Catherine Johns is an expert in using her voice with authority. After decades of radio news experience, she now coaches people on effective and authentic public speaking.
We had a delightful conversation about using your voice with authority. Topics include
- Advice on commanding the room
- Balancing command of the room with connection
- The importance of eye contact
- Speech patterns and pitch (particularly for women)
- The power of the pause
There’s much in here for women in particular. Near the end, Catherine says “The world is full of women who haven’t fully shown up, and so we’re missing out on their brilliance.”
Learn how to show up as your best self.
Listen to our conversation here.
Read the Transcript
Anne: Catherine, thanks for speaking with me. I’d love to know about your story, which you have shared in bits and pieces on your website, about your start in radio, and the transition to what you’re doing now, and how that came about. Can you share some of that backstory with me?
Catherine: Like a lot of young people, I was confused about what I thought I wanted to do when I grew up. Maybe you can relate. I was a nursing major at Valparaiso University. A guy in my dormitory said to me one night, “You should be on the radio. You have a great voice.” I was stunned. I had never heard anything so ridiculous. The whole idea of me on the radio?
However, I had a crush on this guy. When he proposed that we go and audition for shows on the campus radio station, I was all over that idea. Happily, I got a show. Sadly, he did not, which was kind of the end of a budding relationship. Although, the truth is, he turned out to be gay. I didn’t know, I don’t think he knew, but there was never going to be a romance developing.
Anyway, that’s how I started in radio, completely by accident, and it turned out to be so much fun and so interesting. When the faculty of the College of Nursing suggested that perhaps I should make myself available for some other opportunity, I decided, “This radio stuff is cool, I think I’ll do that.” Anne, I had no idea how challenging it could be. This was early 70.s When I went to register for broadcasting classes at a new school, starting all over, the head of the department told me he really didn’t believe there was a place for gals in broadcasting.
Anne: Oh geeze.
Catherine: Can you imagine people would actually say that to your face? He was wrong. Although, I will say, there are still today limits for women in broadcasting. There’s a reason they refer to “morning men” because mostly they are.
But yeah, I had a career. I was in radio for 25 years. Then it caved in, and I had to start fresh, and here I am.
Anne: What I love about this is it is clear that you had found a sweet spot, purely by accident or serendipity, and then you had to reinvent. You take what you are very good at, which is speaking on the radio, and now you are coaching people on public speaking. My question for you there, there’s quite a difference between speaking in a microphone, where you can’t see what I’m doing with my hands, or where I’m looking or how I’m standing, to putting yourself physically in front of people on a stage. That has to have been a change, a transition for you. How did that learning curve go? How did that process go for you?
Catherine: You’re exactly right. It was challenging. When I set out to investigate speaking as a career, I was telling someone at a National Speaker’s Association meeting, “What I like is when it’s small groups and it’s interactive, and they’re talking back, and it’s not me on a stage.” They said, “Oh, you want to be a trainer.”
I didn’t know about training? I’d been living in this broadcasting bubble all these years. We had training one time, when WLS got a voice mail system when voice mail was new. They brought in a trainer from the phone company. So, I had a lot to learn.
It turned out, it was a good fit. Training was right for me. Challenging to find a job at that point as a communication trainer, because people who hired those folks preferred to hire somebody who’d done it before. Makign a switch is not so easy.
I was lucky to find a company that was looking for—and this was a real key for me—they had me come in and do an audition, really. Get in front of 12 consultants and tell them why they should hire me. A sales presentation, which I had never done in my life, selling me. Whew, that was challenging.
Their feedback, when I was finished, was “Needs work on presentation skills. What the hell is her problem with eye contact?” Twenty-five years in radio, baby. There’s no eye contact there. I didn’t know I had a problem. I find that with most of my clients today. They will tell me in a heartbeat “Eye contact is fine. I don’t have any problems with that.” Then they get in front of a room full of people and stare over their heads or at the floor, or they dart around the room because everybody knows you’re supposed to make eye contact, so they try to look at everybody at once. It is a huge skill for a person who presents in person and one of the main things that I insist on my clients mastering, because it is key to in-person communications and, for that matter, it makes a difference virtually, too, but that’s a story for a different time.
These people hired me in spite of my clear lack of skills because they were confident they could teach me those skills, because that’s what they did for a living. What they were looking for, and this is really an important thing for some people listening, they wanted somebody who could command a room.
They could teach me how to use the flip chart and markers. They could teach me what to do with my hands when I’m teaching. But it’s hard to teach command of the room. People have a natural energy or not. And they wanted that. So that’s how I got into communications consulting—by being bossy and commanding a room!
Anne: Well, it’s playing to your strengths. That’s what it’s about.
Catherine: In all honest, what I teach my clients is yes, command of the room, and connection with the audience. It’s really a balance, the dance between them. The masterful speakers and the really good leaders have both of those qualities, and can move seamlessly, so command comes out, or they soften and emphasize connection.
Most of us are better at one or the other, so we have to learn the part that is not as natural for us.
