Vocal Lessons Article

#11: Perspective - How To Own Any Room


In this series, we are discussing three steps to confidence and “owning the room.” The first installment covered preparation. Provided you’ve done your speech at lightning speed with a Russian Bill Cosby impression while your spouse was yelling in your face, then filmed yourself doing it exactly as you would on the day in front of three co-workers and all feels great, we should be ready for the next step: perspective.

Though it’s hip in the speech coaching community to use the phrase, “I mean, what are you using – Dale Carnegie techniques?” as a punchline, I refuse to join my peers in pointing at his picture and yelling “antiquated!” like a curiously-articulate schoolyard bully. If you want to understand confidence in public speaking, there is no more sagacious figure than Guru Dale. He dedicated his life to the study of persona, and – if you can navigate through a few choice anecdotes about goat’s milk, horses-and-buggies, and Teddy Roosevelt’s cabbage preferences – you’ll find a wealth of knowledge on confidence. In my favorite of his works, “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living,” Mr. Carnegie encourages us to think about the worst-case scenario.

Cultivating a healthy perspective on the stakes of a given circumstance is a hallmark of the most confident individuals. You know those folks who always seem to set the energy for a room? The ones who seem to have nothing to lose? This can be you, if you articulate clearly the worst-case scenario and face it. And I don’t mean – as with so many of my suggestions – a passive awareness of “Oh, sure, that sounds like good advice.” I mean deliberately and aloud, say what would happen.

I was working with a client who was exceedingly stressed about an upcoming presentation. He was more worked up than I’d ever seen him, and his anxiety manifested itself in his voice and body; he was on the verge of failure because of a lack of confidence. Our exchange went something like this:

“Dude… what are you so worked up about?”

“EVERYTHING is riding on this. You have no idea how much money is at stake.”

“Umm… millions?”

“Yes! Millions of dollars.”

“Okay. Well, stop tearing your fingernails off of your hands for long enough for us to figure out a plan here. What is the worst that could happen?”

“Uh, if my presentation doesn’t sell, and we ultimately don’t do well this weekend, that whole division of the company could collapse.”

“Okay. Then what?”

“What do you mean? It’s over!”

“Nope… let’s figure this out…. Literally imagine that the entire division loses millions. What happens next? The next morning?”

“Ummm…I mean….”

“What would your plan be?”

After several rounds of questioning, we concluded that EVEN if he did poorly (unlikely, but possible) and EVEN if that poor presentation caused them not to be able to sell (even more unlikely, but possible), and EVEN if one weekend of not selling caused that division of the company to fail (extremely unlikely, but possible), life – and in this case, the rest of his company – would indeed go on. In fact, after we did the math, it turned out that the “worst-case scenario” was that he would get to keep his Upper East Side apartment and two of his summer homes. In his “worst-case scenario,” he still had a wife and two beautiful children that he cherished. And when he actually said these things aloud… he laughed. This man whose face had contorted into a perpetual sneer actually let go and laughed upon hearing that the worst thing that could happen would be a family that loved him and only two summer homes instead of three.  Now, you may have a few less summer homes than this client, but your worst-case scenario is still probably better than you think.

Perspective work involves bringing an appropriate mental and emotional awareness of how serious the implications of your performance are. You should not over-emphasize those implications, as we are inclined to do. Let me be clear: Work, money, business, public speaking, and quality of performance all absolutely matter. They are not, however, what life’s about. One of my favorite exercises to do with clients when they seem overly insecure and anxious is have them close their eyes and describe their best day… or their favorite vacation… and the people that make them laugh the most; the people they’re most relaxed around. I ask them to describe some of their favorite memories. I ask them about the birth of their child or their first kiss. Think of the moments that really, genuinely matter. Meditate on what life’s actually about.

Here are some tips for perspective:

TIP #1 – Say aloud the worst-case scenario. The absolute worst. Then, actually take the time to answer the question “Then what?” with a plan. Once you plan out opening a bar in San Diego or traveling to Norway as you’d always intended or becoming a Wal-Mart greeter in Arkansas, having that plan will help you to relax. You know what you’ll do if it goes horribly. …and the WORST? Hardly ever happens. Look at your track record! You’ve made it this far.

TIP #2 – Have a specific memory in mind during the moments before you speak. Rather than thinking of the vague concept of a pleasant time, actually summon the details of what you remember about your dad taking you to the Cardinals game when you were ten, or the time you went camping with your friends and you flipped Taylor Milam over in a paddleboat. This will make you smile. Smiling makes you look confident. Your inner comfort that life does not begin and end in this room makes you attractive.

TIP #3 – Write in the margins of your notes a few words that trigger your awareness of the relativity of the stakes (like the name of your daughter, your dog, or an inspirational quote). Just remember that even if this goes horribly, your two-year-old loves you just the same.

TIP #4 – When you look into the audience before you begin speaking, make eye contact with three people. Imagine they are specific people (that you’ve thought of in advance) who make you laugh and who you’re always thrilled to see.

TIP #5 – KNOW… CONVINCE YOURSELF… BELIEVE… that the person on the other side of the desk is LUCKY to have you in the room right now. No matter the power dynamic, THEY are the ones who have been graced with your presence. ASSURE YOURSELF of that, and then – despite knowing this 100% – don’t act like it. Act like the polite and conscientious person that I know you can be.

Don’t just think these things sound like “swell notions” (as Dale might say)– actually DO them! Every client I suggest this to for the first time comes back with “Ohhh I mean, I didn’t think of three specific people, I just sort of….” Or “You didn’t mean for me to actually write that stuff in my… margins?” But when I ask them to indulge me and try the tips listed above, they consistently report that they felt more confident and comfortable. When an appropriate level of care and consideration is coupled with a healthy spiritual knowledge of “What have I got to lose? There’s ultimately much more to life than this,” you carry yourself like a person that has it together. And that’s a great perspective.

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John West

John West

Head of New York Speech Coaching