Boise Speakwell

raise your voice!

Boise SpeakWell
14/11/14 Readings

My new book–public speaking for kids of all ages!

the front cover, as you'll see it on Amazon

These days, kids are asked to make classroom presentations as early as 3rd or 4th grade—yet their teachers rarely give them any public speaking guidance, much less ideas on how to handle stage fright. Though I’m now a professional speaking coach, I was mortified to speak in front of my grade-school classmates—I didn’t get over that fear until I started teaching in graduate school.

So … I’m excited to announce the publication of my first kids’ book: Ruby Lee and the VERY BIG DEAL. It’s a fun story for children 9 and up about conquering the fear of public speaking. Since the main character is a girl, it’s also a tale that helps girls develop more self-confidence.

You can buy a print copy or download the e-book on Amazon—and if you live in the Boise area, you can get a copy at Hyde Park Books or Barnes & Noble. If you’d like a signed copy, just email me and we’ll make arrangements.

Amazon listed Ruby Lee as a “hot new release” in October 2013, and the book has received great reviews. One Amazon reviewer wrote, “This children’s book contains very practical stage advice embedded in a believable and endearing story about a girl, a speech and a crazy aunt. It’s a rare kid book that leaves a parent with such practical food for thought, but the advice in this book, presented in the narrative and reviewed at the end, was an inspiration to father and daughter (8) alike. We are ready for our next speech, and have an updated classics filmography to watch together as well!”

Ruby seeking comfort from her dog Lina.

Here’s how the book is described on Amazon:

“Ruby Lee has a problem. A very BIG problem. She has won a so-called “prize” in her school: to read her essay in front of her entire smallish town. Except that Ruby has a bad case of stage fright. Help comes in the guise of her eccentric Great Aunt Alice, who may–or may not–have been a starlet in the golden age of film.

Great Aunt Alice floats between two worlds: day-to-day reality, and a world of a past in which she hobnobbed with the likes of Marlon Brando, Humphrey Bogart, John Barrymore and Vivien Leigh. Her colorful stories–of helping Barrymore prepare for a role, teaching Bogart to whistle, pulling Brando out of bed to audition for The Godfather–will entertain and delight readers of all ages.Each of Alice’s tales contains one of her nine “secrets to becoming a star.”

These secrets, which unfold as Ruby prepares for her speech, ensure that she shines when the big day comes, her fear of public speaking now just a memory. The two come to appreciate each other–and readers come away with down-to-earth, effective public speaking tips.”

Artwork is by my dear friend and gifted illustrator, Stephanie Mullani. Each illustration is hand-drawn, with a warmth

Great Aunt Alice offering up some of her first Secrets.and charm you rarely see anymore in children’s books.

My awesome publisher is Tru Publishing in Boise ( They’re a fairly new publisher and wonderful to work with–inexpensive, speedy, accurate and ethical. They publish all kinds of work (not just kids’ books, in other words.) I hope to work with them for a long, long time.

I’d love your feedback on the book–please email me and let me know what you think, what was useful!

happy holidays! Nancy

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13/11/14 Readings

Strong words for women

In my last entry, I offered some easy ways for women to adapt body language to project more confidence and power during presentations. But unless you’re a silent movie star or a back-up dancer to Britney Spears, it’s not enough to just walk the power-walk; you also need to talk the power-talk.

What is powerful talk? The good news is that it doesn’t involve being mean or “bitchy” or manipulative. It does involve carefully choosing the words you deliver, and the way your voice delivers them. Characteristically feminine styles of words and delivery can often undermine what you’re trying to accomplish. I’ll give a few examples of each below.

The words you choose:

Often, the words we women use diminish us, making us seem uncertain, insecure, even less intelligent than we really are. (Ever wished you could have a “do-over” on an important work conversation so you could say what you really meant?) It’s actually pretty easy to change these habits, once you recognize them.

Don’t apologize. Or at least, don’t apologize unless you really need to, and you really mean it. Many women offer up “I’m sorry” at the drop of a hat, even when we have nothing to do with the poor fedora’s fate. What we might mean is “I feel bad for you” or “too bad that nasty thing happened”—but our statement of identification and sympathy is usually heard as an apology, as if we somehow think ourselves to blame. No need to preface a statement with an apology either, as in “I’m sorry—can I just add something here?” That’s saying that you have no right to add to the conversation—which of course you do!

Skip the disclaimer. Be careful about apologizing for yourself using other words, as in “I’m not entirely sure of this, but…” or “I didn’t really get a chance to prepare this presentation, but…” or “I know I’m not saying this well, but…” You’ve undermined your credibility before you even made your point, and ensured you won’t be listened to. Just say what you need to say, without the disclaimer.

