Big Lessons Learned: Know Your Voice with Jennifer Litwin

To quote Jennifer Litwin — The Forem’s VP, Head of Financial Services, Sales, and Strategy, resident opera diva, and facilitator of the recent community event Know Your Voice — “The most confident and smartest people in the room can often sound like they are neither of those things.”

Why? Successful public speaking takes into account much more than words. No matter how powerful your message, it can easily get lost if you lack the style and confidence to keep the room engaged.

Whether you’re prepping a keynote, presenting a deck, or getting ready to pop the “big ask” to your boss, here are four of Jennifer’s pro-tips on how to pack the biggest punch and keep sabotaging mannerisms at bay.

1. Slowwwwww it down.

Ever leave a presentation feeling like you can’t remember a word the speaker said? People need time to process information, and if you aren’t pausing to come up for air, you might be wasting your breath. In Jen’s words, “silences are gifts!”

You’re probably thinking: eh, that’s not me though. 

Don’t count yourself out too quickly! Almost everyone speaks a little faster than they realize, especially when we are nervous.

Jen’s advice? “Embrace your butterflies! They show up when you’re about to do something momentous and important.”

And if they feel a little too close for comfort, BREATHE *properly… (more on that later).

2. Louder isn’t (always) better.

Common fallacy: the loudest person in the room gets the last word.

Sure, you have to project so people can hear you, but utilizing a full range of pitch and volume is what most effectively conveys authority. If you’re only loud, only quiet, or only have one or two tones, your audience is likely to glaze over.

Jennifer, who is just over 5 ft. tall and was often the only woman in the room throughout her career on the Wall St. trading floor, learned quickly that commanding attention meant commanding her full operatic vocal range.

This takes practice! Some people have naturally softer voices, vocal fry, or chronic monotone — things that don’t go away overnight. Utilizing basic choral warm-ups and focusing on keeping your airway clear when you speak will help unlock different volumes and pitches that feel natural to you.

3. Breathe like you’re in high court.

Not only do deep, expansive breaths help to calm nerves, but when you train your respiratory system for longer, more controlled exhales, you gain more control over the tone and volume of your voice (+1 for Tip #2).

However, proper breathing is nearly impossible when your body is slouched over or tensed up into your shoulders. Your respiratory system needs a clear, relaxed airway from your throat down to your belly.

Jennifer describes this as assuming a “noble” posture which, by the way, is also an easy trick to improve your body language. (Need help finding your natural alignment? Lay flat on your back with your hands on your stomach to get a feel.)

Even over video, sitting tall at the edge of your seat with your arms relaxed by your side will help you project your words clearly and with confidence.

4.  Get a bird’s eye view.

Here’s the kicker… There are probably things you do all the time when you’re speaking in front of others that you don’t even realize are distracting from your message. To feel out your areas of improvement, Jennifer recommends taking some time to film and watch yourself speaking.

It’ll probably be cringey… It’ll probably be awkward… But If you don’t take a look to zero in on those undermining mannerisms, they will continue to go unchecked.

Pay attention to tone, volume, and posture… but also take note of excessive filler words (um, basically, right?), unnecessary gestures, shifty eye contact, etc. Again, it might not be an award-winning performance… That’s ok! The point is to improve, not to judge. Take notes, say your tongue twisters, and try again (and again and again).