When do you choose to share your own voice, amplify others or pass the mic? The answer often depends on who are you talking to and if the topic is a part of your own lived experience. Your persona as a presenter includes your background, personality, communication style and other ingredients that are uniquely YOU.
There is no speaker without an audience, and it is therefore important to know who your audience is: who are you trying to engage, who are you actually engaging and how can that be adjusted if it’s not the result you want?
More points to ponder:
- What do you have in common with your audience?
- What is your unique point of view or experience to share?
- How are you the same and how are you different from the people you want to engage?
- What audience does your natural appeal and persona attract?
The speaking topic and your own areas of expertise and interest are a good start as to who might be your widest audience (i.e., the sector of civic service). From there, you can narrow it down to professions or a sub-set of interests (i.e., animal welfare, youth services, food security), and other demographics like age, ethnic background or gender.
Finding Your Voice
Let’s define “voice” as not only meaning sounds produced by vocal cords, but also any means and manner of communication to an audience that reflects your own unique style and persona. This includes Deaf presenters signing and maybe using an interpreter or text captioning. Then there are tech-assisted voices, like the iconic Dr. Stephen Hawking, inspiring millions of viewers in his lifetime.
Whether you are brand new to paid speaking presentations or have been comfortably sharing your voice and expertise for years, your voice is always a work in progress, evolving with your experiences and perspective. At any point in your journey developing your voice, watch and take note of who you admire or enjoy as an engaging presenter and analyze their style and skills. Notice the common traits of speakers and performers you like. Don’t try to do an impression of them, but weave some of their techniques – body language, tone, pace – into your own style.
Sharing Your Voice
Practice makes perfect!
I’ll use the umbrella term stagecraft to mean the technical aspects of performance and presentation skills that you can learn and hone. Stagecraft includes status, prosody and proxemics.
The term status plays a defining role on the stage. Audiences recognize status without it even being mentioned, and status in this sense doesn’t necessarily connect to economic fortunes the way we usually think of it. All types of performers/presenters must consciously learn to show their status and also to control it as much as possible to make their points. In very basic terms, “high status” is still, confident, in control, slower-paced speaking with a lower-pitched voice and deliberate movements or gestures. “Low status” is nervous, fidgety, faster-speaking, with a higher-pitched voice and not much self-control. On a scale of 1 to 10 of status, how a toddler acts is a 1, and a monarch giving an address or a major movie star posing on the red carpet would be 10 (even if some celebrities act like toddlers!) For engaging presentations it’s good to match or be 1-step above the status of the audience, to be seen as the best balance of “relatable” and “expert.”
Prosody – the rhythm, stress and intonation of speech – provides important information beyond a sentence's literal word meaning. For example, prosody provides clues about attitude or affective state: the sentence, "Yeah, that was a great movie," can mean that the speaker liked the movie or the exact opposite, depending on the speaker's intonation and expression. Think of an axis of Slow/Fast and Quiet/Loud; varying volume, pace and rhythms for effective audience engagement.
Proxemics refers to the study of how space and distance influence communication. This is very differently applied in-person than online (or on camera) as there is a literal digital divide to overcome and connect with your audience.
Now for combining status, prosody and proxemics as stagecraft: I’m telling a campfire ghost story to teens – being more still and quiet (high status) in the set-up draws people in to pay more attention, and makes them literally lean-in (closer distance/proxemics) with more focus. Then, for the villain reveal jump scare – big, loud sounds and gestures! In a virtual performance, bigger gestures are less effective (and probably out of frame) than more subtle changes in voice, facial expressions and varying the pace and rhythms of your session.
Amp It Up & Pass the Mic
Amplifying the voices of others can be as simple as retweeting, liking, sharing their posts online or having speakers you admire featured on your own platform/podcast, channel (like my Priceless Advice). A good practice in any profession is to break down barriers, open doors, and then look to see who is coming up the path you took and offer them a hand, hold the door, turn up the amp or pass the mic.
A great presenter knows when it’s their time and turn to take the mic (focus) and have a solo, when to share the mic for a duet with a co-presenter and when to pass the mic and spotlight to someone who is more qualified (and bona fide) for the audience and subject matter.
Take a Breath
It seems counterintuitive, but rests, breaths and silence are as important to good presentations as the choice of words and visual content. The pace and space you create for your ideas to land with an audience make the difference between a good “show” and a great one!
You are the best at being you! Your presentation style will always be evolving but should have a clear and consistent “brand” that you adjust for the topic and audience within the authentic boundaries of your own lived experience.
Now I pass the mic to you – what do you have to say?
Dana Litwin, CVA is a strategic advisor, public speaker and thought leader in volunteerism and civic service. Since 2002 she has guided organizations in California's Silicon Valley and world-wide to produce breakthrough talent and community engagement programs. She is the creator of the premiere web series “Priceless Advice with Leaders of Volunteers.” Dana served as the 2019 President for the Association of Leaders in Volunteer Engagement (AL!VE), and is a founder and co-facilitator of the multi-sector National Alliance for Volunteer Engagement.