Finding Your Voice

You’re taking in a lecture, marveling at the speaker. The person is engaging. So personable. A natural.

“Chances are they had training,” said Marla Seiden, a New Hyde Park-based speaking and presentation skills trainer, and president of Seiden Communications. “Effective speaking really is learned. It’s an art.”

Connecting with an audience – at a ceremony, a client presentation, or even via telephone – can be daunting. And being afraid to speak in public is a “common form of anxiety,” according to the Mayo Clinic. But done right, public speaking can be a game changer.

As Maya Angelou once said, “…people will never forget how you made them feel.”

If you can put the jitters aside so that your presentation shines, people will hear your message. You may open new doors, build relationships. Maybe even land new clients, or a promotion. After all, people tend to do business with the people they like.

The best way to do that, experts said, is through well-delivered content. And if you flub, understand that sometimes happens, but don’t shy away from future speaking opportunities. Learn from mistakes, and get back on the stage when the opportunity presents itself again, experts said.

“Being prepared is the most important thing,” said Tracey Segarra, a storyteller and consultant, who also serves as director of marketing for the accounting and consulting firm Margolin, Winer & Evens in Garden City. “Don’t memorize speeches. Make sure you have supporting materials. Have facts and figures at your disposal. The more prepared and more confident you are… the more likely you’ll be heard.”

And, she noted, “the more you do it, the more you know what works, and what doesn’t.”

Body language, good posture and learning to exhale helps. So does a good opening line, assuming it sounds natural, not forced. And practice, perhaps even rehearsing on camera, can go a long way. It’s perhaps the most effective tool for putting anxieties aside, experts said.

When it comes to planning your content, retaining a professional speechwriter may help with the presentation’s nuts and bolts. But local experts offered some basics.

“Know your audience,” Segarra said.

If the room is filled with professionals in your field, perhaps talk about your role in the industry. Segarra, a former journalist, when speaking at marketing conferences, opened with how when she started in the field, she hadn’t ever taken a business course, and initially felt like a fraud. Her reasoning for sharing that tidbit?

“Let them in to how you felt. You’re letting them into your humanity,” she said. “It could be just a one-minute story that invites them in to know something about you and why they should be listening to you.”

And the stories should tie in to your speech, Seiden said.

Getting the audience to laugh can be a good opening tool, but some presenters may find that burdensome, concerned that people might not find a joke funny.

Instead, consider commanding their attention by asking “How many of you…’” to involve the audience right away, Seiden said. Or open with a quote, or a statistic – something that gets people thinking about what your speech, she added.

Keep professional jargon out of your speech, unless the room will be packed with industry insiders, Seiden said. And leave a slot for questions and answers – but don’t let these moments wrap up your speech. Instead, consider saying, “Before I conclude, I’ll take some questions,” Seiden suggested. “Words linger, and you want to be memorable. You don’t want people to leave remembering the questions so much, but instead remembering you.”

A video of yourself can reveal a lot about your presentation skills.

“Video yourself, play it back and critique yourself,” said Cindy Mardenfeld of Infinity Relations in Deer Park, who, earlier in her career, made regular presentations to promote Relay for Life for American Cancer Society. “See how many times you say ‘hmmmm,” and other filler words.

Don’t be afraid to pause, Seiden said, noting that some people think it’s better to use a filler word over a silent moment. But a pause, she said, can add interest to your presentation, as attendees wonder what you’ll say next.

And don’t forget body posture.

“Stand with both feet planted, shoulder-width apart,” rather than leaning on one leg, Seiden said. And keep arms free rather than crossed. “You might cross your arms because you’re cold, but people might think you’re stand-offish.”

“And if possible, gesture appropriately to support your content – practice helps make perfect, but to the audience the gestures should appear natural,” Seiden said.

Smile where appropriate. Consider walking away from the podium, if the mic isn’t attached, Seiden said. And look around the room, switching it up to make eye contact with people sitting at various points of the room.

Even your voice can be finessed – varying tempo to fast or slow, the pitch to higher or lower to prevent a boring monotone, Seiden said. If there’s an exciting point to your speech, raise your voice a bit. If there’s a serious moment, consider lowering your voice.

Whether videoing or practicing in the mirror, be mindful of your mannerisms, so as not to distract, Mardenfeld said.

And while you’re looking in the mirror, bring some positive affirmation.

“Say to yourself, ‘I’m going to knock this out of the park – this will be great,’” Seiden said. Bring that energy to your grand entrance. “Walk like you mean it – confidently, not tentatively.”

And disregard jewelry such as big earrings, which can dangle and also cause a distraction, Mardenfeld said.

A good rule of thumb for a professional audience is to “avoid busy patterns,” Seiden said. “Blue is a good conservative choice.”

But if you’re addressing a crowd in say, tech, or advertising, “you don’t want to be too stuffy,” Seiden added. Opt for a business suit – nothing too flashy – “and wear things that are comfortable and easy to move around in. Otherwise, the outfit could be too distracting and diminish credibility. You want to be professional, and look the part.”

It helps to see the room in which you’re going to speak before the big event. Sometimes the meeting planner can provide access so that you can get a feel for the spotlight before going on stage.

Be sure to have your materials in order, whether on index cards or as slides. They can serve as prompts if you lose your way, Seiden said.

Prior to your speech, take a walk and do some shoulder rolls to “put your nerves in a better direction,” Seiden said. And breathing exercise can help.

She noted that these kinds of strategies also work for interdepartmental meetings or even phone calls.

Before a meeting, try to get ahold of the agenda so you know “where you might fit in,” and perhaps ask the person running it if you can contribute. Sometimes just weighing in with a “That’s a great idea” enables you to have your voice heard and show support, Seiden said.

Prior to a call, know your script, and consider making the call while standing, and now and then smiling and varying your voice to express emotion and exude energy, Seiden said.