Just the facts, ma’am. Women may move slowly into a topic–you tell a story, filling in details, then you remember another side note to explain, then you qualify and address possible objections—and then make your point. This works fine with friends, family, and small groups of co-workers who love you and who may share your conversational style. But in more formal group situations like meetings and presentations, you want to deliver the goods first. Then you can elaborate. Succinctly. (All of this is much easier to do if you’re prepared—think through your ideas before the meeting. If needed, bring some notes along to keep you on track.)

The voice you use:

Breathe. While most women have naturally higher voices than most men, sometimes our voices can get even higher when we’re under stress. One common reason is breath—if you talk-too-long-without-coming-up-for-air, your pitch will rise. To address this, breathe from your belly (see my last blog), and pace yourself—take a breath before you really need to. If you’re reading from a script, you can even mark in places to take a breath. The pauses that occur when you take a breath will help you sound more relaxed, and allow your audience to absorb your stellar ideas—and your pitch will stay at its natural register.

It’s your birthday. If you’re not sure what your natural pitch is, here’s a thing to try. Quick: sing the happy birthday song out loud by yourself, without caring what you sound like.  Why? The notes you used for the first “happy birthday TO YOU” are likely in your natural range, even for speaking. Now try moving from “happy birthday to you” directly into talking, maintaining roughly the same pitch. How do you feel and sound now?

This is not a question. In about 1980, many speakers started ending sentences with a higher pitch (think Valley Girl). It can make you sound friendly, hip (at least in 1980), but also immature and unsure. Worse, many listeners will assume you’re asking a question, not making a statement: “I went to the store the other day?” or, the doomed-to-backfire “I’ve decided to ask for a promotion?” Instead, the end of a declarative sentence usually goes slightly down in pitch.

Stay strong until the end. Some female speakers run out of steam at the end of a sentence, either becoming very quiet or speaking very quickly at the end. Either way, the message is “psst: you-can-stop-listening-now-because-this-last-part-isn’t important.” Keep your volume up and your pace consistent at the end of sentences, and listeners will stay with you to the end.

Here’s to a new year full of adventure and accomplishment! Write and tell me what speaking-related topics you’d like me to address in 2015.

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12/11/14 Readings

In praise of big women

Today’s Western women are culturally trained to think that small is beautiful—Cinderella’s lost slipper was no size 10. Whether it’s buying jeans a couple sizes too snug (hence the widespread muffin-top phenomenon) or downplaying our own accomplishments, we’re often more comfortable when we make ourselves small. This isn’t such a great thing as a general life principle, and it’s definitely a bad idea when you’re in front of an audience.

How do you make yourself big? It’s not actually a matter of physical size. Good thing–I’m 5’2” at best. Being big is a matter of presence, not poundage. Some ways to get started:

Stand up straight. Hunching and slouching make you look weak, even sloppy and apathetic. If you’re presenting while sitting, sit up straight—it’ll help you breathe better too.

Widen your base. If you’re standing as you speak to your audience (usually a good idea), keep your feet about hip-width apart. Placing them close together may feel safe or attractive, but makes you look small and vulnerable. What’s more, your body will remain stiff, making tiny little gestures, to help you maintain your balance.

If you’re sitting, try not to twist your ankles and legs into a pretzel—you’ll be off balance and your body will hold onto tension. Not to mention that contortionist displays may distract your audience.

Take advantage of the space around you. Use your hands, arms and elbows to help illustrate your points (within reason, of course). You don’t have to gesture as dramatically as an opera singer or a baseball umpire, but do explore the possibilities in your full range of motion, and adapt them for the size of your audience and venue. If you dance or do yoga or Pilates, try some of these moves at home to experiment with how extending your arms can change the way you look and feel.

Get loud. Project your voice so that the audience members farthest away from you can hear you without strain. I once attended a job talk for a female candidate with a voice so soft that I could hardly hear her at five feet away. She was undoubtedly intelligent, but came across to us all as timid, lethargic and, well, boring.

The way to get enough volume is to breathe from your belly, not your chest. This means, yes, not holding your tummy in to look small and svelte. But no one will be looking at your midsection—they’ll be entranced by your words and your confident image. Wardrobe note: don’t wear clothes that are tight around your waist. They’ll constrict your ability to use that all-important diaphragm muscle in breathing and projecting.

The take-away here: creating a powerful presence has little to do with the size or shape of your body. It’s how you use your body that counts. Whether you wear a size 2 or 22, when you’re in front of a group, big is beautiful.

Obviously, exuding confidence and power as a speaker involves more than just physical techniques. In my next blog I’ll address the verbal side of things–how to avoid common pitfalls that plague many female speakers.

