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Effective Public Speaking: Your Brain is Wired for Storytelling


Leslie Dickson


Posted By Leslie Dickson


Effective Public SpeakingI read a fascinating article in The New York Times by Robert Sapolsky, a Professor of Biology, Neurology and Neurosurgery at Stanford University. He’s written a number of books on how the human mind works and the relationship of the mind, body and behavior.

As it turns out, our brains our wired for metaphor and storytelling. According to Dr. Sapolosky, it’s the result of how evolution developed us. Let me share some of his examples.

When you feel pain, there’s action in two parts of your brain. The actual feeling of pain registers in more ancient sections. But in the frontal cortex, which came along much later, evolutionarily speaking, there’s a region that evaluates the level of pain. As Sapolsky explains, it helps us judge a piranha bite as a disaster, tight shoes as an annoyance.

Now here’s the amazing part. If you see someone you love in pain, that very same brain region activates, registering that pain as though it were your own. Someone else’s pain can actually be painful to you. The metaphorical becomes literal.

Ever heard someone say, “When I heard the news it felt like someone punched me in the gut”? He wasn’t kidding. There’s a part of the brain, called the insula, that triggers disgust if we try to eat – or even smell – rotten food. After eons of human development, that same region is also triggered by moral disgust – Sapolosky jokes that there was just no room in our heads for more brain. So, a news story about the rip-off of an elderly lady makes us gag, at least figuratively.

And here’s one more incidence of how our physical reality and our thoughts are intertwined. In a study, a researcher asked subjects to think about a shameful event in their past. At the end of the session, participants were offered a thank-you gift of either a pencil or antiseptic wipes. Can you guess which they chose? That’s right – most chose the wipes, presumably to clean away the physical “dirt” created by their thoughts. The story caused a visceral response.

Now it’s easier to see why ancient tribal history and wisdom comes down to us as stories, not dates and facts. We know why Aesop gave us fables instead of philosophical treatises. And, we understand the value of a story and metaphor in our own communication arsenal.

In my VoicePro® workshop, Persuasive Leadership™: Storytelling that Inspires, we offer some key concepts to harness the power of storytelling and enhance you public speaking effectiveness:

  • Build your story strategically. Make sure there’s a point and align all the elements to take you there.
  • Use humor. A funny story, when well-crafted, creates laughter and makes a strong point.
  • Take your time; stay in the moment; experience what you are talking about. When you do, your stories will impress your audience with their power and originality.

For more on the power of storytelling, click here.


Image By Reigh LeBlanc 



A powerful presentation skill that comes as naturally as breathing


Leslie Dickson


Posted by Leslie Dickson


powerful presentation skillIt’s time for that presentation. Or the big sales call. Or a difficult conversation with a colleague. Are you feeling nervous? Thoughts fuzzy? Stressed out? So, many VoicePro® clients come to me asking for methods to help calm and center themselves. Here’s one that comes naturally to all of us: breathing.

Yes, It's simply breathing.

You’ve read that advice in these blogs before, and now there’s scientific proof to back it up. I came across it in a National Public Radio story. It seems that simply taking deep breaths can affect the brain, the heart, digestion and immune system – and help you relax. The story quotes Mladen Golubic, from the Cleveland Clinic Center for Integrative Medicine, who says, "You can influence asthma; you can influence chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; you can influence heart failure." Esther Sternberg, a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, adds that rapid breathing is part of the "fight or flight" response. However, she adds, slow, deep breathing is calming, like putting the brakes on in a speeding car.

When you consider the Five Great Skills™ that are at the heart of the VoicePro® philosophy, you’ll see how breathing plays a part in being a strong communicator. Let’s take a deep breath and a look at the difference it makes.

Gain strength in a group.

Relaxation is key to showing confidence and self-esteem. In fact, studies show that in a group, the most relaxed person generally becomes the group leader. So, take a deep breath to help control the jitters that sap your strength.

Control a confrontation.

Your heart is pounding and maybe your thoughts are racing ahead of you. You’re giving away your focus and power. A few deep breaths will still your heart and head. Now you’re ready to speak persuasively, listen closely and react coolly and confidently with your best thinking.

Crank up your energy.

You couldn’t run a 100-yard dash on shallow, nervous breathing. You need full lungs to get ahead. You want that same kind of energy in a presentation or meeting. You’ll convey your messages with greater command and influence.

Breathe your body language.

Nerves that cause shallow breathing also tend to make you pull into yourself, hunching your shoulders, head down. You look and feel small and powerless – and your message takes on the same weakness. Take a deep breath, and I guarantee you’ll feel your shoulders relax. Open your stance and look people in the eye. Now your words will have impact.

Sharpen your focus.

Focus on your breathing.” If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you’ve heard that phrase spoken to help you center on the class and leave other thoughts behind. It works for communication too. Concentrating on a few calming breaths can shut out your doubts and worries and let you center on your message.

