Learning out loud

Disclaimer

This post is about public speaking at the 95th percentile. You don’t need to speak at that level to be heard. What you have to say matters, and I don’t want you to feel like you have to be at this level.

But I am also learning things that might be useful for other professional or near-professional talk-givers.


A podcast-style microphone

I got this microphone in the summer, because research indicates that people will put up with a lot of choppy video, but can’t or won’t stick around for terrible audio. But then I realized that what I really wanted to improve wasn’t just my audio quality, but the quality of what I’m recording. I listened to myself on recordings, and even though they were talks I was proud of, I didn’t feel proud about the delivery.

And that’s something that can be learned.

Maybe it’s useful to tell you that I have been doing public speaking pretty much since I was 12. When you think about it, two of the occupations that do the most public speaking are teachers, who have to talk to a room of 20-30 students who may not want to be there, and pastors, who have to say something new every single damn Sunday. My mom is both a teacher and a pastor. And a state and regional speech competitor, in her youth. My schools were all too small to have speech coaches, and it’s not like I was going to let my MOM coach me, much, but there’s still a lot you can pick up living with someone that good at it. So I took that, and what I had read out of books in high school, and leveraged it when I started doing technical talks. I’m not bad! I’m a pretty good storyteller, I have good overall pacing and intonation, and no one made me get coaching or do anything I wasn’t doing already.

When I was thinking about how to spend my personal development money, I hit on the idea of elocution lessons. I didn’t really need to learn how to give a technical talk, or write a talk, but I did feel like I could use some coaching in how to speak more precisely, with more power and intention. So I went on TakeLessons and found myself a coach, and we’ve been working together for a few months now. Coaching is funny — it’s not transferrable, because it’s about what I needed to improve, but it’s also got some universal foundations that can be shared.

If you want great personal coaching, I’ve been working with Randy through TakeLessons.

If you want to know what I”m walking away having learned, here are the highlights.

Breath

Everything starts with breathing. When we fill our lungs, through our noses, we are giving ourselves the breath we need to say the important things. I am, predictably, terrible at stopping to take a full breath.

Pace

My coach Randy has the most to say about my speed. He says passionate people try to talk fast because we have so much to say and we’re excited to tell people, but then we go so fast that it’s hard or uncomfortable to listen to. And also that going fast means we don’t have time to breathe.

Oh, my friends. He records me and then slows down the recording, and it does indeed sound better. This is excruciatingly difficult for me, which is how I know it’s my growing edge. I have all sorts of sports analogies for it, but I think most of you know what I mean when I say it feels like the hard thing that needs to be done.

SLOW DOWN. LET THE THOUGHT SINK IN. TAKE A FULL BREATH.

Pause

Another thing my coach does is take a recording and add in a second-long pause that I omitted, and yeah, I can see how it makes my meaning clearer from the outside. This one is also hard, but not quite as hard as overall slowing down. Interestingly, it’s easier for me to do pauses when I’m working from a script, because I can see a period. When I’m talking off-the-cuff or extemporaneously, I string all my thoughts together with “aaaaaand”, instead of finishing them properly, pausing, and then going on. Refining extemporaneous speech is difficult because it never really happens the same way twice, so it’s all skill and not repetition/practice. I mean, you get skill by practicing, but you’re not going over the same phrases again and again.

The pause gives the speaker a chance to inhale all the way, and the listener a chance to grasp the topic and lock it down in their head.

Pitch

Pitch and intonation are where the tune of your speech goes up and down. If you remember listening to someone “droning on”, it’s often because they aren’t changing their pitch much. When we started lessons, I had pretty good pitch variability, although I wasn’t using my lower register as much as I should have been. The thing I needed to do was find the emphasis in a sentence so that I could go up to go down and really hit whatever I was trying to make the most important part of the sentence. Find the rhythm of the sentence.

It turns out, sigh, that this is also very dependent on actually taking a full breath. It’s hard to sing if you’re out of breath, and an interesting sentence with a lot of tonality is more like singing than not.

Elocution and enunciation

I did not know this, but I don’t actually pronounce the ends of my words. Evidently this is a northwest thing. I would have told you that my pronunciation is good, and reasonably crisp. hahahah, nope. I’m swallowing the final sound. So now I am trying to train myself to say “tryinG” and also “to” instead of “tuh”.

This pays off so much in automatic transcription that I can only imagine how much easier it is for actual humans to understand me.

Bullet points

Allow me to sum up:

  • It’s all about breath
  • ‘And’ is not a period
  • PITCH DOWN IS YOUR CUE FOR A PERIOD AND A BELLY BREATH.
  • Go UP to go down.
  • Pause. Breathe. Enjoy it.
  • TO, not TUH. FOR, not FUR

I’ve learned some things. I think I have another month or two of work before I’m ready to take a break, but in the meantime, it has been difficult, and rewarding, to work on improving a skill that I am pretty good at. It’s not the worst professional goal to set for yourself!

Heidi Waterhouse

Heidi is a developer advocate at LaunchDarkly, a company that lets you make business decisions about your software at runtime. She spends a lot of time talking and writing about things you only thought you understood, and how they are connected. She also has an unhealthy fascination with near-disasters of the technical variety.

Upcoming appearances

Velocity Berlin
Minneapolis DevOps Meetup
DeliveryConf