“A voice is a human gift; it should be cherished and used, to utter fully human speech. Powerlessness and silence go together.” – Margaret Atwood, Writer
I learned the secret of confident speaking when I was 16. I was performing before a judges’ panel at the Stellenbosch Eisteddfod. The category I was performing in? Poetry. The poem? ‘Die Dag op Nuweland’ – a satire by Jeanne Goosen about a typical South African rugby match, a day at Cape Town’s Newlands rugby stadium.
The judges had already heard me perform, but they had called me back to do it again. As I stood there I had no idea why.
Since I was 11 I had taken part in speech and drama classes and competitions. This was the first time I saw the judges requesting a repeat and, believe me, I had been at many of these competitions.
Were they thinking it had been so great that it must have been a fluke and they wanted to see whether I could do it again? Did they not like my performance? Had I failed so miserably that they wanted to give me a second chance?
I remember deciding to forget why, and to give it my best shot.
I also remember doing two very specific things during my second performance.
First, I looked straight in their direction, fixing my gaze on them and unveiling my eyes so that they could see into my soul. Fearlessly, I allowed them to see what I saw in the words.
Second, I remember matching that unveiling of my intention with my voice.
I took the first words: “Hoera Boland en Haak Vrystaat!”
It was as if I had the ball tucked in the crook of my arm, was aiming at the goal line and pumping my legs, running free, fast and furious.
My voice was controlled by my breath, supported by a rock hard diaphragm, allowing it to resonate in a completely relaxed chest cavity, while the muscles in and around my mouth clearly and carefully shaped each word as I followed the rhythm and melody of the poem.
I did not allow tension or fear to show, and not once did I let nerves and uncertainty interfere with my voice.
As I drew the performance to a close, I held the attention in silence for a moment and then broke off my gaze. The audience was quiet for moment and then one of the judges stood up and began to clap. The rest of the audience followed with thunderous applause (well, thunderous for the twenty-odd people who were there for their own children’s performances). It was the first time I received 100% for a performance. I had cracked the secret of pulling an audience into the performance as opposed to bombarding them with it.
Here is the thing: I could only guess at where the judges sat and whether I was looking them in the eyes or not.
You see, I am partially sighted, I cannot look anyone in the eye without faking it. I have no central vision (I call it doughnut vision because all the good stuff is on the sides with just a hole in the middle). If I look straight at anyone, I cannot see them. This can either cause me to look blank and unreceptive, or I can choose to look straight at them and not see them, but unveil my eyes and let them see into my soul.
This is a trick I had learned long before, so that the cute, cruel boys in grade 5 would not call me Crossed Eyes. Unmasked authenticity is disarming, intriguing, rare and memorable.
But once the audience is inside, they must find something there that is worthwhile and meaningful, something that is powerful and promising, especially if they are to be part of it. This is where your voice and your message come into the picture.
At my poetry performance of ‘Die Dag op Nuweland’, I learned to match that pull of the unveiled soul with a voice that did the same, but this time with something worthwhile to offer in return. Drawing the audience into how you see things invites them into a world set apart from their own.
If that world is inviting and engaging, they are moved by the confidence you have in your message and material. This is the opposite of what most people think communication is about. Most people think it is about getting the message across the big divide between you and someone else. They think it is about throwing it out there and hoping it will hit the mark.
It is not about throwing the message out, but about drawing the audience in.
A speaker’s voice must invite confidence and instil trust, while at the same time it commands attention and motivates the audience.
A voice that is both inviting and influential possesses certain physical qualities. Most voices do not have these qualities naturally. Yet, with knowledge and practice you too can cultivate this kind of voice.
As with training for the Comrades marathon (89 km between Durban and Pietermaritzburg), your body needs to unlearn bad habits and relearn new ones. When you train for a marathon, you need to teach your muscles to persist working under strain. You have to condition them so that adjusting to the road and the conditions becomes automatic and you can keep your mind on your goal.
“If you don’t ever stop singing, your voice stays in shape. It’s like the marathon runner. You’ve got to run, run, run to stay in shape.” – Sammy Hagar, Musician
Similarly, speaking invitingly and confidently with a trained voice can become automatic so that you can keep your mind on the message and the audience.
To replace unwanted habits with new ones takes at least six weeks of dedicated hard work. This course is designed to lead you through such a six-week training programme so that the vocal habits you need for confident, inviting communication becomes automatic.
Grow your voice is a six-week course designed to help you automatically
• find a good posture that helps you relax and communicate confidence
• use breath to control your voice and your nerves
• produce a rich, warm voice that invites attention and instils trust
• shape sounds skilfully so that every word is heard without strain
• create emotional engagement by enticing the listener to keep on listening.
“It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” – Mark Twain
You have just read the introduction to my book: Grow your voice to Speak with Confidence. The book is a 6 week course and includes a training CD with exercises.
Come to one of our workshops or courses.
Or contact me for individual coaching options.
Dr. Petro Janse van Vuuren