The average person takes 12 to 20 breaths per minute. Make every one of them count!


Image by iujaz


3 Core Communication Skills to Build Meaningful Personal Partnerships


Carolyn Dickson


Posted by Carolyn Dickson


Core Communication Skills Troubled times seem much less troubled when you don’t feel like you’re going it alone. In our coaching work at VoicePro®, we’ve found that sometimes our clients are almost desperate for someone they can really talk to. When you’re able to discuss troublesome issues with a trusted confidant—to expose your worries to the light of day—the chattering in your head that causes panic and keeps you awake at night can lessen, even cease altogether. And while this sounds wonderful, you can’t voice your innermost thoughts with just anyone. That someone needs to be a true partner.
We usually speak of partnerships as legal entities. Organizations partner in joint ventures and professional firms can be structured as partnerships. My daughter Leslie and I have been business partners at VoicePro® for years, but our relationship is more than that. It has become a personal partnership of respect, caring and, above all, understanding. This is what we all seek as individuals, and it’s the kind of partnership anyone can build.
Building a meaningful personal partnership requires good core communication skills. Here are three critical points:

Seek Common Ground

  • Begin with the end in mind. What goals do you have in common? Discover where your values and ideas converge and build on them.
  • Walk with integrity. Always. Abandon hidden agendas and work for the mutual benefit of your partnership and your organization. Do what you say you will do, when you say you will do it. Be the one person your partner can trust and count on.
  • Let your partner see the inner you—within the bounds of propriety and at times when you feel safe. When you let your guard down, even a little, and show some vulnerability, your partner is likely to relax and do the same. In this way, trusting relationships are forged.

Give Respect and Appreciation

  • Listen. When your partner needs to talk, don’t interrupt. Hear her out until you have complete understanding, not only for the facts of the matter but her feelings as well.
  • Avoid rushing to judgment. You really don’t need to say, “You’re wrong,” even when you know in your heart he’s wrong. A time will come when you can give your own point of view or offer suggestions, but if your partner is seeking understanding, that and that alone is what you’re there to give.
  • Give your full attention. Put everything else aside and focus entirely on your partner. No checking of email, no texting, no grabbing a bite to eat while you have a chance. Your own needs can wait, so save your multi-tasking skills for another time.

Keep the Lines of Communication Open

  • Give her the benefit of the doubt. If you find yourself getting angry over something she’s done, bring it out in the open. Don’t hide behind hurt feelings, and don’t let things fester. It’s amazing how trivial misunderstandings can seem when they’re exposed to the light of day.
  • Assume good intentions. This is someone you trust, remember? So avoid the blame game, give him the benefit of the doubt, talk it through, and move on.
  • Share your own feelings. If you have concerns, voice them from your own point of view. Use “I” statements: I am concern about…. I am disappointed that…. I need….
  • Don’t tell tales out of school. Respect the environment of trust the two of you have built. What is shared in confidence should remain there.

A close personal business relationship that has become a partnership in every sense of the word is a treasure to be cherished and nurtured. It requires the mastery of good communication skills and is well worth the effort.

For more information . . . 


Image by Shivz Photography 



8 powerful communication skills you can use to ask for what you want


Leslie Diskson


Posted by Leslie Dickson


communication skills You think you deserve a raise. You’d like to be on the team for that new business project. You need your supervisor’s support to work through a situation with a co-worker. So, what’s standing in the way of us getting what we want? More often than you think, the obstacle is simply that we don’t ask. Or, more precisely, we don’t know how to ask.
Asking for what you want is a mini-presentation, given one-on-one. I love to see how people’s eyes light up when they make that discovery in my Speak! Present! Influence!® workshops at
VoicePro®. Here are some simple skills that can make all the difference for you.

1.  Get over your personal excuses.

The voice in your head is a far bigger threat than anyone in the real world. You don’t work for a mind reader and a straightforward conversation is a sign of courage and commitment, not whiney weakness. Stever Robbins has a great article on overcoming excuses on his website.

2.  Write down what you want.

Do you really know? It’s surprising how often thoughts and wishes tumble around in our heads, but never get articulated into actionable items. You feel bored, or angry, or underappreciated, or stressed. How do you translate that into something you’re asking for? Make a list – a fresh challenge, a new software program, a raise.

3.  Build a case on facts, the RIGHT facts.

Think like your audience and about what matters to the organization. The fact that you’ve been an employee for seven years isn’t a reason for a raise or a promotion. How have you contributed? What have you achieved? What skills do you have that could make a difference? Be specific – and honest. And, if you know what some of the stumbling blocks may be to your request, be ready to suggest solutions.

