I've been teaching presentation skills to professionals and educators in NYC consistently for the past few years. During every class my students need improvement in all of the same areas -- and in efforts to stop things like the "youth hip" and vocal fry, I've summed up these three major problem areas:
Your body language shapes who you are.
From the moment I saw Amy Cuddy's TED talk on body language, I knew that it was going to be one of my 'required readings' for my students. Power posing for 90 seconds really does work -- and the talk is so interesting that you should watch it even if you think you have an absolutely perfect style of speaking.
That being said, ladies, stop standing with your legs crossed and gentleman, stop standing like cowboys. I mention this at the beginning of every class and it never fails -- everyone looks at me like I've grown another arm. Then, later in class we'll be doing a practical and I have at least one woman and one man doing exactly what I warned against. Only this time, the whole class notices it.
Standing with your legs crossed makes you look small. It gives you terrible balance. If you are speaking in a professional manner to a group, the last thing you want is to look small. Standing with your legs wide is akin to spreading your legs sitting on the subway. Awkward. So stand with your feet under your knees, your knees under your hips and your hips under your shoulders. Your feet should be planted, and your shouldn't be standing on the balls of your feet -- even if you walk and talk, you should land in a stance versus being off balance. Locked knees? Only if you want to pass out -- you essentially cut off the circulation in your body.
In addition, I need to address what I've started to call the "youth hip." It's the one bent knee, one straight knee, hip jutted out stance so many of us comfortably pop into. This is a sure fire way to look younger (in the negative sense) and unprofessional. Beware the youth hip.
Stop clenching your butt and breathe.
As a trained actor, part of my schooling was learning how to breathe. I'll never forget my favorite vocal coach when I moved to the city, a powerhouse of a woman who consistently said "breathe from your nether-regions."
New Yorkers are incredibly tense. Articles have been written about our anxiety issues -- most adults are incredibly tense.
And the butt tension! I hear so many pinched, throaty Kardashian voices, and when lamenting about the correlation I saw between this body image pulling-it-all-in problem and fry, before a class, a woman suggested the Spanx connection. Now I really don't think one product caused it all, but the act of "pulling-it-all-in" certainly does.
So try it, clench your butt, suck it all in and say hello. Now let it go and say hello. That drop in your voice that probably happened? The clench contributes to shallow breathing and a throaty voice. So loosen up! Try clenching specific areas of your body as tightly as you can, holding it, then letting go. Your body won't want to return to that stressed out state when it's hit with upcoming anxiety -- prime it to be more relaxed.
We are lazy speakers:
This isn't a surprise. Say this sentence out loud: "Betty Botter bought a bit of bitter batter." Was it hard? Did you change T to D and say, in essence, 'Beddy Bodder'?
I'm not suggesting we become a society of over-enunciators. I do think we need to pay more attention to how we say things -- possibly as much attention we put into what we are saying. A few tongue twisters before a presentation, interview, or important conversation will prime you to be a little less lazy in your speech. With these, make sure you do over-enunciate -- it's in essence waking up your speaking muscles.
None of these things are going to happen overnight. I've said to countless students, you wouldn't wake up tomorrow and decide "I'm going to run 15 miles!" unless you've been training for it. You won't wake up tomorrow and be an amazing speaker. But by training yourself, by essentially going to the gym for your speaking skills -- you'll be better every time.
And unclench your butt.