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We are living through a period of great change and our existing model of speaking in front of audiences is outdated.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.