of you who feel called to professionalize how you speak online. Understand that it takes effort and real skin-in-the-game to do the work I have described. It involves your full commitment of noticing that something is wrong and of taking the action steps necessary to professionalize your virtual conversations.

Also be aware that these points are only the beginning. They constitute the frame of the picture that you are painting for yourself and of the virtual brand that you are building of your online persona. The picture itself is based on your Leadership Speaking: the bold choices you make about your presence, your voice, and your body language so that you can connect with your audiences when you speak online.

But Hey! that’s the stuff of another article. For now, get to work on improving your glittering frame and have fun making it sparkle.


UNToday Article by Laura Penn, PhD

This article was featured in the April 2021 Issue of UN Today

By Laura Penn, Ph.D.

It’s time to disrupt the status quo for how we speak in public.

We are living through a period of great change and our existing model of speaking in front of audiences is outdated. It represents a standard of speaking that deactivates, instead of activates; that is a monologue, instead of a dialogue; and that is zipped-up and tense, instead of relaxed and at ease. Our present reality calls for a different model of speaking, one which connects us to our shared humanity.

As a community of leaders and changemakers at the United Nations, you are in the driver’s seat. What you say and how you say it, matters. Let’s explore three practical ways to meaningfully connect with your audiences.

Activate your voice

We’ve all been there, drowning in the dreary dullness of a monotonous speaker. The air is heavy with the weight of their words and the message has leaked out of the room. We long for movement, laughter, and human connection, but nothing happens.

A secret to defeating vocal monotony is to “play” with your voice. One way to do this is to engage your face when you speak. As you say words, lift your eyebrows and over-enunciate what you say with your mouth. To get a sense of what this feels like, try saying the following quote by Benjamin Franklin three ways:

“If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail”

1.) Say it with very limited lip movement and no other facial gestures. This is how monotone people speak, can you feel how constraining this is?

2.) Say it and lift your eyebrows up and down at the same time. Do you hear a change?

3.) Say it and over-enunciate the words with your mouth. Notice a difference?
Another way to play with your voice is to use vocal accents. These include varying the volume and the speed of your voice and “popping” your words. Try saying the following sentence while emphasizing (popping) each word separately:

“Why do you love?”

“WHY do you love”; “Why DO you love”; “Why do YOU love”; “Why do you LOVE.” Do you see how the skill of popping makes such a big difference? It transforms the meaning of the sentence. Speakers who know how to use vocal accents effectively, can bring their words to life and connect to the hearts and minds of their audiences.

Make your speech a dialogue, not a monologue

Too many speeches these days are a one-way street. A unidirectional transfer of information from one brain to many. This model is flawed because people don’t remember what you tell them, they remember how you make them feel.

An effective way to activate your audience into feeling something is to make every speech you give a conversation. From the point of view of creating your content, simulate a dialogue. Imagine yourself as the audience asking “who”, “what”, “where”, “why”, and “how” questions. In your speaking, you can actually say: “You might be asking yourself, WHY is this important”; or “Raise your hand if you are curious about HOW this works”. Your aim is to engage your audience in a two-way exchange so that they feel involved. Audience participation is an excellent conduit for this.

Tension is the enemy of connection

Beyond the suggestions shared so far, the very best one is to release tension whenever it surfaces. If you don’t it will tighten the muscles of your face, neck, chest, and lower body, shrinking your presence, limiting the sound of your voice, and making your body rigid. This will chip away your credibility, undermine your message, and make it much harder to connect with your audiences. To reduce tension, get into the habit of warming up your whole body before you speak and aim to keep it tension-free.

No free lunch

The practical suggestions highlighted here are an excellent starting point for those of you who feel called to make more meaningful connections with your audiences. The key to success with this timely and noble goal is to understand that learning the art of effective leadership speaking takes effort and dedication. There is no free lunch. It involves you doing the work of activating the meaning of your words, creating dialogues instead of monologues, and vanquishing tension. When you’ve mastered these elements, there is a lot more to discover about this remarkable art form, especially as it pertains to speaking online, which is how most of us speak in front of audiences these days. Get curious, never stop learning, and stay committed to improving yourself so that you and a growing number of other leaders and changemakers can help make the world a better place, one speech at a time.