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11/11/14 Readings

Are You an Impostor?

A LinkedIn group I belong to recently posted a question about the best advice to give a group of professional women about making public speaking.

Naturally much such advice applies to both women and men: make a connection with your audience, make eye contact, and so on. But some issues are more gendered.

Here’s a version of what I posted:

I’d address the issue of anxiety with attention to specific, gender-related concerns many women experience.

Even today, many women have been brought up to be shy and retiring–we aren’t always comfortable being in the spotlight, showing our intelligence and leadership skills, or taking credit for things we’ve accomplished. (Hence the apologies we sometimes note when a woman starts a presentation with “sorry I didn’t get a chance to spend more time on this” or prefaces her remarks in a meeting with “I might be wrong about this, but….”)

I often ask female clients if they’ve heard of “impostor syndrome” in which an individual feels she’s living a lie. Everyone else may THINK she’s smart and accomplished, but if anyone found out her REAL self, they’d know she was a sham. (You may already know the term impostor syndrome; it was first coined in relation to women in academia. Since then researchers have found it’s common in women across a range of professions, and also in many men.)

Making presentations makes this form of anxiety worse, since the chance of “outing herself” and saying something simplistic or even wrong seems greater when in the spotlight.

Almost every time I mention the term impostor syndrome, my client has an “aha” moment–”wow, that’s exactly what I feel!” What a comfort to find out that this feeling is so common there’s a name for it … and that many other strong, capable, smart women out there secretly feel the same thing.

It’s just a small step to realizing that, if it’s a widespread anxiety shared by others we admire, we’re probably NOT terrible frauds waiting to be discovered, but strong, capable, smart women ourselves.

A couple good resources on impostor syndrome:

Psychologist Pauline Clance’s website on impostor phenomenon, with a range of added articles and a test you can take to see if you too feel like an impostor!

Inc. Magazine article about impostor syndrome, focusing on how it affects entrepreneurs.

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10/11/14 Readings

Legendary Nerves

Students and clients are often interested to learn that I’ve experienced plenty of speaking anxiety too. One said that it gave her hope, knowing that I could stand in front of groups being dynamic and funny (her words) day after day, after enduring years of panic attacks at the mere thought of being the center of attention.

After 20 years of teaching I’m pretty used to holding forth in a group. Yet. There’s still an occasional resurgence of butterflies, dry mouth and—let’s just say that I’m glad I used industrial strength antiperspirant that day. It’s mostly in situations that are somehow new:  a very different audience, a very different kind of performance.

Case in point: my niece’s wedding just weeks ago. I’ve been belting out songs at family sing-a-longs for a couple decades now, and in my distant past sang with my husband at art openings and such, paid in ego boosts and meager but always surprising tips. Now I was asked to sing at her wedding, a stylish affair with a hundred or so equally stylish young folk from Chicago and New York. Uh oh.

Of course I said yes, though I’d never heard the song–John Legend’s “Stay with You.” I prepared as well as I could, listening first on youtube and then coughing up the 99 cents to download it from iTunes. I sang along, over and over, mostly in the shower, mostly with the rest of the family out of the house. The final preparation would have to wait until the morning of the wedding, when I could practice with my brother (father of the bride) who would add his formidable classical guitar skills to the mix.

My biggest worry was not that I’d forget the words or the tune. It was that I’d just sound “bad” in some vague way, unhip–like the very Caucasian wedding singers in Four Weddings and a Funeral, or pretty much anyone from the painfully accurate folk music mockumentary A Mighty Wind.

What helped? Endless practice, but also facing my concerns head-on. I started by confessing my anxiety to my teenage son (who’s seen both films in question and has a finely tuned hip-o-meter); he assured me that I didn’t sound mightily windy at all.

Then I gave myself a serious talking to. I convinced myself that while, as Lloyd Bentsen might have said, “I’m no John Legend,” I am the bride’s aunt–the point of my singing isn’t so much my awesome voice as it is the idea that her dad is playing the guitar and her aunt is singing as her wedding ceremony begins. So I may not be a “legendary” singer, but I can be the best possible Nancy singer… And that’s what they’re asking for anyway.

How did it go? I was still a bit nervous waiting for the ceremony to start, but mostly I was happy to be with my brother, ready to offer his daughter and new son a very personalized wedding gift. As the song progressed I found myself singing just to and for them, echoing the love for each other that burst through so clearly that day.

My voice may have been a little shakier than usual, but I was okay with that–it was partly the emotion I was so very happy to feel, partly the very tight dress I was equally happy to be wearing. In the end I’m sure no one even noticed–the song, after all, was all part of something much bigger–a grand love, a grand day, and a generally legendary wedding.

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