4.  Use strong body language.

You arrive for your scheduled appointment. (You made one, right?  This is no time for a surprise drop-in chat.) Breathe deeply. It will help you relax and focus. Present a strong image by sitting tall with an open posture. Don’t hunch your shoulders or fiddle with papers. Keep your hands quiet. Make eye contact. Smile and begin.

5.  Be direct, but not defensive.

State your premise, give your facts. Be respectful and positive. It’s not a battle or a contest – it’s a discussion. Really listen to what’s being said, so you can respond thoughtfully. Pay attention to the other person’s body language, too. If he is nodding and smiling, you’re on the right track. If she looks tense or evasive, check your approach.

6.  Be prepared to hear “no”.

A colleague of mine in sales says, “The answer isn’t ‘no’. It’s just ‘not now.’” That’s why you must be prepared to give a positive reaction to a negative response – no tears, no shouting matches, no ultimatums. Maybe the decision is fair, maybe it’s not – but don’t burn bridges.

7.  Leave the room with next steps.

If the answer is “yes”, find out how you get started – or offer to make a plan for approval. If the answer is “no”, ask what it will take to get to “yes.”  Either way, you know how to move toward success.

8.  Say thank you.

No matter how the encounter turns out, express appreciation. Remember, your relationship will be stronger for the positive, honest discussion.


Image By Punki :)


PowerPoint with a point: the public speaking technique that works


Leslie Dickson


 by Leslie Dickson


PowerPoint, Godsend or work of the devil?  It’s a question I get at VoicePro® about once a week. My answer? Like chocolate, video games and shopping, it can be either. Or both.  It’s a matter of degree. 

If you enjoyed our little video on PowerPoint, you got a look at its dark side.  So let’s talk about how to come back to the light.

PowerPoint is not speaker notes with pretty pictures.

I’ve seen way too many speakers who create slides like note cards for their presentation.  They mistakenly believe that when people see what they’re also hearing, they’re getting the message through two senses.  Actually, it can be just the opposite. People read the words and tune you out.  They may miss all your elaboration on the ideas.

Can you harness the visual impact of PowerPoint?

It’s a tool with potential.  Could you import a video clip that makes your point?  Is there a photograph that captures your idea?  If PowerPoint can bring something into the conference room you couldn’t any other way, you’ve got a winner. It’s not as hard to do as you think to master the software.  

Less is more.

Three or four points per slide are all anyone can read unless you’re projecting your presentation on the screen of a drive-in movie.  Type needs to be large and readable.  Sub-point should be kept to a minimum or eliminated altogether.  Footnotes and references that sometimes pop up in technical or scientific presentations are useless because they can’t be read. 

Fewer slides, more you. Again, it’s tempting to use PowerPoint to illustrate every single point you want to make.  Don’t let software steal your thunder.  If you’re going to truly communicate and persuade, you need to connect personally with your audience.   That starts with eye contact with you.

Whatever you do, face the audience.

When your back is to the audience, you’re losing them.  If you need to refer to the points on your slide, have a copy of notes in front of you.

It’s not an agenda. It’s not a leave-behind.

When you hand out a packet of slides at the beginning of a meeting, you’re also handing over your control as a speaker.  People have a tendency to look ahead, think they have your full message, and stop paying attention.   I’ve also had clients tell me they like to hand out “a deck” after a presentation so attendees have a reference for the presentation.  That’s fine, but think of it as a completely different project.  A thorough leave-behind contains too much information for a presentation.

The bottom line?  You carry the message – not PowerPoint.  Need some additional help to let go of the crutch?  Wondering what to say when PowerPoint doesn’t do the talking? Take a closer look at Persuasive Leadership™: Storytelling that Inspires, and unleash your personal power.  


Executive presence starts with good communication


Leslie Dickson


Posted by Leslie Dickson

Executive Presence7 Strategies to Boost Your Effectiveness as a Leader

We often get to a position of authority in an organization based on specific skills – marketing know-how, problem-solving abilities, technical competence.   A number of clients come to VoicePro® when they reach the executive level and find that the skills that got them to the top aren’t enough anymore.  Once the ability to keep a team on track is the priority, communication becomes a crucial success factor.

1. Does everyone understand the big picture?

If you’re new to an organization or there’s been a recent shift, you’ll want to be sure everyone understands the vision, mission, strategy, goals and expectations.  Be sure to cover not just the “what”, but also the “why” of the plans.  When people can connect reasons to actions, they’re more likely to comply and achieve success.

2. Once is not enough.

So you had the kick-off meeting for the new organizational plan.  Everyone got the workbook.  There were lots of understanding nods.  Mission accomplished, right? Wrong.  As a leader, you’re the keeper of the flame.  It’s easy for big-picture ideas to get lost in the day-to-day shuffle.  Maybe you need monthly or quarterly update sessions with your team.

