On Finding Your Voice (with a nod to Seth Godin)

In these late pandemic days, many of us are feeling “Zoomed” out.  It started in mid-2020, when colleagues started taking cough drops or dry mouth candies before entering conferences, group meetings or contract interviews.

More than a year later, many of us are tired of seeing ourselves and each other on video.  Some have made light of the problem by adding flowers or pig-ear icons to their online images.  People have blogged on the politics of turning off the “video” function off altogether–the politics of being seen, of being the object of another’s penetrating “gaze,” analyzed so exhaustively by academics in the 80s and 90s.

Marketing genius Seth Godin (who speaks to people across all divides of discipline, age, race, class, gender and more ) blogged recently that he’s concerned about our “actual voices”–that not enough of us are being heard:

It’s pretty clear to me that our speaking voice is not the result of the inevitable physical evolution of our vocal cords. It’s something our brain figured out how to do with the part of our body that keeps us alive by breathing.

And because [in evolutionary terms] it’s a late addition, there are a bunch of kinks in the system . . . .

[Speaking involves] a huge number of sensitive muscles and nerves. . . . Add microphones, Zoom, and the high-stakes world of being seen, and you can start to understand why it’s so easy to get hoarse, to sound like someone you’re not, to develop tics, to amplify your stress, and a whole host of other challenges.

If you don’t sound like you, it might simply be because your brain is sabotaging the thing you’re trying to say. I used to riff about ‘no one gets talker’s block’ but now I’m not so sure. I think most of us do.

In my recent months as an online ESL teacher, I’ve displaced some  of my writing work (as a business writer) with teaching–which, of course, relies on my literal voice.

To facilitate daily talking online, I start most mornings by steaming my sinuses over scalding hot water; I run a humidifier at night and sometimes by day, to relieve my throat from our dry prairie air.  I stay hydrated as much as I can, as well.  These are all tried and true methods recommended by family doctors and vocal coaches, alike.

In Covid times, it’s harder to speak well in a climate where we rightly but paradoxically are masked in public (and sometimes in private),  to keep us (including our voices) safe.

I still feel “talker’s block” some days, especially when a new student does not participate enough in our conversations–perhaps not feeling confident enough to risk making errors in English–when they want me to talk, to compensate for their insecurities.  It’s far better for them to risk making mistakes, so I strive to build  an online classroom that is safe for experimentation.  But due to the seamy world of cyber-connectivity, we all generally feel we shouldn’t trust the folk we meet online.

When struggling with “literal” voice issues, Godin urges everyone “to find a good voice coach. Not because you’re some fancy keynote speaker about to go on the TED stage. Simply because you have something to say and it would be nice to be able to say it without pain. It’s easier than ever to have a few sessions remotely, and many people I know have found it life-changing. . . .

The world needs to hear from you.

Speaking daily with students from such countries as Belarus, Ukraine, Iran, Japan and even to new immigrants to the US, I am struck by the diversity of their experiences and how much my mind is broadened by conversing with them. Andrea from Italy (a pseudonym) is a leading authority of Asian history who inspires me to find time to read the books he has, so that I can keep up with him! Jeanette (also a pseudonym) stays late at work some evenings to meet me on Zoom, when she shares her concern for  minority human rights in her part of the globe.

The distinction that Godin makes between “literal” and figurative “voices” is erroneous and for the reason he unconsciously acknowledges when urging us to get voice coaching: “[Y]ou have something to say and it would be nice to be able to say it without pain.”

Not just because of the pandemic, but certainly due partly to it, we are living in some of the most pain-filled times our planet has seen.  Very few people can speak of their lives or work without expressing at least some pain–even if it’s  unconsciously  (e.g. Godin’s reference to a false sense of self, verbal tics, etc.).

Such times demand that we find good listeners  more than  good vocal technique teachers, be they the literal audience of a TEDTalk (e.g. Simon Sinek speaks about empathy), a close friend or loved one, or a trustworthy psychotherapist.  When we tell our stories to valued others, we may begin to heal.  I named my business “Storytelling Communications” in part for this reason.

I believe that the world does hear from you, my colleagues, my students and others, when we find a way to give literal and figurative voice to our pain, instead of aiming to free ourselves from it.  For centuries, human beings have called this process art.

I feel remarkably privileged now that I can work with entrepreneurial mentors, colleagues and friends; and most recently, with my ESL students, to hear and speak about pain (and other emotions, too).

Through teaching and writing, I feel that he world does hear from me–at least some of it. That happens as  I facilitate others’ telling of their stories. The physical and psychological are interwoven. And this work matters.

Even if Zoom is the best way that it can  happen.