Anne: I love the focus on connection. I think that’s probably my strength compared to command.
Catherine: It probably is. For me, it’s the opposite. As I’ve worked with different clients, I see that in general—and there certainly are exceptions—women are better at connection, and men have an edge when it comes to command. The people who are really good communicators develop the one that is not their natural strength. For me, command comes pretty naturally. I work at connection. I do very intentional things to connect with every individual in the room.
Anne: Right, but the truth is you need both. One without the other is not going to fly.
Catherine: No. Either you come across as sort of a blunderbuss, or you’re sort of a bully or throwing your weight around, or you’re too strong or intimidating. Or, you can be a doormat. People feel that, “Oh, she’s really nice, but I’m not totally sure that she’s an expert on the subject.” Really, you need elements of both. The skill comes in weaving them together, or as I said, dancing between them so the audiences benefit both from our ability to command a room and our ability to connect with them.
Anne: I’m just going to dig in for a moment on “command a room” because you just made an explicit connection between command the room and inhabiting authority. The command of the room is your authority not just over the speaking space, but the topic—that you are a person who is worth listening to. That seems to be certainly a difficulty for a lot of people—a discomfort. Maybe for more women than men, but not exclusively, clearly.
Catherine: I think that’s fair.
Anne: Before you can communicate it, you must internalize it, right?
Catherine: Yes, and I think the easiest way to do that is to work from the outside in. I could tell myself all day that I’m in charge of this room, or I’m confident, or I’m an expert on this subject. And, maybe eventually I’d believe it, and then maybe eventually somebody else would believe it.
Or, I could really ground myself —and you can do it with me right now. Ground yourself so your feet are flat on the floor, both of them. So we’re not sitting with our ankles crossed, or one leg up underneath us, but two feet flat on the floor, pushing slightly down into the floor, and sit-bones grounded on the chair. From that, turn on the leg muscles a little bit so they’re activated, the way you would do if you have ever done yoga, the Mountain Pose. Think Mountain Pose. You’re really rooted here. Then stack your spine up and let your shoulders drop down and back, and make sure your head is straight up and down on top of your body, and your chest is open, so you’re very expansive. Even, you might put your arms out, rest them on the desk or table—whatever’s close. The arm of the chair. You’re aiming to take up space. This is one way we command a room. We get ourselves in this posture that says, I” belong here. I have no doubt. I’m not perched, not slinking around, not hiding, not folded in on myself. This is my space and I’m an expert.”
Anne: Isn’t it interesting how that physical presence has such a visceral reaction within ourselves as well as those around us. It’s fascinating.
Catherine: It makes all the difference in the world. Some of the work I do with clients is changing what might be there natural habits they’ve developed over time. I have a picture of my confirmation class from the Glenview United Methodist Church, in some time in the 60s. All the girls in the front row sitting with their ankles crossed and their hands in their laps.
Anne: As we were taught to take up little space. Make yourself small.
Catherine: Those habits die hard. I actually think women who are a generation or two behind us, behind me, have an advantage because Title 9. They were active in sports as girls or young women and learned to be strong, to take up space, to defend their territory. That is a huge advantage. Those of us who are older, who most of us didn’t play sports in the same way, missed out on that. Some of this is just body stuff.
Anne: It’s body stuff. It’s stuff that can be taught. I’ve read Amy Cuddy’s excellent book Presence and experimented with some of those things myself and have been amazed by the reaction. I was once at a conference dinner at a round table. And the problem with a round table is you can sit there and the person on your right is talking to the person on their right, and the person on the left … in this case, the person on my left was a man who was hitting on the younger woman on his left. So here I am. I decided, “I just read Presence.” So I leaned back and draped one arm over the back of my chair, taking up more space and being comfortable in this situation. He immediately turned to me, stopped hitting on the women to the left of him, and started asking me a question about my content area.
Catherine: Isn’t that fascinating?
Anne: Yes, I would encourage anyone to try this. Let me ask you another question, because I am a singer, and we’re talking about voice. Writing voice is one thing, but speaking voice is another. I’ve noticed generationally, there are certain speaking patterns that can …
Catherine: Really? I never noticed that? I don’t know what you’re talking about? [rising inflections]
Anne: Exactly. Upspeak. I found myself on a podcast with a young woman who was doing a lot of upspeak, which is what you were just demonstrating, and the other funny thing is that I discovered myself mimicking, using the same speech patterns. We speak like those around us. We need to be thinking about our vocal patterns.
Upspeak is one, clearly. Making firm sentences that end. Not being afraid to leave a pause. These are all things that you preach.
Catherine: Yes, and a couple things I would add. The upspeak thing started out with young women, but has spread like wildfire. I hear men to it to—younger men, primarily. I hear that same thin. Other languages are different, but in American English we assume from tone a meaning for words. When the words sound like a question, we assume questioning, whether you mean it that way or not. And that comes across as not being certain of what you’re saying or begging for agreement or trying it out. It really undermines credibility.
