When You Open Your Mouth Are You Holding Yourself Back?

When You Open Your Mouth Are You Holding Yourself Back?

As a plaintiff’s trial lawyer, I make my living by communicating. I speak to clients, judges, juries, opposing counsel, colleagues, and the media. I convey complex facts, legal theories, and difficult emotions. This, of course, requires a working knowledge of the subject matter and the evidence, as well as experience and a certain amount of strategy. However, it doesn’t matter how smart I am or how much I know if I cannot clearly and articulately communicate my message without turning off the listener or making their job of listening and comprehending difficult.

In high school and college, I studied music and theater. As a result, I rarely have stage fright and I enjoy speaking in public. Those experiences also make me more attuned to spotting, and hopefully avoiding, some of the common mistakes people make in their communications. Regardless of your professional or personal role, we all want to make sure our voice and how we communicate help us advance, rather than hold us back. Although I would like to think that “mature” communicators aren’t as likely to suffer from the verbal ticks from which younger speakers suffer, I’m not so sure that this is actually the case.

Here are some things for you to think about and some tips for how to help your voice work for you, not against you. These tips are applicable regardless of whether you are speaking in court, at a political rally, at a neighborhood meeting or at some other gathering:

VOLUME – This is perhaps the most important factor. After all, if people cannot hear you, they won’t understand what you are saying. Whenever you are speaking to a group, large or small, make sure that you speak loudly enough so that your words project to the person in the back of the room. This doesn’t mean you should shout. It just means that your volume needs to be appropriate for your audience. If you are speaking before a group of people, even informally, and are offered a microphone, never say “That’s okay, I don’t need a microphone, I have a loud voice.” The microphone is for your audience’s convenience, not yours. Don’t presume that you know your audience’s personal hearing challenges. Often, people who have even a slight hearing loss, or even visual issues, hear (and comprehend) much better when the person speaks into a microphone – because they can hear the speaker! If you refuse the microphone (or hold it so far away from your mouth that it doesn’t pick up your words), your audience will be struggling to hear you while also trying to understand what you are saying. Many people will get frustrated and just tune you out.

CLARITY– Did your mother ever tell you “don’t mumble?” It’s true. You shouldn’t. You also shouldn’t mutter under your breath, drop the end of your sentences, or lower the pitch at the end so that people can’t understand what you are saying. Your listener may ask you to repeat yourself a couple times, but, after a while, they will just give up. Make sure that you speak in a clear and articulate manner so that people can not only hear what you are saying, but also understand what is coming out of your mouth.

TONE – This is an issue for some people. You’ve heard people who have screechy voices that make you cringe? They are difficult to listen to. I’m certain that those people don’t realize their voices are so difficult, but it is important to at least become aware that this may be an issue. If you have a screechy or monotone voice, practice modulating it. You can read out loud or ask a friend to work with you. You should also become aware of the times when your voice becomes more strained. Often, it is when you are stressed, anxious, or have poor posture so that you cannot support your voice well with your breath. Practice standing up straight, keeping your shoulders down, and speaking in a well-modulated, even tone. Audiotape yourself and see if you can notice a difference.

THE LITTLE GIRL VOICE – I’ve noticed a lot of the “little girl voice” lately. There doesn’t seem to be a male counterpart to this and I worry that intelligent, talented young women are diminishing their power and missing out on valuable professional opportunities because they talk in high pitched, thin, squeaky voices that sound like a young girl. Trust me on this – people will not take you seriously if you speak like a child. They won’t look beyond the verbal image you are instilling. Instead, they will disregard your accomplishments, dismiss your ideas, and won’t think of you as a professional adult.

Sure, some people have stronger voices than others. Some people have higher pitched voices than others. But I really doubt that women’s voices don’t change as they grow and mature and that they stay the same as they were when they were young girls. This may be the way you are used to talking, but it doesn’t have to be. I doubt this is your true, authentic voice. It is just the voice you have adopted or retained.

This is going to take work and courage to change. First, you need to honestly ask yourself if you speak this way. That may mean asking people close to you if you speak like this. If it is, I suggest you work with a voice coach to help you access those parts of your vocal register that are lower and more commanding. No, I don’t mean adopting a husky falsetto. I mean finding and embracing your natural, adult voice. I know it is there. It will be worth it for you to find it. Think Lauren Bacall, not Hannah Montana.

VERBAL TICKS – Verbal ticks are, um, like literally the most annoying thing ever, you know? Yeah, yeah, yeah.

We all do it to some degree. We all fall into those lazy habits of adopting the popular slang, the verbal short cut that sometimes helps us bridge the awkward pause or fit in. You may not realize it when you do it, but if you listen to someone say “you know” 10 times in the period of a few minutes or are stuck watching a speaker who says “um” over and over and over again, your irritation increases. I attend a lot of conventions, political events, and speeches. I’m always appalled when an educated professional relies too heavily on a verbal tick to get them through a speech. Sometimes, it becomes so unbearable that I get through it by tallying the number of ticks. When I hit a certain number, I give myself permission to pull out my Candy Crush. Certainly, you don’t want to annoy your audience to the point where they intentionally tune you out.

I thought I was smart enough not to fall into this trap…until I read a deposition transcript. It wasn’t like a normal conversation because I was asking all the questions while my captive audience (the witness) was forced to sit there and answer my questions. The court reporter typed up every word that either of us said. Every word. I was horrified when I read the transcript and saw that after every answer, I said “okay” before going on to my next question. I did this every single time! It was so bad that I couldn’t stand to read the transcript. I can’t imagine how frustrating it was for the court reporter. I suspect that I was doing it because (a) I was nervous; (b) I feared the silence; and (c) I didn’t know how to transition to the next question (hint: just ask the question!). I am not certain that I’ve completely conquered this, but I now try to be intentional about what I am doing. I remember that I have a right to ask all my questions. Sometimes the silence is a good thing because you never know what the other person might say to fill it! And, I don’t worry about acknowledging the person’s answer, I just move onto the next question.

The worst offenders of the current parade of verbal-tick-horribles are “you know” (will this one ever die?), “like,” “yeah yeah yeah” (which thankfully seems to be waning), and “right” (which appears to be hanging firm and growing in popularity). The first step is being attuned to the fact that verbal ticks exist and are irritating. The second step is to ask yourself if you have a verbal tick and to listen for it. The third step is to break yourself of the habit. Ask others to hold you accountable. Fine yourself. Create an incentive to step away from “you know” and only use “right” for emphasis sparingly.

At the end of the day, the key to verbal communication is getting your message across to your listener in a way that they can easily receive it, understand it, and remember it. If you don’t, you are only hurting yourself and, in some cases, your client or employer. Work hard to overcome your verbal ticks, master the basic mechanics, and banish that little girl voice forever. Your hard work will yield huge dividends.

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