Want to sound like a leader? Start by saying your name right | Laura Sicola | TEDxPenn

Want to sound like a leader? Start by saying your name right | Laura Sicola | TEDxPenn


Translator: Rafael Barranco-Droege
Reviewer: Denise RQ One of the hottest topics
in courses and books nowadays, with regard to leadership communication, is the concept of executive presence. What does it mean? How do you define it? And can it be taught or learned? The Center for Talent Innovation
identified three main pillars of it: appearance, communication
skills, and gravitas. Gravitas means things like
“Do your words have teeth?”, “Are you able to make
the tough decisions and stick with them?” One of the missing pieces when you think about what’s integrated
really between the lines of broad concepts like communication skills and gravitas is vocal executive presence, as I call it. It’s the missing link. How do you sound when you’re making
those tough decisions? Does your delivery reinforce your message
and establish the image that you want? Or does it undermine it? What happens if I’m trying to diffuse
a tense situation and I say: “OK, everybody just calm down now,
we need to reevaluate the situation.” At worst, I’m just adding
fuel to the fire, and at best, you may later on
gently suggest that I switched to decaf. It’s about how we connect. I end up working a lot with people who are preparing for presentations
and for press conferences, and they make statements like: “We’re very passionate about helping children and improving
the quality of our schools.” And I think to myself:”Really?
Because you could’ve fooled me.” There’s a claim of passion,
but there’s no evidence thereof. The problem is a disconnect between the choice of words
and their execution, their delivery. And this creates a problem of credibility. Now, there’s a historic and seminal study
that looked at feelings and attitudes as a result of the consistency
or inconsistency in verbal and nonverbal messaging cues. And what they found was that when they ask people
to evaluate speakers as far as whether or not they thought
the speaker sounded sincere, 38% of that evaluation was based
on the tonality of the speaker’s voice. Tonality being things like the ups
and the downs in your intonation patterns. In contrast, only 7% of those decisions were based on the speakers’ words
that they chose, and the remaining 55%
were looking at non-verbal cues, were based on non-verbal cues
like your posture, your eye contact, etc. Now, this is a study. We have to be careful
because many people love to misquote it. And you’ll hear people
make grand statements like: “Well, you know,
55% of all communication is non-verbal.” That’s not remotely accurate and it’s not
what the study was talking about, but what we can take from this study, and a lot of subsequent
research in the area is the importance of sounding credible. Now, I’d like you to think about this in the context of how you personally
prepare for some sort of presentation. Do you spend 38% of your time
working on the delivery? If you’re like most people, you probably spend the vast majority,
if not all of your time, working on the content: your outline,
your script, your PowerPoint slides, making sure you got cool graphics
and some snazzy animations, crunching your data
to put into your spreadsheets. But then, after all that work, we sort of wing the delivery
hoping it will be good enough. And in the end,
that’s just comparatively weak, and it can undermine
both your immediate goals and objectives, as well as your long-term
image and reputation. The fact is, if you want
to be seen as a leader, you have to sound like one. You have to demonstrate
vocal executive presence. Now, a part of vocal executive presence is the ability to read an audience
and identify the kind of person from whom they would be most open
to receiving your message, and then figure out
what that kind of person would sound like. Now, to an extent, we’re all born
with the voice that we have, but we do have a lot of control
over how we use it. Margaret Thatcher is
a great example thereof. She was the first woman
in British Parliament, and she was overtly mocked
by a lot of her opponents with phrases like: “Me thinks
the Lady does screech too much” because when she was passionate
in her arguing certain points, her voice would go higher
and become rather shrill. So when she decided
to run for Prime Minister, she worked with a tutor
from the National Theater who helped her to lower her pitch
in order to sound more authoritative. And this is really important because the voice has both cognitive
and emotional effects on the listener. Let’s start with the cognitive. We talked about tonality, that 38%,
the highs and the lows in your voice. And if we use this strategically, we can actually help the listener to focus on the most important words
and parts of the message which makes for a lighter processing mode and helps them understand and potentially
remember what we’re saying. And this can have a persuasive influence. When we listen to speech, we process it in what are called
tone units or chunks. And we start first by fixating
on the intonation pattern and anchoring what we listen to
to where those highest peaks are. And then, if necessary, we allow our imagination to fill in
whatever is in those lower sound valleys. An example of this is in song lyrics. We’ve all had this situation where we’ve been singing along
to our favorite song and suddenly, we realize that, or perhaps
somebody else not so gently points out, that we’ve been singing the words wrong. You’ve ever been there? A lot of nodding. There’s a classic song, “What a wonderful world”
by Louis Armstrong. I think everybody knows this one. And in it there’s a line that talks about: “the bright blessed day
and the dark sacred night.” But when I was a kid
I thought the line was: “the bright blessed day
and the dogs say good night.” (Laughter) Now, does this make any sense whatsoever? No, but I accepted it,
in part because, first and foremost, it matches those intonation patterns
and it also matches at those pitch peaks, the vowels, these syllables
that are up at the top. And then, in the parts
that were less salient, that were less emphasized,
in those pitch valleys, I let myself make up the rest. This also reflects why effective speakers,
when they’re speaking, will emphasize the most important words
with higher pitch. Now, tonality, if we use it strategically, can have a good influence
on our very first impressions in attempting to establish
ourselves as leaders from the moment we meet somebody. It’s really important, of course, to make a good, strong,
memorable first impression. But this is difficult
when a lot of people feel like they’re not even good at
remembering people’s names. You ever feel like that? Well, I’m going to absolve you
of about half of that blame. And that’s because when most people
introduce themselves to you, they pronounce their own names wrong. OK, well, technically maybe not wrong, but they pronounce them in a way that uses
