Every day I am bombarded with lists of things I am doing wrong. The titles appear in my inbox, on my Facebook newsfeed, and on Twitter. Articles such as “30 Words Never To Use In A Cover Letter” and “15 Conversation Topics To Avoid At Networking Events,” tempt me to enter a spiral of shame and self-doubt. Is my use of the word “passionate” in my LinkedIn profile summary truly hindering my success? Did I sabotage my most recent networking opportunity because I made small talk with a potential client about my cat?
Moreover, if I am an intelligent, hard-working, driven person, are there really any items on these lists that are going to make or break my career? After much thought, I have decided: NO. No online list of tips is going to change my life, make me happier, or lead me to success. Changing habits that may be interfering with our goals in life requires self-reflection and dedication to self-improvement. Self-improvement means something different to everyone, and there is no path toward improving a skill that can be outlined in a simple list.
My earliest memory of initiating some kind of self-improvement is from my sophomore year of high school. My mother was frustrated that I said everything as if it was a question (a pattern of intonation called uptalk). She and my father also teased me about how often I said “like,” “umm,” and “ya know.” I am an only child, which makes people think I didn’t get teased as a kid. Wrong! My parents just teased me instead of siblings! But, I digress. My mom and dad are incredibly kind and loving parents who critiqued my speech because they knew I was very intelligent; but, the way I spoke didn’t reflect that.
Of course, my arrogant teenage self vehemently disagreed that there was anything wrong with my speech, so my parents suggested that I leave a tape recorder (with a real casette tape in it!) on the table for a couple of hours, then listen to how I sounded afterwards. Guess what? My effort to prove my parents wrong failed miserably. I sounded like a combination of Meadow Soprano and Cher Horowitz. Even at age 16, I knew this was not how I wanted to sound! Inspired by my freshman year English teacher, I had recently decided that I wanted to get a PhD in English (before I had any idea what that entailed) and be a professor. I couldn’t sound like the person on that recording!
I listened to the recording a few times to train my ear to hear the patterns in my speech I had never before noticed. I thought about what it was that was coming in between who I was and and how I spoke. The uptalk stood out to me most. I had valuable opinions and insights to share! Why sound unsure of what I had to say when I was so excited to share what was on my mind? I realized people would only take me seriously in life if I sounded like I was taking myself seriously. Where was this tone of doubt coming from?
This is the sort of question I help my clients explore during speech consultations. I cannot be an effective speech consultant if I hand anyone a list of what’s “wrong” with their speeech and say “fix this!” Even handing my clients a list of strategies along with the list would not be enough. In order to commit to making a change, we need to understand why a pattern exists and create goals connected to our self-image.
We all have certain situations in which we don’t speak as eloquently as we might like to. For example, a client told me that she hates the way she sounds at works meetings, and thinks her input is not being taken seriously because of her voice. This client had already self-reflected and had a goal in mind. She wanted to speak more slowly and with a lower pitch at work. The problem was that her goal was disconnected from who she is. Artificially dropping the pitch of her voice would sound contrived, and trying to speak slowly would distract her from the content of her speech.
I asked my client to reframe her goal by thinking about situations in which she likes the way her voice sounds. She said that she liked the way she sounded when she talked to her family at home. That is where she was able to speak with the most authoritative and calm tone. This allowed us to create a new goal: “bring features of ‘home voice’ into ‘work voice.”
This made the goal more easily achievable because it was suddenly not about acquiring a new skill, but instead transferring skills between contexts. Reframing the goal also allowed us to examine the root cause of my client’s disdain for her ‘work voice:’ a lack of confidence in her expertise. We decided on a combination of confidence-building strategies and reminders to use features of her home voice at work. This strategy for speech improvement is specific to my client and true to who she is. It is also much easier than trying to learn an entirely new way to speak!
Instead of reading a list of “25 Things Never To Say At Work” or whatever else is out there in the blackhole of lists, I encourage you to listen to yourself! Put your phone on record mode on your desk for long enough that you’ll forget it’s there and speak naturally. That evening, listen to snippets of your speech and write down both what you dislike AND what you like. Do the same thing at home when you’re talking to your significant other, family, or roommates. Maybe even record yourself speaking on the phone.
When you listen back to the recording, instead of only focusing about everything you’re doing wrong – explore what you are doing well. You may find that you already sound like the brilliant gem of a person that you are at some moments throughout the day, but not others. If that is the case, just need to practice sounding your best more often!
If a few things that you dislike are hard to eliminate from your speech on your own, you may want to ask for your friends and family to help. They can gently remind you when you’re slipping into the patterns you are trying to improve, which will give you the opportunity to self-correct. Don’t expect perfection, though; and remember that there is a time and place that is appropriate for every way of speaking!
I am writing this over ten years after the first time I recorded myself, and I still overuse “like,” and slip into my whiny New Jersey accent when speaking to my family or childhood friends. But that’s ok with me! The quirks of my speech are my linguistic autobiography. My accent and dialect connect me to my upbringing and my generation. I will probably never eliminate either, and I don’t want to. We shouldn’t all sound like robots, ya know?