Vocal Lessons Article

#16: Physicality- How To Own Any Room


In this three part series on how to own any room, we have explored two of the three P’s for confidence – preparation and perspective. Today’s final installment deals with your physicality.

On Ricky Gervais’ hilarious television show EXTRAS, Sir Ian MacKellan reflects on his acting technique: “How do I act so well? What I do is, I pretend to be the person I’m portraying in the film or play. …case in point, Peter Jackson comes to me and says, ‘Sir Ian, I want you to be Gandalf the Wizard. And I said to him, ‘You are aware that I am not really a wizard.’ He said, ‘Yes I am aware of that. What I want you to do is use your acting skills to portray the wizard.’ I said to myself ‘How would I do that?’ And this is what I did. I imagined what it would be like to be a wizard, and then I pretended and acted in that way on the day.”

Though most of my clients are not professional actors, I often encourage them to take Sir Ian’s advice to heart. If you are feeling nervous, insecure, or uncomfortable, simply imagine what it would be like to be a confident person, and then pretend and act in that way on the day.

How to do this acting? Rather than exclusively relying on summoning actual confidence (she’s a fickle mistress), I suggest modifying your physicality. This serves two functions:

  • You are standing, talking, and behaving in a way that a confident person would. Therefore, though you feel insecure, people perceive – given your behavior – that you are confident.
  • As you position your body in this way, your mind begins to believe that you are confident, because you are engaging in behaviors that you display when you feel comfortable. Further, people’s subliminal response based on their perception of your confidence serves as positive affirmation.

Assuredly, you will not feel like doing any of the recommended physical adjustments. When we are sad, we feel like crying, and often do. When we are happy, we feel like skipping, and we often do. Likewise when we are nervous, we feel like burying our heads, looking away, and mumbling. And, of course… we often do.

But when you take CONTROL over those things that are decidedly voluntary – stand STILL! – and make conscious choices to engage in those behaviors despite your predisposition to do otherwise, then the conference room becomes your playground.

We must identify physical manifestations of anxiety and replace them with physical manifestations of confidence. Go ahead and consider the most bumbling, nervous, self-conscious person you know. When I ask clients to do this and describe his or her behavior, they generally list the following traits:

  • A lack of eye contact
  • Shifting weight
  • Fidgeting
  • Mumbling
  • Speaking quietly
  • Speaking quickly
  • Trembling (voice, knees, hands)
  • Numerous vocalized pauses (um, uh, etc.)
  • Stuttering
  • Clearing the throat

…can you think of others? Do you do any of those regularly? Ask your co-workers to be honest with you. The good news is you have TOTAL CONTROL over every item on that list! If we take care of the things within our control, the involuntary things will be no big deal. The audience can’t see your pulse, and provided you were selective with your garments, they won’t be able to see you sweat either. Take the reins. Make the choice to look at your audience. Make a choice to be grounded and planted. Make a choice not to say um.

Then you will look like a confident person. It really is that simple.

…okay, fine. Not really. The problem, of course, is that it’s the same tricky business as remembering everyone’s name at a holiday party. Certainly, one has the best of intentions as he or she crosses the threshold – but two steps in, one finds nine handshakes thrust upon them, and they become totally lost in an effort trying to determine which blonde was Carol and which was Sarah Beth. Assuredly, none of us TRY to look nervous. I remember my days as a high school pitcher. When I was in danger of walking someone the coach would yell, “Throw strikes!!” as if it simply hadn’t occurred to me. “Oh? Really? Is that the idea?” Of course you’re not TRYING to do any of those things – even if you realize you’re doing some of them, perhaps you just get caught up with your content and before you know it… there come those anxious ticks.

That is where the practice comes in. The physical manifestations of confidence outlined above need to be engrained in you. This is why you must prepare. Video yourself. Have someone watch you. Practice giving speeches constantly, first working on just one thing at a time, then layering one on the other. Before you know it, muscle memory sinks in, and provided you are preparing with distractions, your body will know exactly what to do on the day. You won’t have to be overly conscious of those behaviors, and you shouldn’t have to be. You will have enough on your mind. They will be habit.

I give clients a number of tips about physicality before they give a talk or do a job interview.

  1. Get plenty of sleep the night before.
  2. Do your articulator and vocal warm-ups.
  3. Do your perspective work.
  4. Stay hydrated during the meeting (not too much obviously, but keep the mouth and cords lubricated).
  5. Chew gum (discreetly) or have a mint recently finished before you get up.
  6. Do deep “stomach” breaths before you begin. Time yourself seeing how many seconds you can sustain an inhale through your nose, hold for three beats, then see how long you can exhale through your mouth. This will reinforce to the sympathetic nervous system that this is not a fight or flight situation. You wouldn’t have the ability to do that if you were running from a tiger.
  7. Work on your “moment before.” Plan to take a moment before you ever start talking to check your posture, connect with the audience, get planted (weight over the balls of the feet shoulder-width apart; knees not locked), take a deep breath, and smile.

If you do all that in advance, what vocal characteristics you should keep on your mind WHILE giving your talk? I encourage folks to limit that list to “breathe and smile.” Once you’re up at that podium, those are the only two things (along with your content of course) that should be your focus. You have the ability to access both facets of relaxed enthusiasm from those roots. All things stem from a deep breath and a pleasant genuine smile.

If you prepare, perform sufficient perspective work, and perform the physical techniques outlined in this entry, you will unequivocally look more confident to those around you, and before you know it, whether you fancy yourself more Kardashian or McKellan, you’ll feel more confident as a result.

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John West

John West

Head of New York Speech Coaching