Ask The Expert

How To Find Your Professional Voice

By Susie Ashfield, Senior Speech Coach and Voice Over Artist.

Whenever someone asks me what I do, I respond by asking them if they’ve seen the film ‘The King’s Speech’, because that’s the fastest way of explaining my job. If they haven’t, I say that I make people feel good, look good and sound good when they speak publicly. That includes everyone from the director of a FTSE 100 company delivering a live speech to over 6,000 people at the O2 arena, to a CEO laughing off her experiences of being trolled at TEDx Marrakesh. There’s even the occasional wedding speech in there too.

I’m not interested in getting my clients to be word-perfect whilst reading off an autocue though; my style of coaching is about giving people the confidence to come across as themselves, embracing mistakes, telling stories, and taking risks.

Susie Ashfield is a TED Talk Writer and Speech Coach (Photo credit: Simon Jacobs)

It’s said that public speaking is the number one phobia in the world, and that number two is death, so when my clients tell me that they’d rather die than deliver to the board next week, I can reassure them that the way they’re feeling is not only completely normal, but also backed by statistics. Women seem to suffer from this in particular – they often set an impossibly high bar for delivery which they’re guaranteed to miss, then when they do, they’ll happily give themselves a really hard time over failing to meet their own expectations.

‘Imposter syndrome’ is a term I hear a lot, but I believe perfectionism is just as problematic. It affects professionals across all levels, but it’s rational to feel that the higher up you are the further you have to fall, so I often see it in my clients who are at the very peak of their career.

Here are three key tips for finding your professional voice.

1. Remember why the audience is there

That tendency towards perfectionism can be unhelpful in more ways than one, and I’ll often see clients justify themselves to an audience by overexplaining or delving into their CV before getting to their message.

When you put together your material, start by pushing your needs to one side and instead, focus on the needs of the audience. This for me is the most important rule in effective communication; stop telling people what you want to tell them and instead, deliver what they want to hear. If you can then reduce that to a key message wrapped up in a couple of case studies, you’re on the right track.

Following this rule also means you’ll employ a ‘less is more’ approach, which makes it easier for you and more impactful for your audience.

2. Be yourself – everyone else is already taken

It might sound like a cliche, but it’s vital that you show the audience who you really are. When the pressure hits and the nerves creep in, it’s amazingly easy to over formalise, stiffen up and rush through the material. I’d rather see something honest with mistakes than something that doesn’t skip a beat and doesn’t tell me anything about the speaker.

Imagine yourself after about a pint and a half; you’re (probably) telling jokes, smiling, relaxed and you’re gesticulating your way through a story. That’s what I’m looking for from my clients. Relax and take the pressure off yourself. Some of the best speeches I’ve seen have been the ones where the speaker seems like they’re enjoying themselves, not necessarily sticking to a script, but comfortable enough to let their emotions show.

[Disclaimer: 1.5 pints, not 7. If your boss catches you in the pub before a presentation, please don’t sue me!]

3. Practice, practice, practice

Having said all of that, to get to a place where you’re comfortable enough to play with the audience and deliver something that they really want to hear, you’re going to need to practice.

Dolly Parton, entrepreneur and icon, once said, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap”. The same is true of public speaking; it takes an awful lot of preparation and practice to look as though you just rolled out of bed one morning and delivered something brilliant and totally off the cuff.

If hiring a coach to practice with is unrealistic, then simply recording yourself on your phone a few times will help. The first few times it’ll feel a bit stop/start, but after a couple of runs at it you’ll feel it come together. The speakers at the top of their game do this constantly because they know that the more you rehearse, the better you’ll feel about the performance.

About the expert

Susie Ashfield is a TED Talk Writer and Speech Coach with a background as a voiceover artist and insurance broker, managing a portfolio of high-net-worth individuals, including celebrities and business high flyers.

Susie specialises in coaching clients to deliver high impact speeches and presentations, from effective content structuring to a delivery that can’t be ignored. As a speaker and trainer, she now runs high energy workshops centred around powerful performance, from deal-making conversations to training in ‘TED style’ talks. Learn more at www.speak2impact.com

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