Less Cher Horowitz, More Julie Andrews
August 3, 2014 5:58 AM   Subscribe

In 6-8 months, I'll be finishing school and and looking to start practicing as a professional independently in my field. I don't want to go into detail, but I will be a health professional who will be responsible for preserving lives in potentially dire situations. I'm smart and capable, but I don't always sound like I am. I need to learn to speak more elegantly, eloquently, and beautifully so I will inspire confidence in clients and potential clients. I'm a female from a sort of upper middle class background from southern CA with a host of less charming and confidence inspiring collloquialisms (like saying 'like' like a whole lot!). Right now I'm a student living on student money so I can't afford private coaches or expensive lessons. The ideal for me would be to sound like Julie Andrews in The Princess Diaries (of course I don't want to fake her accent though, just speak in the same manner). I'm at a loss on where to start.
posted by anonymous to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
For my field - I practiced saying relevant phrases until they became route memory. We fill the silences on our sentences with phrases like "like, you know, sort of, etc etc" until we collect our thoughts enough to continue speaking. So I had canned phrases like " you want to ensure you have traceability throughout each of the specifications and protocol." Because it's a memorized phrase - I don't need to stop and start with like, you need umm to have some kind of connection like a trace matrix or something? When speaking to a client.

Also - actively practice lowering the pitch of your voice and "up speak." It doesn't matter how eloquent what you are saying is, if you ask it like a little girl asking a question - it undermines any professional tone it may have taken otherwise.

Best of luck!
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 6:04 AM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

A similar view point. In an earlier life I was an actor. Thus, I spent a lot of time studying how people in various roles / power positions / lack of power positions, etc. acted so as to be able to portray things and roles I'd never been.

Powerful people: Make and hold eye contact. Speak slowly. Speak more quietly than average. Allow silence when speaking. Have a lower pitch of voice than their age / gender / culture would suggest.

Subordinate or non-powerful people: Make only fleeting eye contact. Look down when listening and usually when speaking. Speak quickly as if the act of speaking is an interruption they are imposing. State most things as questions (even declarative statements) [I interpreted this as a way to convey information without challenging the authority of the person in power - if I state the fact as a question then the person in power can refuse to agree by answering my question in the negative and thus can save face.]

If you think of your communication with clients / patients in terms of the power dynamic - you NEED to be the person-in-charge, not for ego based reasons but because the respective roles and the relationships work best FOR THE CLIENT if you are.

With that in mind, I suggest getting a trusted friend or two to have "practice sessions" with you. You pick a topic you do know about in depth. Then, over tea, on a park bench, etc. you explain it to them, as if you were the master and they were they pupils. Every time you use gap filler words (like, um, other useless phrases) they point it out (I'd suggested index cards with "gap filler" or "too fast" or "up talk" on them so they can just flash the card without having to speak.

Get used to pausing silently while holding eye contact with the other person while you formulate the next thing you will say. When you can speak authoritatively with friends in a no-pressure situation expand it. When ordering a coffee at the espresso shop use the same techniques and force yourself to ask the barista a question in an authoritative tone - "I prefer coffee with little acid in the taste, would you recommend the Kenyan blend or Ethiopian blend?" - stuff like that.

Expand the circle of situations where you do this.

Finally - watch films where someone occupies the "power position" and observe. Michael Caine in any of the roles where his character was powerful comes to mind. He famously observed that the person in control tends not to blink (I'm not recommending this - too much work for you for no benefit) so he trained himself to go MINUTES without blinking.

Patrick Stewar, Kenneth Brannaugh, Emma Thompson, Glenn Close - there are many wonderful actors who do this well. Watch and shamelessly imitate.

In a very real way "fake it 'til you make it." Artificially act, speak and behave as you desire to and over time it will become a habit.

Hope that helps.
posted by BrooksCooper at 6:25 AM on August 3, 2014 [26 favorites]

Trying video recording yourself talking, maybe while you're on the phone with someone since your focus is personal communication rather than public speaking. It's eye-opening (or ear-opening?) to hear yourself like that and will help you hone in on what you'd prefer to sound like and see progress as you work on this. As you become more aware of specifically what you want to change, it is easier to correct yourself on the fly.
posted by cecic at 6:47 AM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

If there is a Toastmasters chapter in your area, join it. You can go for free as a guest, and it's not too expensive to become a member. One of the great things about the club is that you practice speaking in front of people who are there for no other reason than to tell you how to improve. They even count the number of "ums,' (and you could ask them to count "likes" as well) and other crutch words that you tend to lean on in conversation.

