Finding Your Voice

Photo of microphone

Ms. Evelyn Riddle, my seventh grade English teacher, would be so proud.

Ms. Riddle was the one who first asked me to get up in front of a group and give a speech. I am sure everyone in the class was terrified, but we all had to do it. Actually, I even remember enjoying it a little bit. I walked up very slowly to the front of the room, whirled around and then planted my feet in the wide stance of a karate master with my fists clenched at my sides. I let out a shriek and had the attention of the class immediately. Then I talked about what it was like to learn karate. I remember ending the talk by breaking a pencil in two. She loved it, and I got an A.

My mother used to give talks to medical students she was teaching. I would watch her prepare and sometimes heard her rehearse. She knew a lot, but her delivery was dry and monotone. Her topics were very technical, and she covered them expertly, but she was also a nervous speaker. I absorbed that anxiety from an early age.

Somewhere along the path to adulthood, I built up a story about not being a good public speaker. And like a lot of our stories, I held firmly to it, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Well, I decided that four decades was long enough to hold firm. So I hired a voice coach. I have some things I want to say, and I want to say them without the distraction of an old story that isn’t serving me anymore.

The first meeting lasted three hours. My coach analyzed my voice for pitch and range. Then she took a video of me making impromptu remarks. I leaned against the wall and counted while I breathed. She asked me to walk around the room and raise and lower my voice. It was exhilarating, even if my palms were clammy and my stomach fluttered. She was so present and so convinced that I could do it. And I was doing it.

I remembered an article by the actor David Duchovny about the influence of his high school basketball coach on his life. It described exactly what had just happened for me, and what coaching can do to create a new story:

Coach Byrnes told me I was worthwhile and good and that we could win. He talked to me as if I were someone worth telling a story about, subtly enjoining me to become active in that story. My father was mostly gone by then, and now here was a man who respected me by demanding that I respect myself and a game. I never knew if he liked me. That wasn’t so important. He saw potential in me, and I began to respect myself.

That is what a good coach does. He fills you with a belief that may or may not be justified. As you make the dangerous crossing from unproven belief to actual accomplishment, from potential to reality, a good coach holds your hand so expertly that you don’t even know your hand is being held. I got better because Coach Byrnes told me I was already better. It was that simple – a magic trick. And every success I’ve had since then has had some of this same magic in it, either at the hands of other skilled teachers or by the generous trickery of the voice inside me that they instilled.

What a wonderful turn of phrase! And I realize how lucky I have been to have had more than a few skilled teachers in my life. For whatever reason, I stilled that voice they instilled inside me for awhile. But now I’m ready to speak up. And to let go of stories that don’t fit me any more.