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Seven Public Speaking Tips from Presence and Persuasion Coach Gina Barnett

One of the steps in my Year of Speaking Dangerously was to make an appointment with the lovely Gina Barnett, a respected consultant who works with many CEOs and TED speakers. Gina is a former actor and playwright, whose goal is to teach non-actors what actors know about the body and voice. I found my first session with Gina to be surprisingly fun. Here’s what I learned:

1) It’s not about you. As a public speaker, you’re in a service position: a teacher, a giver, an enlightener. Your job is to take care of the audience, not to be judged by it or even to entertain it. Young actors often make the same mistake as nervous public speakers: they want approval, they want to be loved. “The minute they get into that head space,” warns graceful, doe-eyed Gina, “they’re fucked.”

2) Why do some TED talks work better than others? The speakers who connect with the audience (1) are comfortable in their own skin, (2) are so present that they feel moment-to-moment shifts in the audience, and (3) delight in sharing what they have to offer. Great stage presence is the simple alignment of voice, body, and intention. Not so easy? Go to Point 3.

3) Change your point of view about yourself. Adopt new points of view outside your usual comfort zone that feel outrageous yet appealing. Gina gave me the example of one of her clients, a successful executive who came from an impoverished background and suffers from “impostor syndrome”—the disabling feeling that she’s faking it and doesn’t deserve her posh corner office. Gina asked her to shift her point of view by thinking of herself, if only for a little while, as imperious and queenly.

My own customary point of view is: “I love connecting with people through one-on-one conversations, but being up on stage feels inauthentic.”

So my new view, according to Gina, should be:

“I LOVE being on stage.”
“Piece of cake.”
“This is fun!”

“But what if these things aren’t true?” I say.

“What’s truth?” Gina answers, narrowing her eyes at me playfully. “Who knows what truth you’re capable of? I suspect it’s far more than you think.”

4) Your body can change your thoughts and feelings. If you relax your body, your head will follow suit. Here’s how to do it yourself. Before you speak, try these exercises:

–Shake out every limb in your body. Wiggle it, shake it, dance it. This gets your blood flowing and makes you tingle all over.

–Stand up straight. Shift back and forth, putting your weight first on your heels, then on the balls of your feet. Find the place that’s evenly distributed between both, then gently press your toes on the floor. This will give you the sensation of forward momentum.


–Talk with your tongue out. You’ll sound ridiculous, but it will loosen you up vocally.

5) Breathe correctly. When you inhale, your belly is supposed to expand like a balloon, and when you exhale, the balloon should deflate. Apparently I do the reverse, which is unusual and seemed to startle Gina.

If you think you might do the same, notice how you breathe while you’re lying in bed at night, just before you fall asleep. Guaranteed, you’ll be breathing correctly then. That’s the relaxed you.

6) If your voice is soft or high, try this exercise. Inhale. Open your mouth dentist-wide, and say ah in a low tone, holding your belly as if you expect it to vibrate (it won’t). Gina has to keep reminding me to keep my mouth wide open. I have trouble doing it because it feels impolite to me. All of Gina’s exercises feel impolite, come to think of it, which is no doubt why I’m sitting in her office in the first place.

As I type this, I’m listening to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” (Fiona’s an introvert too) and am struck by how unapologetically deep and low her voice is even as she sings a song whose lyrics are one big apology.

7) Notwithstanding Point 3, this is not about training yourself away from your true self. It’s about letting your true self speak. It’s about seeing your voice as an instrument—your own personal, idiosyncratic instrument—and learning to play it right. It’s an empowering viewpoint. Working with Gina, I feel like a promising musician training to be a maestro. An introverted maestro!

How much time will it take to get to Carnegie Hall? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. As with all such things, the fun is in the attempt.

*The above post previously appeared on Susan Cain’s former blog, The Power of Introverts.

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