Also, watch great speakers and interviews. Hillary Clinton isn't my favorite public speaker, but she's a dynamite interview subject. She never uses filler words, always sounds authoritative, and you wouldn't dismiss her for not knowing what she's talking about. See how they speak, just immerse yourself in lots of talks that feature people who can speak eloquently and authoritatively, and try to emulate that. Even repeat some of their interviews in private and record yourself.

Practice can make this happen quickly; just ask any actor who wound up with an accent after a couple of weeks of rehearsal.
posted by xingcat at 6:51 AM on August 3, 2014 [6 favorites]

Get used to pausing silently while holding eye contact with the other person while you formulate the next thing you will say.

I came in to say this. "Um" and "like" are called "vocal pauses" or "vocal fillers." You're doing it because you're thinking of what to say next and don't want to fall silent while doing it, because our society has become this place where any pause in the conversation longer than a quarter-second MUST BE FILLED. Don't do that. Go ahead and fall silent while you think of what to say next. If people start jumping in, raise an eyebrow at them. They'll figure out pretty quickly that you're a thoughtful person who must be listened to. It won't be long before they start looking at you whenever there's a pause in the conversation. You will be absolutely magnetic.
posted by Etrigan at 7:06 AM on August 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Too much eye contact may make some people uncomfortable, especially if they are from cultures in which eye contact is used differently.

Read to yourself out loud making sure to enunciate words clearly.
posted by mareli at 7:40 AM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm working on some of the same things, and it essentially comes down setting a goal and then being mindful in every conversation. The biggest challenge I have is just forgetting that I'm doing this. I put a 1-minute appointment on my calendar for mid-morning to remind me that I want to slow down and stop using filler words. I approach this knowing that every bit of practice is valuable, and that whenever I fall back into "like," I can recognize it and start correcting again.

So set a goal (don't use "like"), then figure out a way to remind yourself that you have set this goal, and practice, practice, practice in every conversation. Pick out 2 things in your speech to work on at a time; you cannot correct everything all at once.

I would also encourage you to be cautious about using some of the dominance/power approaches suggested above. These are probably not as useful in a provider/client relationship as they might be in a conference room among equals. You need to establish competence, but you also need to make a connection with the person in order to help them.
posted by jeoc at 7:53 AM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I find that if I'm reading or listening to books with characters who use language in a distinct way, I'm prone to picking up their style. You could find a book with a character you'd like to emulate and try reading or finding an audiobook with a good reader. Maybe some older british lit with strong female characters. This may not be your main strategy (many good suggestions above) but it could help steep you in a certain way of speaking, maybe it would be helpful in the morning or on the way to work in the car before you have a day you know you'll be doing a lot of speaking.
posted by dahliachewswell at 8:02 AM on August 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

One simple thing - when you are speaking make your voice go lower in pitch at the end of a sentence.
posted by seesom at 8:15 AM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Banish the word "like" from your vocabulary. Don't say, "I'm like, so where do you want to go and he's like, anywhere is fine with me." Consciously eliminate this. Ditto for "you know?". Also become aware of using the word "just". I think it minimizes the speaker. For example, you're talking to your boss or a colleague and you say, "I just want to get your thoughts on the financials for this project." Why do you need that word? It diminishes you and your request. It doesn't add anything to the message. Practice it the other way: "I want to get your thoughts on the financials for this project." To me, dropping the word "just" makes the statement sound more professional and polished.

Good writing stresses economy of words. I think good speech does too. Concentrate on refining the actual words you use and you will sound more intelligent and articulate. That's my $0.02. NOT "just my $0.02".
posted by Kangaroo at 8:45 AM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Everyone is right, let there be silence. In my experience a thoughtful answer (delivered confidently) after a brief pause conveys not just authority, but also that you are taking the current situation into consideration. People can then feel that not only do you know the answer, but you're not just operating on auto-pilot.

