(Find part 1 of this three-part series here.)
If you are pursuing writing as any kind of a career and intend to do the marketing and publicity necessary to reach readers, it’s worth thinking about and developing your verbal communication skills.
As much as we’d like to believe it’s the substance of our work that matters most, and of course it is, for people discovering your work, you are the representation of it. Your voice, both literal and figurative, is the voice they will either fall in love with or not, and will expect to encounter in one way or another in your stories.
In last week’s post I talked about you as the messenger and how you present your message. But equally important are the mechanics: your actual literal voice, your speech patterns and mannerisms, your diction, delivery, and even the equipment you may use.
The medium is the message
I used to be an actor, and you get familiar in a hurry—overly familiar—with your how your voice sounds, your communication style, and your many verbal tics you may not be aware you have, but which become glaringly, embarrassingly obvious as soon as you begin to listen to yourself recorded.
Despite the nearly universal discomfort of doing exactly that, I strongly recommend recording yourself and listening to your own voice and communication style as much as you can. Trying to address some of these areas without actually hearing what you’re doing is like trying to revise your story without reading it.
Zoom has the ability to let you start a call all by yourself. Try that, hit record, and spend even just a few minutes extemporaneously talking about your work in progress or a recent book you liked, or anything on your mind. Or record a casual call with a friend or a mock interview and then go back and listen—you will be surprised how much it reveals about your speaking style.
Pay attention to certain key areas in how you express yourself:
Your voice itself
The way we speak, just like the way we stand and move, is both nature and nurture: meaning our vocal quality results from not just our natural physiology, but also habits we’ve assumed over the course of our lives, both good and bad.
Are you “nasal,” funneling your vocal production unnecessarily through your nose? (Think Fran Drescher or Friends’ Janice.) Do you swallow your words in the back of your throat? (Think Bill Clinton or Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade.) Do you speak in a distracting or hard-to-hear breathy way, like Marilyn Monroe?
These mannerisms can overtake or undermine your message—a breathy speaker can sound unconfident or unintelligent; nasal voices can seem aggressive or abrasive; swallowed words may make it seem as if you don’t believe in what you’re saying.
Unlearning a lifetime of unconscious habits in vocal production can be challenging, but if you’re worried that yours may distract from your message, it’s worth a few lessons with a vocal coach—and plenty of mindfulness and practice—to address some of them.
Notice your tics and habits
- Does your voice go up at the end of every line like a question? That can often make you sound uncertain or unauthoritative.
- Do you use unconscious filler words like “like” or “uh” or “you know,” or have other default words or phrases you overuse (ask my husband about “and things like that”)? These repeated words and phrases will often become grating to a listener’s ear, and may make them focus on those habits rather than your message.
- Is your delivery flat or monotone? Regardless of how interesting your message may be, this can make readers tune you out as “boring.”
These are distracting habits we can unlearn by paying attention to them—and the best way to notice them is in listening to recordings of yourself. Just as we often resort to pet words and phrases in our writing that we are blind to, we often use default verbiage and mannerisms automatically, without being aware of it till we hear it.
Another excellent way to identify these pet phrases, words, and habits is to download a recording into a transcription app and read it. You may be horrified how often they pop out at you.
Pay attention to your pace
One of my bugaboos is that I speak very quickly. I’ve had to consciously learn to slow my delivery in a spoken forum. You may think it’s a great idea to cram a ton of ideas in, or feel as if your words can’t keep up with your thoughts, but it can overwhelm readers with a barrage of verbiage and risk their detaching from what you have to say.
It’s okay to take a moment, too—to collect your thoughts or formulate what you want to say. Compelling speakers aren’t filling every second with verbiage; they take pauses, speak thoughtfully, reflect and consider. Just as in your writing you vary the pace to give readers a chance to catch their breath, it helps to do the same in a spoken medium.
Monitor your volume
As a theater actor it was ingrained in me to project, and I often have to remind myself to modulate that in the more intimate environment of a podcast interview or online presentation so it doesn’t seem as if I’m shouting at listeners or “all het up,” as we Southerners say. (Ask the 120 guests at our wedding, who burst into laughter when I all but screamed my first “I do” to make sure they could hear me even in the cheap seats….)
But when I’m in a classroom situation, I have to remember to reconnect with that training and “speak from my diaphragm” (Google it; it’s a thing). If someone can’t hear you or has to strain, that’s a distraction that will keep them from focusing on your message and material.
