On my bookshelf

  • "The Breathing Book" by Donna Farhi
  • "Confessions of a Public Speaker" by Scott Berkun
  • "My Freshman Year" by Rebekah Nathan
  • "Power Presentation" by Patsy Rodenburg

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Fillers and Mosquitos

With the heat each summer arrives a bevy of insidious mosquitoes that buzz in our ears and leave big welts on our skin. So each night, my husband has a whole routine that he follows to the letter: all windows and doors are shut at dusk, citronella essential oil is positioned near all drains and then the fly swatter comes out and any remaining mosquitoes are "taken care of". It works beautifully, but only if he performs his nightly routine.

I have had a few requests to discuss the idea of fillers; those "likes", "ers", "ummms" that creep unknowingly and sometimes all too frequently into our lectures, casual conversations and other important interchanges. Linguists disagree as to whether this is a negative or positive aspect of speech but most listeners would agree that by the tenth "ummm" in a two minute time period, we are paying more attention to the "ummm" than the content.

So what can we do to reduce these fillers if we find that they are running amok in our speech?

1. Assess what fillers you use. We each have our own and a good friend, partner or respected student will usually be able to help you out with this (in a respectful manner). Another choice is to record yourself speaking spontaneously on a set topic.

2. Don't be afraid to pause when you sense a filler approach. Sometimes verbalizing the "ummm" is our way to buy time as we develop the perfect wording for our communication.

3. Practice in manageable chunks. Concentrating on fillers all the time may become overwhelming. Choose a brief interchange, a five minute section in your lecture or short presentation where your focus for that moment can be on reducing fillers.

4. Expand your vocabulary. Learn a new word each day and soon the joy of finding just the right word will allow you to resist the general "umm" as you toss "penultimate" at your now intrigued listener.

5. Take time to practice a little bit each day and ask for feedback from others regarding your use of fillers.

Now, we still get a few mosquitoes from time to time, despite my husband's efforts and you will probably find that the fillers will appear occasionally even after all this work. What matters most is that you feel more confident and less held back and restricted in your communication.

Go ahead-- get out that fly swatter and reduce those fillers!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Excerpt from "The Memoirs of Speedy Gonzales"

I love working with scholars who value language and the process of learning as much as the subject matter itself. Dorritta Fong, from the English Department, is a prime example of the thoughtfulness I see so often. I first met Dorritta when she attended a Clear Speech workshop I gave in April and since then I have the opportunity to lead her through several thirty minute private sessions. One of the reasons she had enrolled in the class was because several students and colleagues had commented that her speech was too quick for them to follow. In our first few sessions, I encouraged her to experiment with diaphragmatic breathing to support her speech instead of the upper thoracic or chest breathing she was accustomed to. She reported the next week that her discoveries were both "startling and humbling". The more she concentrated on breathing the easier it became-- until she went back in the classroom and found that she fell right back into her habitual way of communicating. Here's how she described the process:

"Since these modes of speaking are habitual, though, and comfortable, I am learning that I simply need to learn new practices. The work to undertake new habits is, at times, frustrating, and frequently difficult. I am needing to concentrate on my breathing, and trying to listen to my body. Doing such normal and natural things is astoundingly difficult. Breathing is both involuntary, in that we must do so, impelled by the body, but also voluntary, in that we can choose and control how to breathe. However, learning to over-ride what I normally do, with what I need to do, is a struggle. And I am stopping to tell myself to “Breathe!” many times a day. As well, my own sense of myself is that I think in complex, long, complete thoughts, as if I had a ticker tape unspooling iin my head. Thus, I find that trying to be conscious about what I am saying, considering what to emphasise, where to pause, when to breathe, how to place stress, whose reaction to note, and why I am speaking, is very odd. I feel, sometimes, as if my head contains a set of gerbils who have been running along, in tandem, on little wheels, complacently for years, without direction. Now, suddenly, as the ├╝ber gerbil, or the rodent queen, I am trying to step in, with my little sceptre, and assert, in my squeaky (but eventually majestic) voice—“Okay, you. Breathing gerbil—fill the diaphragm. And you, pitch gerbil—vary things. You, speed gerbil, give it a rest. Emphasis gerbil—make yourself heard.” Trying to co-ordinate all these rodents and keep all the wheels churning along smoothly is exhausting, and I am finding that, to my friends, and to myself, I sometimes sound strange, and stilted. But this is temporary and will pass.

