cara hale alter

How to Speak: Speech Skills

Course: Public Speaking 101

Institution: Speech Skills

Instructor: Cara Hale Alter

Location: San Francisco; she came to us but also offers workshops

If you couldn’t understand what I was saying in my Pilates videos, that’s because I suffer from an acute inability to E-NUN-CI-ATE. I know this because I’ve been diagnosed by a professional.

As you might imagine, as an employer, I was also concerned with the personal development of my employees. As such, I decided to have Cara Hale Alter of Speech Skills come in and teach the art of effective public speaking to a small group of Consorte Media folks. I knew of Cara because I took a class from her ten years ago via U.C. Berkeley Extension. Since then she’s turned her class into a growing business.

The class started with Cara breaking down, in a most theatrical way, the many bad habits of poor public speakers. Cara, somewhere inside, is harboring a Broadway star as she can effortlessly and humorously go from imitation to characterization. Using this skill, she laid out The Basics.

The foundation for good speaking is literally a good foundation: body language - strong posture (the spine and shoulders should form a T), fluid gestures and relaxed movement; voice - strong volume, articulation, solid pace and expression; and eye contact – making it, holding it and engaging the audience.

She then quickly had us each get up and say a few words in front of a video camera. We were all a bit nervous and through our fumbles, we learned that the most important aspects of public speaking have nothing to do with what we are actually saying. Instead, it’s about what we are unconsciously communicating via our body language, voice and eyes. In fact, what we do with our body language tends to say what kind of relationship we have with the people with whom we are speaking. If we don’t have a relationship with our audience, our body language can actually forge the connection much more than our words can.

People say a lot more than they think they do (see also, You Say More Than You Think: Use the New Body Language to Get What You Want!, the 7-day Plan). If you’re a poker player, you might call this a “tell.” The little things that people do, the micro-expressions on faces let you know what a person is thinking and even planning. Noted psychologist Paul Ekman has made a career (and TV show) out of studying these facial expressions.

Interestingly, 90% of nervousness symptoms are not visible. What is visible are the attempts to try and hide our nerves. How do people try and hide their nervousness? Through things like extraneous uhs and ums, excessive movement, emphatic gestures or stiff hands, holding their chins too far up or too far down, self-commenting or failing to pause, to name a few. Often, the behaviors that you think are not giving you away, like a poker mask or smiling, actually do give you away.

I’m sure you’ve seen the research statistic that shows people would rather die than speak in public. That’s because public speaking engages all of our primitive, animal instincts. It’s like what happens when an animal is caught in a clearing in a forest and the eyes of its predators peer at it from the recesses of the woods. The animal is very aware of all the eyes on it and its eyes dart everywhere to figure out who will come at it first. Our fear when we’re singled out from the herd is hard-wired. We become prey and all of our defenses come out. There are a lot of chemicals in our bodies to protect us and they support certain mechanisms to deal with threats, like “fight or flight” which might translate into aggressive speech or dismissive speech or “tend and befriend” which might translate into ingratiating speech or excessive smiling.

The great thing is that you can learn to be comfortable speaking in public by developing skills that communicate ease and comfort. It seems counter-intuitive but over time, if you practice being something you end up being it.

Today, that “it” is authentic. Like the shoulder pads of the 80s, aggressive, command and control-style speaking is out. Now the accepted speaking style is more about authenticity. It’s about being you but with a clear communication foundation. In the immortal words of the great Raquel Welch, “Style, is being yourself on purpose.”

The perfect balance between authoritative and approachable definitely takes practice. Check out a taping of my efforts below.


Note: I have a sock on my head to keep my head level when speaking and she is working with me here on pacing.

Cara quickly honed in on the fact that I am a speedy syllable slinger – I talk too fast. She taught me that speaking quickly can be considered less confident if it’s corroborated by other behaviors like itchy fingers, tight gestures, bowed head, etc. She also pointed out that I don’t hold enough eye contact. She taught me that I set the standard for the kind of eye contact I want to receive. Humans are really reciprocal. Holding eye contact helps turn the speaker’s focus from inward to outward and hence, it’s a great way to manage nerves. When I practiced, I discovered that focusing my eyes helped me to focus my thoughts and it lowered my adrenaline.

Next, I learned to use a downward inflection (meaning your pitch goes down at the end of a sentence instead of up – e.g., more Barry White than Valley Girl) but use a wide range of vocal expression. Then, I learned to move my heard separately from my shoulders – like an eagle or an owl. This is a key signal of leadership and comes across as regal. Once my head was moving on its own, I had to be sure to remember that my nose and eyes must point together to be seen as credible (have you ever conversed with someone whose nose is facing you but whose eyes are looking off somewhere else?). Finally, while I had solid posture, I learned that holding my hands near my belly button was the most comfortable looking, even if at first, it didn’t feel that way.

Yes, when learning to be effective, it isn’t always going to feel comfortable to the speaker. Cara was quick to remind us that as the speaker it’s our job to be aware and in charge of the signals we are sending. A speaker’s job is to highlight the message – what we want the audience to take away. We truly are leading the experience. That also means that the speaker’s attention should be on the audience, not herself. Said another way, it’s important to be present.

Taking my time, making eye contact, being present will help me to be effective. Hmm, public speaking as a metaphor for life – who knew?

Finally, she had the whole group work on articulation. She gave us long Popsicle sticks and asked us to put them in our mouths horizontally. We had to practice talking as if we didn’t have a stick in our mouth. The result was we learned to open our mouths wide when speaking and take our time with each syllable. We looked pretty silly sitting around a conference table chanting an old weather rhyme out loud: “Whether the weather is cold or whether the weather is hot, we’ll be together whatever the weather, whether we like it or not.” But it worked, whether we liked it or not.

In the end, Cara encouraged us to practice and decide to use our skills. She had each of us create action plans for going forward and armed us with exercises and personal videos. Full of all this great information, I hurried home and decided to look up my notes from when I first took a class with Cara. To my dismay, I realized that Cara pointed out that I needed to work on the exact same things I did ten years ago! This really reinforced the point that to get better, taking a class is only where it begins and practice {pause} is where the change happens.