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  • 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 killers 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: