Shifting continents has a way of quietening one's voice, as if an uncertain future, unknown people and places, puts a spell on our vocal chords. This is true for me anyway. Immigrating across vast expanses seemed to steal away my inner voice, that one certainty I had, that made me, well, me.
I believe this is because we express ourselves in the context of our lives, and when our lives change radically, we no longer have a sure way of expression. I believe this to be especially true for those of us whose mother tongue is not English.
Speaking is so much a part of our self-expression, that losing faith in one's ability to communicate effectively can have devastating effects on self-esteem, confidence and abilities at work and home. This, of course, is not exclusive only to those of us who immigrate, and can happen at various life stages, phases and ages!
It frequently happens to professionals who enjoy promotions and are suddenly expected to deliver reports and proposals to directors, groups of employees, or other groups. It can happen to students who are expected to conduct oral exams in front of a board of examiners, or those who attend job interviews, even the best man at his mate's wedding.
So how do we overcome this ‘cat-got-your-tongue' phenomenon?
It's quite natural to experience nerves anytime we are expected to make a presentation of any kind. It's what we do with the nerves that matters, ultimately. It's whether we are able to harness their energy and use them to empower ourselves, or whether they get the better of us, and leave us a blubbering mess in front of a confused audience.
Whether we are engaging in a social gathering or a conference, the skills we use remain pretty much the same, just applied in different amounts at varying times.
We'll begin with the art of confidence. I say art, because like any art, it is a combination of inherent talent and skills that can be learned. Inside all of us, somewhere, is that five year old who knew exactly how to get what he or she wanted! Remember? Inherently, we all have the ability to be charming, demanding, commanding even! Yet, some of our life experiences rob us of the enthusiasm and skill that we once possessed to get people to our way of thinking! Of course, as adults, we know that we can achieve a lot more with a pot of honey, than a gallon of vinegar. So what is your particular brand of honey? To find out, consider some of these tools that you may use.
1. The smile – consider its simplicity and ease of use. A sincere smile can cross borders, languages and cultures. It has the ability to disarm and engage one to 100 from the very first instant. Its' power is universal and can be applied generously in any situation. As a tool and a skill, I highly recommend it.
2. Discover something about others: A person's name is often the easiest and quickest way, to get his or her attention. Dale Carnegie said that a person's name is the sweetest sound to them in any language. How true! Find a way of remembering people's names, and use it often. They will feel special that you've taken the time and energy to know their name, and they'll be impressed when next you meet, and still do remember. It is a wonderful networking tool.
A hint: Ask for a business card, and write three things about the person that you have learned on the back of the card. Then, most importantly, file that card somewhere effective and useable. Perhaps even send them a hand-written note commenting on your discussion.
3. Listening attentively is one of the greatest compliments we can give. It is also one of the basic skills that all great communicators possess. Of course, this will be applied differently in differing situations. In one-on-ones, or small groups, it is enormously powerful. In an audience situation, question time is the opportunity to apply this valuable skill. Sometimes, listening is an inherent ability. Most of the time, it is a well-learned, hard-earned skill that comes with much practice. When applied, it is one of the most effective ways to communicate, no matter the situation. Asking questions to clarify what you are hearing often reiterates the gist of the conversation and empowers those participating to have a truly meaningful interaction.
4. Know your subject matter. When you are deeply passionate about a subject and able to show your enthusiasm, your energy becomes magnetic. Those who listen will be enthralled, even though they may not always agree with you. Speaking from the heart is something that we are all able to do. The truth is that to do this we must be willing to be vulnerable and show our true colours; without getting caught up in what others might think of us.
5. Never be afraid to reveal your true self in a conversation. There are aspects in our natures that are uniquely ours. Yours may be a beautiful smile, a natural curiosity, a calming presence, an ability to set people at ease. Use these abilities often, and enjoy their positive effects. Those who experience your particular brand of communication will leave feeling better for having met you.
Remember, the art of conversation, whether with an individual, a group or an auditorium filled with people, is to smile, know your subject matter, not be afraid to share what you know, be confident, enjoy yourself and smile some more.
Gretel Breytenbach is a member and the President of Palm Beach/Currumbin Toastmasters and Area 35 Governor.