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June 2012
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From the Heart

Voice of Reason

By Amy Gage

Teresa Lyons Hegdahl has a beautiful voice — rich and resonant, warm and welcoming. As director of theater and assistant professor of theater at St. Kate's, she uses this expressive instrument on stage, in the classroom and in consulting gigs with clients such as Target, the Minnesota Vikings and General Mills.

This past semester, Lyons Hegdahl taught the class "Voice in the Workplace" for the second time at St. Kate's. She spoke recently about why the disciplined use of voice is critical to the success of students and established professionals.

People in the workforce recognize the need for effective communication. As they ascend the leadership ladder, their ability to communicate well becomes vital to their success. They realize: "I can do my job. But communicating with impact will distinguish me as a leader."

Up to 94 percent of our messages are sent nonverbally. We can affect understanding and shape perceptions by aligning the non-verbal components of our messages — including posture, facial expression, intonation and articulation — with our words.

Breathing is the foundation. It's no happy accident that birthing mothers are taught to breathe. They do it for focus and release. We need to engage in the moment. Because we train ourselves to multitask, we get used to that type of focus. Then, when we are in a situation such as an interview, where there is nothing to pull our focus other than our message, it can be challenging to remain present. Connecting to our breath is one way we can strengthen our ability to do that.

A lot of young women speak with glottal fry, or raspy vocalization, so you don't get a sense of passion when they speak. Or their vocal rate could be a problem. If you speak too quickly, your audience may think that you're nervous or you want to get out of there. I say to the students, "We talk all the time, but we don't always communicate." Our goal is to foster understanding, not just generate sound.

People ask, "If I'm thinking about my rate and my tone, isn't that artificial?" It's not. When you speak, you do so at a certain rate and with a certain tone. You want to consider how those choices impact your message. I may need to slow down if the material is new to my audience or especially complex. A quick rate of speech might impede their understanding. I want to make worthy delivery choices, as opposed to just hoping that the audience "gets it."

Women sometimes think that "professional" equals "monotone," with no emotion. I had a client once who was the only female executive at her firm. She said, "I'm getting feedback that my presentations are boring." She was an upbeat, lovely individual, but her voice wasn't reflecting her engagement with her messages. So she integrated new vocal choices that more readily conveyed her point of view and contributed to a clearer understanding of her ideas.

We often say at St. Kate's that we help women "find their voice." Your speaking voice reflects your perspective; it reveals your values and beliefs. I help students understand how to access those aspects of self, so that a listener gets as true a sense of them as possible.

We have choices when it comes to the non-verbal aspects of communication. We can design our delivery much as we design our content, so our voice and body accurately reflect our viewpoint and bolster understanding.

So much of the feedback we get about our communication style is outcome-oriented: "You seem confident." Or, "You're nervous, aren't you?" This class helps students find the elements that shape those perceptions. They discover what they do well, identify how they can achieve greater flexibility of vocal style and learn to integrate non-verbal choices that accurately support our messages.
Ultimately, that helps my students communicate with impact.


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