Another thing to keep in mind is that in stressful circumstances, pausing to let the family/patient process is a good thing. Throwing a lot of information at them could be overwhelming, and a lot of it may not stick.
posted by ghost phoneme at 8:51 AM on August 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I learned this from doing tax returns. Never try to fake your way out of a situation where you are uncertain of the right answer or best course of action. Be forthright in admitting that you don't know the answer. Explain to the client that you need to do some research or consult with a more-senior colleague. Then be sure to get back to the client later, as promised.
posted by alex1965 at 9:48 AM on August 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

seesom: "One simple thing - when you are speaking make your voice go lower in pitch at the end of a sentence."

Yeah, end sentences, nobody fucking ends sentences, it's really annoying. Voice goes down and there is a "hard pause," especially when you are completely done communicating your thought. Ending sentences firmly, all by itself, gives you authority.

One trick they sometimes tell you in public speaking is to land a little more firmly on the nouns, since they're the subjects and objects of your sentence and they anchor what you're talking about, so by hitting them a little harder you're giving signposts to your listeners. This actually is pretty helpful, especially in long sentences, but obviously don't take it to extremes where you're like "And JANIE went up to the TOWN on top of the HILL where we ate PIZZA."

Get out a Bible (yep, a Bible) and practice reading it out loud -- slowly, clearly, and with proper sentence phrasing and expression. It is surprisingly difficult, particularly because most people reading scripture out loud that you've ever heard have been doing something called "preacher's moan" where they get in a rhythm and don't read the sense of it, just the soothing rhythm of long, unfamiliar words and long, wandering, non-English phrasings. It's a good exercise because it's accessible (Bibles are everywhere); it mixes complex sentence structures and phrasings with simple ones; and it's meant to be read aloud (unlike a medical textbook). Practice with one story and after three or four times through you'll start to get a feel for how you VOCALLY signal "this is the end of a phrase, keep listening" vs. "this is the end of a sentence" vs. "this is the end of an entire idea." You have to use your voice and delivery to emphasize the important points and de-emphasize the asides, to bring your listeners along with this gibberish of names and places they've never heard of, and to highlight the thread of the story. (Try Tobit 7 and 8 ... it's about a sex demon. Or a serial killer, hard to say.) The discipline of these exercises of reading aloud will help you get more comfortable with pauses, especially pauses without vocal filler, and with vocally phrasing ideas in complete thoughts rather than in a more typical, conversational manner.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:03 AM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would also encourage you to be cautious about using some of the dominance/power approaches suggested above. These are probably not as useful in a provider/client relationship as they might be in a conference room among equals.

This deserves emphasis. Your goal is not to assert dominance, but to convey competence and instill trust in a contextually-appropriate way.

Don't be too hard on yourself as you begin your career. You will develop these skills through practice, and by being in the presence of others in your field who already have those desired qualities; those are the people you can model your own speech and body language after. I wouldn't put too much weight on trying to model yourself after any onscreen characters -- but you might find it helpful to watch online videos of women speaking on professional or academic panels. (In my line of work, I use voice actors to provide audio that is used in contexts where we need to convey exactly the type of professionalism you describe, and we specifically screen out theatrical/overly-polished voices. They don't instill confidence; they send a different kind of message.)

One suggestion specific to SoCal vocalisms (I'm a SoCal gal, so no judgment implied): if you have that type of SoCal voice that has a bored inflection, and/or vocal fry, you may want to put some effort into modifying it. Some research indicates that vocal fry in particular will work against you.
posted by nacho fries at 1:10 PM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also: role playing using realistic scenarios is extremely helpful for changing your behavior, including speech.

You can do this with a peer from school, or you can do it by yourself: set up two chairs in a room, and switch between them, playing the role of client and the role of healthcare professional (yourself). This can be an amazing (and amusing) way to develop those interaction skills. To really dig into it, you can video yourself as you do the two-chair practice, and then watch the footage.

But please be kind to yourself if you do those exercises -- there can be a lot of self-judgment and insecurity it will bring out at first, but if you can move through the discomfort, you will see big gains.
posted by nacho fries at 1:27 PM on August 3, 2014

All of these are great suggestions, but I just wanted to reassure you that as a very young-sounding healthcare professional, I have found that my voice has changed over the years without putting any effort in at all ("gone more Radio 4", my husband calls it).

You will gradually get more confidence and feel more at home in the role. It will happen naturally just by hanging around with other healthcare professionals and you will find yourself unconsciously "putting your work voice on" with the public. So don't worry too much about it. You won't actually sound like a silly kid to the patients, however you might feel inside to start with.
posted by tinkletown at 3:27 PM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

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