3. Not all communication is formal.

A VoicePro® colleague who teaches at a major university tells me that his president invites a small group of faculty to an informal monthly lunch.  The more casual atmosphere lets the president communicate one-to-one in a large, complex organization.  The attendees tend to make a more personal investment in the organizational goals.

4. Look for teachable moments.

It’s the hundreds of everyday occurrences that add up to achieving organizational goals.  Even a small job done well is an opportunity to highlight how individual action matters to the whole.

5. Remember to talk to your customers and your management, too.

If your company is small enough, consider making a phone call to your customers. They want to know what the company is doing, how it will benefit them.  Be sure to listen, too!  And treat your supervisors like customers, too.  Don’t assume that your accomplishments are visible to everyone.  Create an opportunity to check your progress against expectations.

6. Find a story to make your point.

When you’re trying to give an audience (of 1 or 1000) a clear picture, a story can be stronger than a stack of data.  Time and again, attendees at our VoicePro® workshop Persuasive Leadership: Storytelling that Inspires report positive results. The story of the customer who left a competitor because of your great service adds memorable power to the 5-point service philosophy. The tale of the founder’s brainstorm that launched your company creates a culture of innovation.

7. The saying, “No news is good news” doesn’t apply.

In fact, it’s often just the opposite. In a vacuum, your staff and colleagues are more likely to assume the worst – the business is in trouble, you’re making decisions without them or some other problem is afoot.  Tell people something – even when there’s not much to tell. Think about the night watchmen who used to walk the streets, giving the news to townspeople, “The time is 10 pm and all is well.”


Image by DailyPic


Unleash the Power of Your Public Speaking Voice

Carolyn DicksonPosted by Carolyn Dickson



Public SpeakingMichael Trimble is the foremost teacher of singing in the nation today. His students have starred at the Metropolitan Opera and at other great opera houses around the world. Michael is known internationally for his ability to develop singers who have both stellar and long-lasting careers.

What does this have to do with the work we do at VoicePro®? To put it simply, almost everything. In the 1980’s, while I was still in the midst of my singing career, I had the privilege of studying with Michael both at the Cleveland Institute of Music and later in New York City.

As I described in my book, SPEAKING MAGIC, my voice had a wonderful lyric quality, but it wasn’t very big. Teacher after teacher told me I had to work on creating more volume. So I kept trying to sing louder. I pushed and pushed from my throat. But, instead of getting stronger, my voice wore out altogether. In desperation, I consulted a doctor who sent me to Michael. That was, in essence, the first day of the rest of my life, because under his tutelage I developed the strong, powerful voice that had been inside me all along. Then, when it was time to leave the world of opera behind, I went on to establish VoicePro®, using the same training techniques of singing, movement, and the martial arts Michael had taught me.

So, while you may not want to become a professional singer, Michael’s teachings have a direct application to you when you need to deliver important messages in an easy, yet powerful way. Here are some of his ideas we have incorporated into our program, Speak! Present! Influence!® . They will be featured in his forthcoming book, The Encyclopedia of Great Singing: A Complete In-Depth Guide to Great Technical Singing, Vol. I plus DVD; scheduled for publication in September 2011. Michael’s words are in italics, with mine added below.

1. The foundation on which all great singing is built is the correct breathing method, the inhalation, posture and exhalation of the breath. All vocal success and all vocal problems result from management or mismanagement of the breath.

This is as true in speaking as it is in singing. Time after time, we have seen VoicePro® clients with weak, hoarse, or breathy voices leave the studio sounding strong, powerful and extremely confident, and their careers have invariably taken a turn for the better. The breathing techniques responsible for such significant change are the same ones I learned from Michael Trimble those many years ago.

2. Breathe into the lower back, thus sending the inspiration into the lower portion of the lungs. Make no action in the throat or jaw or tongue (imagine an invisible throat, an invisible jaw, and invisible tongue, as if you could pass your hand through them, as if nothing were there).

One of the most admired attributes of the business speaker is the ability to relax under the pressure of performance. Whether it’s a speech, a negotiation, or a critical sales presentation—when anxiety strikes, it’s all too easy for your shoulders to stiffen, your jaw to tighten, and your throat muscles and voice to constrict. That’s why the exercises we teach in Speak! Present! Influence!® always begin with breathing and upper body relaxation.

3. Every voice is unique and every singer is unique. Each singer is made up of a unique combination of anatomy; conditioning; chemistry; strength; natural breath capacity…psychological health, and physical health.

There’s a hugely important lesson to be learned from the above statement. We see it all the time. Young business people come into the VoicePro® studio wanting to look, sound, or act more professional. They have forgotten that they bring their own personalities, talents, and abilities to the table and that their own authenticity is more valuable than any perceived image or standard they must emulate.

Your audience wants to see the real you—calm, composed, yet unique in every way. Deep breathing and relaxation techniques are just the beginning. Like the singer studying for the operatic stage, your professional development can be an extraordinary journey.

For more information …


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