a rhythm and an intonation pattern that does make it more difficult for you
to understand what they’re saying. And, by the way, I absolve you
of only half of that responsibility because the other half of the time you’re the one introducing yourself
to somebody else. So, if I want to know
that I’m introducing myself and helping the listener
to really understand my name, and by understanding, then they can hopefully remember it,
and thereby remember me, I want to start by letting my voice go up, up like this, on your first name,
as if to say, “I’m not finished yet,” and then at the top,
we’ll have a little break, that little pause that will allow for
a sound break to indicate word boundary, and then, at our last name,
we want to go down, let the pitch fall, as if to say, “And now I’m done,” like you’re putting
a little local period at the end. So instead of blurring your way
through your introduction, like, “Hi, my name is Laura Sicola,”
and bla-bla-blah, I want to focus and help
my listener to understand, and so I’ll do my best to say to them,
“Hi, my name is Laura Sicola.” And you’ll be amazed at the difference
this strategic tonality can make even in something this small. Now, of course, if we’re haphazard
in our use of intonation, and putting it in the wrong place, we can have the exact opposite effect. We can distract the listener’s attention
from what’s most important, and make it harder for them
to process what we’re saying. And one of the most common and,
in my opinion, annoying examples of this, that’s becoming more and more
prevalent in society nowadays, is a phenomenon called “up-speak,” otherwise known as up-talk
or, more technically, high-rise terminal. And that’s the pattern
where people are talking, and they keep adding
these question-like tones at the ends of all
of their phrases and sentences, “You know?”, like they’re implying a bunch of little “OKs” and “rights,” one after another, like there’s some sort
of deep-seated insecurity and pathological need
for constant validation? (Laughter) You know? The problem with talking like that
is that what ends up becoming emphasized is just whatever randomly falls
at the end of the phrase. It doesn’t help anyone
to process what you’re saying. And that monotonous lilting upswing
time and again can be rather hypnotic and so, after a while,
we don’t really know if the audience is listening to
anything we’re saying, much less what. By the way, I should also point out that this is not just
a “Valley Girl” kind of phenomenon, like a lot of people seem to attribute it. More and more nowadays,
this vocal crime against humanity is being perpetrated
by men and women, old and young, highly educated and lesser educated. So, congratulations guys,
you’ve closed the gender gap. Way to lead! (Laughter) So from there, one of the other issues is that when people,
of course, hear up-speak, they tend to have a very negative
and even visceral response. It’s not only the antithesis
of vocal authority. It’s almost like the vocal equivalent
of hair-twirling, you know? So, when people have
that visceral response, this will bring us to now talk about
the emotional effects of voice. Let’s start by thinking about some people
who have really distinct voices. We’ll start with James Earl Jones, perhaps best known
as the iconic voice of Darth Vader. Now, in my opinion, with that deep,
rich, bass voice that he has, he could read the ingredients
of the back of a bottle of shampoo and it would sound like poetry. But he probably
would not have been as successful if he had tried to play
the role of Elmo on Sesame Street. (Laughter) What about someone like Fran Drescher with that completely unmistakable, whiny,
nasal voice right out of Queens, NY? She was great on TV as The Nanny, but she probably would have been
less successful as Darth Vader. Can you imagine her standing over
Luke Skywalker saying, “Luke, I am your father!” (Laughter) It’s just so doesn’t work! Now that’s a great voice for comic relief, but it’s not necessarily
the voice you want to encounter when you’re looking
for a funeral director. It’s all about context. In the funeral context you’re looking for
someone who sounds sympathetic, who sounds compassionate,
who sounds like you can trust them to take care of you and your family during
your time of greatest emotional need. And the problem is that when we find someone
who has a voice that we find unpleasant or somehow seems
to lack the characteristics of the kind of person we’re looking for,
– doesn’t sound like that kind of person – we can tune them out. We can sort of shut down, and we don’t even want
to hear the rest of the message, no matter how important
the information is. Subconsciously, we really want
the messenger’s voice to fit the message. Now, does that mean that
vocal executive presence is about acting? No, on the contrary,
it’s the exact opposite. You have to be authentic.
You have to be yourself. But the key is to recognize which parts of your personality need
to shine through in a particular moment and how to transmit that
through your voice and speech style. Now, you’re listening to me here today in part because the way I am presenting
to you makes sense to you and will match your expectations for
what a TED talk speaker should sound like. But I can’t use this same speech style
when I’m talking to my 3-year old nephew. He’d wonder what happened to aunt Laura
because I don’t sound like fun any more, and he’d probably stop playing with me. But at the same time,
I can’t come here today and talk to you in the same way
that I talk to him. Can you imagine if I started by saying: “Everybody, I’ve got a great idea! Let’s talk about vocal
executive presence!” (Laughter) You’d be like, “Are you kidding me?
Who is this nut? What can she possibly know
about leadership or executive anything? And, for that matter, who invited her?” And by the way, it was them. (Laughter) I call it “working your prismatic voice.” In the end, I’m not acting. It’s just a matter of recognizing and being aware of the two audiences’
different needs and expectations. And then identifying
which parts of my personality I want to let come through and how, in order to ensure
your openness to my message. And with regard to the big notion,
the metaphor, the prismatic voice, in many ways, in the same way
white light would pass through a prism and break in all the colors of the rainbow
that make up that white light, when the white light of your personality passes through the prism
of some situational context, you need to look at all of the colors
that are available, all the different parts
of your personality, and decide which one you need
to highlight in the moment and how, in order to be most effective
and appropriate for that moment. And if you can figure out
how to do that successfully, then you can create your own, unique,
and authentic sound of leadership. Thank you. (Applause)

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