I signed up for a Leadership Presence Foundation class because it was offered and because I’ve had a nagging feeling for some time that I could become a more effective leader and communicator. What wasn’t working for me was not clear. But I knew that, while I seemingly was coming across as likable enough, I often felt I wasn’t inspiring confidence in others, especially people with whom I’ve never worked. If I were to put a name to it, I’d call it the Rodney Dangerfield syndrome — there are times when I felt “I get no respect.”
The day of the coaching class arrived and I went in feeling pretty good about myself. Dressed in my best colors, I knew the topic I wanted to work on for presentations and, truth be told, figured I’d be at the head of the class fairly quickly as I’ve always prided myself on being able to speak in front of a group, especially with a little preparation.
Boy, was I surprised.
Our first task was designed to give Pat and Susan, her coaching partner, a “baseline” for each of us — an idea of where we were starting in terms of our leadership presence. We were each to stand up at the front of the room, say our name and what it is that brought us to the class.
Piece of cake, I thought. I went first.
“Hello, my name is …” I heard myself saying. And heard myself telling the group why I was there. I used group eye contact and some gestures I’d picked up from some training I’d taken long ago. While I knew it wasn’t riveting, I thought I came across reasonably well.
Pat asked the group for 3 things that were working for me.
The “what was working” stuff was pretty tepid. Clearly I had not made a fabulous impression. I don’t remember anything anyone said that was working because about that time my brain started to go into a self-conscious-induced paralysis. Pat and Susan gently started suggesting things that could be improved. Others in the group nodded in agreement.
Turns out I had an “upspeak” problem — a habit of ending a phrase or sentence with an upward inflection. Upspeak makes people sound less credible, Pat explained. As if they aren’t entirely sure what they’re talking about. As if the thought expressed is up for question. I’d heard other people do it. Had no idea I did it too.
I try again. Couldn’t even get my name out without going up at the end. I am 100% certain of my name. You’d think I could say it without a questioning sound. But it was a struggle. This was going to be harder than I thought.
Vocal volume was another issue. Susan, standing toward the back of the group, said my voice is audible, but more volume will give it more authority, make me sound more confident and therefore come across as more credible.
I try increasing my volume. When I do this, I unconsciously rise up on my toes and sound panicked. This also turns out to be more difficult to correct than one might expect.
Pat stands next to me and gives me what actors call a “line reading.” She says each phrase and I mimic her. She takes my hands and shows me how to feel a “weight” at the end of a phrase rather than a lift in the voice. The former gives you a credible sound, the latter makes you come across literally as a lightweight.
Finally I’m able to deliver a short paragraph with far fewer upturns in my tone. We decide to leave vocal volume for later. One habit at a time. Pat and Susan assure me that it takes just a bit of practice to re-route the neural pathways of our communication habits. And they promise to show us how to practice later.
Next up is another classmate who has a decent delivery. But it’s not dazzling. Within 20 minutes, they have worked with his eye contact, his gestures, and his facial expressions and suddenly he is approaching dazzling. I find I feel differently about him than I did at first. Initially, he came across as an OK guy. Now, I’m ready to run his political campaign, should he ever run for office. I’m buying what he’s selling.
As each of the handful of other class participants takes their turn, I witness the same minor miracle of a transformation — tiny little changes in external behavior make huge differences in the impression each creates. I’m learning vicariously, picking up tips and cues as the others are coached.
Did I mention we were videotaped? Yes, Pat and Susan come armed with tiny little video cameras that they use to tape each of us. At the end of the first segment, we copy our footage to our laptops, with instructions to watch the footage over the lunch break.
Watching the footage is an eye-opener. You really don’t get how you come across until you see yourself in footage. My first few takes I most closely resemble a deer in the headlights. Or more accurately, I look like my cat when you try to put him into a carrier head first, like I really don’t want to be there. Let’s just say I’m not owning the room.
I notice all the things about my appearance that I don’t like — my hair, my chin, how I’m standing, how I really do need to lose a few pounds. If you’re a woman, you likely know how quickly and thoroughly you can critique your own appearance. But a funny thing happens when I look at the last take — the one where I’d improved my delivery. Suddenly those imperfections disappear and become unimportant. Because what’s important is that the person speaking — in this case, me — sounds confident and assured in what she’s saying. She’s engaged, she’s knowledgeable, she’s speaking out without apology. She’s self-assured, believable, and authentic.
After lunch I learn that the others had a similar experience watching their own footage. Horrified at first, we all came to see that those seemingly insignificant behavioral changes made a world of difference in the impression we made and how we felt about the person speaking.
I won’t go into the rest of the day, except to say that Pat and Susan have a slew of ways to help you get where you need to be to come across as your best, most authentic, most competent, likable self.
At the end of the day, they advise us to practice, practice, practice. Practice in low-risk situations — when you’re ordering coffee, for example. Practice cements the behaviors in your neural pathways so it becomes automatic.
I’m not going to tell you my name, because I believe you’ll have an unbiased expectation of the class if I remain anonymous. But if you see someone in Starbucks speaking in a strong voice with a definite downward inflection when she asks for a latte, that’s me.