As much as most of us relish words and the music of language, I’m often surprised how many authors have what we referred to when I was an actor as “mush-mouth”: a distracting elision or imprecision of pronunciation. Words are your medium; take time to practice speaking clearly.
Be careful of overarticulating, though, which risks making you sound stilted or douchey. 😊
And while you don’t need to erase all traces of your background—regionalisms and accents—don’t let it become the predominant feature of your communication. These mannerisms are part of your personality and voice and can be genuine and charming (think Andi MacDowell)—but in the extreme they will be all your listeners focus on (think Ross Perot).
We think of this as an autonomic function—but the moment you find yourself in front of an audience or mic you may be surprised how easily you forget how to do it while talking. Nerves don’t help—your breathing may grow shallow or fast or loud in your ears (and listeners’ ears if you’re mic’d).
One of the best techniques for both issues is to simply take time drawing in a breath whenever you need to. (And don’t forget to breathe out!) It may seem like a long gap to you, but it won’t usually come across that way. This ensures you’ve got sufficient air to produce resonant sound and finish your sentences, but it also has a calming effect.
Audiobook narrator Pat Fraley offers this video for a simple technique on how to breathe naturally (and not distractingly) that may be useful for any speaking engagement.
This was a hard one for me to learn—like many of us I panic at silences and babble to fill it. But you risk diluting your message or seeming like a windbag. Make your point as concisely as possible—but no need to rush through it—and then leave a beat or two for your host or other speakers to weigh in, audience reactions, or even just a moment for folks to digest if you are presenting solo.
Just trust me on this—proper hydration will address a myriad of issues, from mouth noise to dry mouth to nerves. Soda or juice won’t do it—the sugar creates stickiness and really gross mouth noise; caffeine dries your mouth out; and dairy creates mucus, which is entirely disgusting to hear on a mic. I do not do any speaking of any kind without a glass or bottle of water and a backup at hand—and I avoid all the above for several hours beforehand as well.
Watch your potty mouth
I happen to be a fan of finely wrought cursing—the bluer the better for me. But I’m mindful of my medium. I always check before a podcast interview whether it’s de rigueur for that show and audience, and in most professional capacities—like speaking at a writer’s conference—I tend to avoid it.
As any author who has curse words in their books can attest, some folks are highly sensitive to ribaldry and may take offense. That doesn’t mean you have to censor yourself, necessarily—just be aware that it may make some people turn off from you or your message entirely. But if that’s a risk you don’t mind taking, then fuck it. 😉
Know your equipment
Often your speaking engagements will be via microphone—whether that’s in online interviews or live appearances. Practice with your equipment (or theirs) so you learn what distance and angle to speak from, where into the mic to speak, its sensitivity, etc. Practice not popping your “p”s and learn voice artists’ tricks for avoiding off-putting mouth noises. Mute yourself to cough or clear your throat.
If you’re wearing earbuds or headphones (as you sometimes must for online interviews to avoid feedback and echoes), your voice will either be bizarrely loud and intimate in your own ears, or distant and muted (depending on your equipment and setting). Either one can throw you—make sure you practice so you’re used to the odd effect. I often wear earbuds, but only one, so that I get the best of both worlds—not hearing only my own amplified voice in my ear, but not cut off from the room either.
As with conveying your message from the last post, try to relax and forgive yourself for stumbles and struggles. Even actors who make a living in voice work have to master and practice all these techniques—what seems as if it should be natural so often isn’t when you’re speaking publicly.
You don’t have to become a performing artist or voice-talent-level pro. Just practice a bit. While your written words are your stock in trade, brushing up your spoken ones can help you more effectively bring your stories to readers who may be listening.
Listen to other speakers
As with writing, where reading and analyzing other writers’ work can offer some of the most valuable perspective on our own,paying attention to other speakers’ habits, good and bad, can help you hone these skills for your own speaking engagements. It’s easy to do that these days, with TED talks, podcasts, online and live classes, panels, interviews, even audiobooks (though realize the latter are carefully controlled and produced, and not quite the same as a more extemporaneous format).
I’m also a fan of the book Set Your Voice Free, by vocal coach Roger Love and Donna Frazier. It’s largely geared toward singers, but much of it is useful for anyone using their voice. I also enjoyed this practical TED talk on how to speak so people pay attention—and there’s even a TED masterclass on speaking.
Over to you, authors—what have I left out? What issues have you come up against in your own speaking occasions that you’ve wrestled with—or what have you heard other speakers do that strikes you as effective, or distracting?
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