In terms of voice, as a singer, you know all about diaphragmatic breathing. For many of my clients and people who come to my workshops, it’s a new notion of breathing all the way down so that the diaphragm moves. Speaking from your core is the language I use. To do that, you need to breathe so you use your full lung capacity. You can imagine breathing all the way into your belly, although lungs don’t actually go down that far, if you were looking at the anatomy. You want that whole part of your body to expand, not just the front, but the side body and the back body, so your lungs are really full. The energy comes from the core, maybe even from the earth, going back to “our feet are grounded on the floor” and we’re firmly rooted. The energy comes up and out.
My experience working with women is that many of them get stuck in their head. There’s a block in their throat chakra—I’m not getting “woo-woo” but stay with me on this. Their energy is blocked and they start talking like this: the voice is produced from their head and it sounds thin and tinny and a little bit nasal because I’m not using all of that resonance possibility in my diaphragm. When I work with men, some are stuck in their head, but more likely it’s the throat. So they get kind of a raspy sound, and they’re forcing from their throat instead of supporting their voice with the energy from the rest of their body.
The throat chakra—I’m not a chakra expert by any means—it’s associated with communication, When the energy is blocked there, it’s as if our communication is choked off, and we sound less resonant, less rich. We have less impact.
Anne: I don’t want to say that I try to pitch my voice lower, because that’s not true, but I do try to work in the lower parts of my register when I speak on a recording or speaking in public because I will open up. As a singer, I have control over my soft palate, so I can think about making sure I’m not being nasal, by just doing something with my soft palate, without going “Julia Child” [imitates Julia Childs.] You don’t want to go there.
Catherine: No, you don’t. One of the things I suggest for clients is not to force the voice lower, because you’re right, we have a natural range, each of us, a range that feels right. I don’t think it’s useful to try to force my voice to be something else. I do think that I want to speak more of the time in the lower register of my natural range, and then use the higher notes for emphasis. So my voice comes up in my head to make a point, or to make something stand apart. But I am primarily speaking from the lower part of my natural range.
Anne: You’re living in that lower register. Not forcing it. Great advice.
Catherine: It is really, in a way, rooted in sexism. The research on this is very clear: people associate credibility with a lower voice. For years, there were only men doing the news or commercials on television. You go back far enough, and if it wasn’t a feminine hygiene product, it was a male voice doing the talking, because men were perceived as having credibility, because men ran the plan. Some of this is lingering perceptions from that era, that people still ascribe more credibility and authority to a lower voice.
Anne: As long as that’s the case, we need to piggyback on it, unfortunately. IT shouldn’t be, but that’s how things are. I’ve had someone tell me that they would never buy an audiobook that was narrated by a woman.
Catherine: Really? Still?
Anne: This is a business person talking to me. I’ve narrated all of my own audiobooks. I’m like “Ok, so sorry, I’m not going to hire a man to speak in my voice.”
Catherine: I did an audiobook, too. And I don’t think anybody could read it as well as I did because it’s my figurative voice and my literal voice.
Anne: So, we should not try to be like men, we should not be afraid to show up as women, but we should, if we want to reach as large an audience as possible, we do need to make our voices as authoritative as they can be. That means not buying into those – not doing the hesitation conversational things, and asking a lot of questions, do you think?
Catherine: You mentioned pausing earlier. When I do presentation skills work, I always say eye contact is the most powerful tool you have to establish both connection with the audience and command of the room—and the next most powerful one is the pause. If you can stand in front of an audience and have nothing coming out of your mouth for even a moment, you own the room. Many people are very, very nervous about pausing. That’s why “um, uh, like, you know, so, kind of, like, … that kind of stuff.”
Anne: Yes, I think you earn the ability to pause, and pausing earns you respect. It’s a virtuous cycle.
Catherine: People get nervous that if they pause, they’ll lose their audience. People will lose interest, they’l stop listening, they’ll tune out. It’s the opposite. I’ve watched this many times. I’ll pause, and I see people literally lean in. I see their eyes on me. I feel the energy of them waiting for what’s coming. They’re not going away. If you’re doing your job well, that pause pulls them in.
Anne: I would encourage everyone to be courageous and try a pause when you’re speaking. This is great. Thank you for your wonderful advice. Let me ask you one more question about this. You right now, coaching people on their public speaking.
What motivates you in this work? What’s your driving motivation—the thing pulling you out of your bed to do this?
Catherine: I just love it. I know that’s not very profound. I particularly enjoy working with women, although I certainly have male clients, too, and it’s about all the things we’re talking about. I think the world is full of women who haven’t fully shown up, and so we’re missing out on their brilliance. Helping people find a way to release that, so their strength and their smarts and their personality is made manifest when they speak—that’s big work.
Anne: That’s big work, and that’s important work. I love the way you put it: people who haven’t fully shown up. That’s brilliant.
It’s wonderful work you’re doing. I’m a big fan of your work and philosophy, I love watching your videos, and I’m inspired by them. When I don’t get to hide behind a podcast, when I have to be on video, I will just channel my inner Catherine.
Catherine: It will stand you in good stead.
Anne: Thanks so much.