I am proceeding slowly, and am noticing small, but real changes. I am realising that Ms. Turner is helping me to allow myself time and capacity to speak in a considered and effective way. I am finding that I feel less anxious about speaking. I feel less pressure to rush on to the next idea. I am choosing my words more deliberately. I am reacting more thoughtfully to my audience, and registering their comprehension, or lack of it. Most importantly, since I want to speak to be understood, focusing on how I speak will eventually allow me to communicate in a mode other than English as an Accelerated and Incomprehensible Language."

Go Dorritta!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Gift of Poetry

As I diligently prepare for a full summer of private coachings one of my main tasks is to choose material which the participants can use. Although I search,with minor success, for brief pieces of inspirational prose, I invariably come back to the wealth and abundance of material available in poetry. I return again to the Poetry Out Loud site where I notice they now have included an audio guide. There, numerous famous actors and writers have recorded their favourite poems and discuss their reasons for learning poetry by heart.

Kay Ryan describes a transformational moment from her childhood where her grandmother looked her in the eyes, her teeth crumpling, a quaver in her voice and recited several lines from a Longfellow poem. I was instantly reminded of my University years when my mother and grandmother came to visit. It was a beautiful spring day, the first truly warm day of the year. All of the flowers were blossoming and I was clutching on to my grandmother's soft, arthritic gnarled hands feeling the glow of her contentment. Suddenly, she spoke excitedly, "Sarah, remember how much you used to love that Wordsworth poem,

'I WANDER'D lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;'

Oisie, don't you remember that poem?" she asked my mother while she continued reciting. My mother and I exchanged a knowing smile. For my Grandmother loves that poem; it may well be the only poem she knows by heart. Perhaps it was something she learned as a child.

After Kay Ryan recited the line her grandmother was so fond of, she states that "Poetry is for desperate occasions." I would also add that it is for delicious occasions, when your own personal ability to express the profundity of a moment falls short. In those moments a poet's carefully thought out and inspired description alone seems appropriate, adding weight and verifying the connectedness of human kind over time and space.

It is my Grandfather's 90th birthday in two weeks and we have been ordered, by my Grandmother, not to buy him any presents. So... I think that what I will do is commit that poem to heart and recite it for him. Maybe even record a few other poems to go with it so that he has something to listen to in those quiet moments that come so frequently for him now. Outside of my presence, I can think of no greater gift. So why not try it, choose an upcoming celebration and learn a poem by heart. The environment will thank you, poets will thank you, but most importantly, you will have an opportunity to observe how words can truly be a gift.

If you need some help finding the right poem, start with the list of poems on the Poetry Out Loud website:


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The house that cries

"The gift of words is magic," says world renowned storyteller Jane Yolen. After spending a very rich and busy week facilitating a workshop on teaching and learning I am even more puzzled and excited by the conundrum and complexity of words.

As a voice instructor I have spent years encouraging people to trust their instincts and let whatever word instinctively fall out, having faith that the impulses will enliven the body and allow that particular word to be voiced in the most natural and connected way.

Now as a facilitator, and as a teacher, I am also relearning words; words that inspire and invite rather than judge or shut down the listener. What are the words that spark something inside the listener heads and makes them want to delve into a thought, break it apart and search for their own conclusion?

My three year old, after spending a week crying each morning as I left the house, told me on Saturday, "Mom, we can't leave the house, it might cry!" Eight words that powerfully communicated to me his experience of being over the past week.

The challenge is the balance between trusting impulse and creating a knowledge base around words. Ian Raffel, a wonderful voice teacher in the lower mainland, has a real love of language and etymology. Although this may be less thorough than many books on the subject, I found my way to an Etymology On-line Dictionary. Looking up "Breath" alone could keep me busy for days.


After going into great detail on the magic of words in "Touch Magic", Jane Yolen sites research done on children raised by animals. Apparently, in the few cases that are known and studied, it was the acquisition of language that remained the hardest for these children when they were re-socialized in a human community. Is language our greatest gift? Helen Keller would probably answer a resounding, "Yes". So let us continue to explore its powers...

Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Glancing through the Sunday paper over brunch this past weekend I was struck by an article about "Canada's Youngest Ventriloquist", Carolyn Walters. Walters recently passed away and this lovely spread honoured her life and contributions. The idea of persona when we are presenting had come up several times over the past few weeks in my teaching. I was enchanted to find yet another story, the life story of Carolyn Walters, reaffirming my belief that altering our view of persona can free us to present and interact with others in a state of confidence and ease that we may not usually possess in our daily lives.

You see as a child Ms. Walters was, according to a friend, a "desperately shy child with a pronounced stutter"-- until she brought her puppet to show and tell one day. To the amazement of her class, the puppet, Sandy, spoke without a stutter and told animated jokes with a sense of humour and confidence her classmates hadn't previously seen. The shy young girl and her puppet would later become TV personalities and spend a good amount of time in the public spotlight.

