Allison Shapira is the CEO/founder of Global Public Speaking, an adjunct lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School, and an accomplished musician.  We initially connected over her post, “How to Get Rid of Ums and Ahs,” and her recommendation to practice with LikeSo (she speaks my language!).  This led to a rich conversation that took us from her inspired methodology to everything from folk music to the female voice to the cost of failures in communication to flip flops.

Please welcome to the Say It LikeSo stage…Allison Shapira!

Audrey:

It’s wonderful to speak with you.  We share a lot of passions—and distractions:-).  Let’s start with my favorite, music, and singing…

Studying voice and performing on stage gave me an awareness of my voice as an instrument—and its power and influence to tell stories.  The lessons I learned have been integral to my work as a communications consultant and now as the creator of speech applications. As a public speaking professional, can you talk about your unique methodology that blends musical principles with adult learning methods?

Allison:

I have always been a singer. Opera was my first love and the trajectory of my career…until I got disillusioned and left the field.  But being a musician never went away.  I ended up in a career where I had to write and deliver speeches, and I realized that I already had many of those skills.  Skills like breathing to calm my nerves, using your my eyes to connect with my audience, and building stage presence. They are part of my teaching methodology, and I find myself often using musical principles and examples. For example, when I give keynote speeches, I actually sing both opera and folk music.

Audrey:

Really?  I’ll bet the audience loves that!

Allison:

Yes, well, I do it to illustrate an important point.  In opera, what awes us is the perfection of skills. The audience thinks, “Wow, I could never do that!”  But, folk audiences demand authenticity, not perfection. Folk singers interpret stories and bring people together.  Although as speakers, we feel like we have to be like the opera singer—untouchable, perfect, on a pedestal—as humans, we relate more to folk singers, people that we want to join in song.   Your audience doesn’t expect a performance and it is liberating to realize that you don’t need to be perfect. Just your authentic self.

Audrey:

You’ve got a new book out, “Speak with Impact: How to Command the Room and Influence Others.”  Writing a book is a big undertaking and  accomplishment. Is there a story behind what compelled you to write it?

Allison:

There are a lot of great books on public speaking and I always enjoy reading them. But, what I found was lacking was a book on writing, practicing, and delivering a speech.  A book that gives real world scenarios and professional advice. For example, when you need to give a speech next week, what are you going to do? You want someone to take your hand and guide you through the steps of how to write a great speech.  Or, maybe you want to speak in public more. How do you plan for that? How do you speak up in meetings more effectively? The basic concept is that public speaking is a skill that everyone can learn and I am there to walk you through the process.

Audrey:

What is “high impact communication”?   Why is it so important?

Allison:

Anytime you speak, you have an opportunity to impact someone’s behavior, thoughts, and feelings. And, when you take that seriously, you have the opportunity for high impact communication. It is communication with a purpose; to achieve a goal.

Audrey:

When it comes to your clients in finance, government, etc., and your college students, what is the cost of poor or lax communication skills?

Allison:

The cost of poor communication is losing a client.  Or losing a relationship which is even worse. It could be losing funding because you can’t convince policymakers to back your research. It could be a devaluation of your stock because you do poorly on an investor call.  Your employees might leave your startup because you don’t speak persuasively about your vision for success. Or not getting a job because you can’t confidently describe why you are the best fit. Humans are motivated by anticipated loss.

Audrey:

Yes!  And also motivated by positive feedback and learning skills that have a direct impact on success.  Public speaking can be a high stakes, proposition.

It is my contention that tethered to our smartphones, and with our heads down texting instead of talking, we are losing the critical, even humane, opportunity, and skillset to have articulate, substantive, face-to-face, articulate conversations.  Do you believe that social media is affecting our communications skills?

Allison:

Well, the addiction to texting and being on our smartphones shows me that there will be an evergreen need for my services. But, yes, it does concern me.  It’s harder for millennials to learn the tools they will need to be successful in their jobs because the tools they are now using so often replace face-to-face communication. Public speaking is a critical skill and it’s important that we give everyone an opportunity to learn that skill.

Audrey:

Yes. Giving everyone easy and affordable access to effective training was a big part of my motivation for creating my software-driven applications, LikeSo and LikeSo PRO.

When I present, I like to hold up my iPhone and say, “I want to turn this addiction into a solution with apps that humanize our experience.”

Allison:

I love that!

Audrey:

There has been a tsunami of media coverage over the way women speak—prompted by the research done on vocal fry, but also on uptalk and our use of fillers.  I have found that there are two camps the women that own all of these verbal patterns and say that the way that they speak is just fine, thank you very much.  And those that say that we need to speak in a way that inspires confidence and that this verbal graffiti weakens our speech. Why do you think? Why is this such a sensitive topic?    What about men?

Allison:

There is a lot of research on uptalk, fillers, and vocal fry.  There seems to be a lot of coverage about women vs. men. Verbal tics are detrimental to both men and women.  However, when women use them, it costs us more. It disproportionately affects us. Why? It is a good question. In many industries, there are less women than men.  We are already a diverse voice in the room so people are spending more time judging how we should act. As a result, anything that we do that has a perceived negative quality reinforces a negative stereotype.

Audrey:

Do you hear this from your clients?  Your students? Do you have your own stories?

Allison:

Female clients constantly tell me about being interrupted by their male colleagues. And, on several occasions, I have been “mansplained.” The idea is not that men and women need to speak differently, it is that the mistakes that women make are called out more frequently.  Having said that, when uptalk is used it is more about perceived power. I will hear more men use it when they have a perceived lower power in a group. Some women might use it consciously when they do have a higher position, but want to reduce the distance.

Audrey:

How about women that say screw you, i’ll speak how I want to speak?

Allison:

I am all for owning and being confident in your own presentation style.  It shows that you are, and there is incredible power in that. At the same time, we have to be aware of what’s considered professional in the industry. Let’s use shoes as an example. In investment banking, you wouldn’t wear flip flops to a client meeting (unless the client’s company made flip flops). It would be unprofessional to say, “I don’t care, I’m going to wear flip flops to pitch that billion-dollar company. That’s just who I am!” It’s the same thing with language. You can find a strategic balance between what’s authentic to you and what’s necessary for the occasion. If you have a powerful message that you want to convey, know your audience and what will resonate with them. Stay flexible and adapt your style according to what the situation requires. With practice, you can find ways of speaking that are both authentic and professional.

The point that many of the women are making is that the professional hierarchy was created by a male system.  Our expectations of how a leader should act were formed with stereotypically male traits. So, to some extent, as more women move into positions of power, we can redefine and expand what a leader looks like. Through our authentic style, we can change the culture around us.

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