Although surprising, this story is not as unique as it may appear. The actor Danny Glover speaks flawlessly in his roles on camera but watch him in an interview and you will hear the stutter that has been with him his entire life. Some of the world's most famous actors, most notably Al Pacino, are said to be quite shy. What is it about the process of changing personas or roles that allows us to also shed our insecurities?

After a presentation skills workshop last week, one of my co-workers, a vivacious and outgoing woman with excellent communication skills, noted that during her last presentation she felt listless and timid. She wanted to know how to adapt a different persona, one that would enable her to still feel genuine and connect with others at the same time. I didn't give her a quick answer because I wanted to encourage her to take some time and experiment, to discover the persona herself.

As I watch my three year old play on his own during the day he has begun to act out the story of Little Red Riding Hood. He expands his body and deepens his voice, stomping around the house as he becomes the wolf. I hope he continues this play, sampling these personas, discovering which sounds and movements make him feel safe or powerful or playful. I know from my experience working with actors, teachers, businesspeople and more that experiencing these states of being can be just the trick to enjoying your time in the spotlight.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Exercise and the Voice

With the growing popularity of yoga and pilates, participants in voice classes have a greater awareness of diaphragmatic breathing. However, it is important to note that different forms of exercise encourage different types of breathing.

The 'Ujjayi' breathing suggested in certain forms of yoga, where you contract muscles in the throat is inefficient for speech work since you are actually adding tension to the throat. The contraction of the abdominal wall in pilates, while extremely helpful to strengthen and support the back, can prevent the diaphragm from contracting fully and thus limit the breath supply needed for sound.

Fortunately, to guide us through these considerations, Joanna Cazden in her recent book, How to Take Care of your Voice, has included a chapter on exercise. Here she lists common types of exercises, their benefits for voice and speech work, as well as some of the precautions you may want to take before, during or after a session to prevent any vocal strain.

Lucky for us, there are excerpts of her book available online which includes the chapter on exercise.


So continue strengthening, relaxing and moving your body, just remember not to forget about your voice in the process.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


In contemplating the offerings for the new term, I keep returning to the idea of oratory. Although no longer in vogue in our school system,from the mid-eighteenth century up until the end of the nineteenth century oratory skills were not only included in the curriculum but some proponents believed that oratory skills were a fundamental key to life.

In Oration on Eloquence given on commencement day at Harvard University in 1794 the speaker stated:

"Speech and reason are the characteristics, the glory and the happiness of man. These are the pillars which support the fair fabric of eloquence; the foundation, upon which is erected the most magnificent edifice, that genius could design or art construct. To cultivate eloquence, then, is to improve the noblest faculties of our nature, the richest talents with which we are entrusted."

Fredrick Douglass in My Bondage and My Freedom recalls reading Caleb Bingham's The Columbian Orator, "The reading of these speeches added much to my limited stock of language, and enabled me to give tongue to many interesting thoughts, which had frequently flashed through my soul, and died away for want of utterance."

My fascination with oration comes from my background as an actor. One of the true joys of performance is to rediscover word and thought for yourself night after night. The same words are spoken, but I can always tell a really great playwright by the insight I gain from their words in the repeated utterance. Can we not all benefit from ingesting great words and thoughts?

I was relieved to find a website for "Poetry Out Loud", a national recitation contest for high school students. There are wonderful poetry selections that are short enough to learn in a week and an interesting set of standards that the adjudicators use to evaluate participants. It is definitely worth checking out, but more importantly find a quote, a poem or even a joke that you can learn. Once you have done that try it out on a friend or colleague, their reaction alone will be incentive to add to your collection.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

What do we do?

Where did the fall go? After several weeks of a snowy vacation, Vancouver saw more snow than it has seen in over forty years, I am desperate to get out of the house and sink my teeth into an exciting project. Of course, this long neglected blog is top priority!

As I created my New Year's hopes, wishes and dreams list (I write down 26 each year, one for each letter of the alphabet), I contemplated a theme for this year's blog and the answer miraculously appeared during a "cleaning out my cupboards" session. I would like to compile a clearer picture of what voice and presentation skills coaches do. What would a session look like? What types of exercises would a student go away practicing? What questions, concerns might a participant grapple with? So hopefully we will be including more video this year, podcasts and informal entries from participants. All in all providing you with even more resources, ideas and support.

To get us started I found this great example of a private "American Accent Coaching" session. Take a look... maybe it will even inspire you to dive in to your voice and speech exercises.