Tired of being softly spoken, writer Anita Bhagwandas went in search of a cure…
I’ve always been – for want of a better term – softly spoken. I’ve gotten used to at least one person a day saying ‘pardon’ or cupping their hand to their ear like an imaginary ear-funnel when I speak to them. But it’s never seemed like an issue worth worrying about, just a slightly annoying quirk.
However, as I’ve climbed the career ladder (read: insurmountable peak), I’ve encountered more and more instances where my voice has been in direct comparison to others in important meetings, on panels in front of thousands of eager-eared attendees and while presenting on radio and TV. And with each one, my voice has seemed more and more lacking.
I’ve begun to notice a sense of malevolence creep in over the last few years – being cut off mid-story when gabbling with friends over dinner felt like a rebuttal, while being spoken over in work meetings made me feel like my presence wasn’t even being acknowledged. I felt like I was being silenced, and all of it made me furious.
It had started out as being softly spoken, but it had now morphed into something else. I felt angry because I knew I should be heard and seen – particularly as a woman, and particularly as a woman of colour. I knew I wanted to be louder. I wanted to be one of those people so seemingly full of their own importance and belief in what they were saying that nobody would dare interrupt them.
But where do you turn to for help with something like this? Elocution lessons seemed a dated notion, while public speaking groups sounded borderline traumatic (I’d definitely need a Valium to get me through them).
So, not really knowing what I needed, I posted my conundrum on a public speaking forum on Facebook. To my surprise, all manner of people replied offering their services: business coaches, a guy who works with CEO’s, some ex-military dude who helps people be assertive. I wasn’t sure that any of these were quite right, but when Judith Quinn, an actor, vocal confidence specialist and author of Stop Shoulding. Start Wanting called me, she cut to the chase immediately. She pointed out that this was a far bigger issue than protecting my voice, and that if I worked with her, I should be prepared for that.
I got so much out of our 15 minute conversation that I signed up for her two-day course immediately. I had zero idea what to expect, but hope that things would finally click.
Judith told me that the best course was an overnight stay away from home, in order to really immerse myself in the weekend. Internally, I rolled my eyes – I didn’t want to camp out in a hotel in Greenwich when I’m only 25 minutes away in an Uber. But Judith calmly explained that the weekend was a process, and you need to be away from your typical routine and surroundings to get out of your usual mindset. She had warned me that this would be more of an emotional journey than a ‘bit of vocal coaching’, as I still thought it would be.
I don’t speak loudly enough – how emotional could that be? I’ve had tonnes of therapy, and for the most part I’m quite aware of my feels. I still believed my voice was like a broken bone and I needed to fix it – especially before Stylist Live, and a big meeting I had coming up the week after.
I arrived at Judith’s flat and we started with some exercises that looked at what my purpose was – or what I thought it was, at least. She questioned me on why I wrote, what I wanted from my career, what change I wanted to exact on society in the larger sense and what I truly believed in. I had thought we’d start with some vocal warm up exercises, but much of her questioning and lines of enquiry gave me a clarity I’d been looking for for a while.
Judith explained that having that focus in who we are and what we stand for helps us to have a voice – and that’s what I’d lost. I’d become afraid to have an opinion – especially on Twitter – in case people disagreed. And I’d never say exactly how I felt in case it was deemed ‘wrong’. All of this seemed to link up.
We moved to talking about my childhood and moments of comparison, and moments that had felt unfair cropped up. I happened upon something I’d forgotten about completely. When I was six, my teacher took my McDonalds Little Mermaid from me and gave it to another girl because she claimed it was hers.
I remember that feeling of unfairness, of not having a voice, of not being able to say anything about it, like it was yesterday. I felt like it had happened because she was better than me – whiter, prettier, cuter – and more lovable and believable. I was incensed and desolate when I told my mum everything that night.
It’s the same feeling I get now when I’m talked over or ignored when I speak. It feels like a rush of energy through my chest, a mix of fury and adrenaline. But I never do anything with it. I wish I could just say, “Can you stop interrupting me? It’s rude and it makes me feel like I’m not valued in any way.” But I never have.
This was a huge realisation: I was playing out that initial childhood scenario over and over again in adult life, but I was still full of childlike emotions. No wonder I felt like s**t when I tried to tackle anything unfair.
For the next part of our session, we took a walk in a local park. With nobody in earshot (thankfully) we did some role playing of tricky situations I had coming up. These included difficult conversations where I didn’t feel able to say what I felt, without the above surge of emotion coming up and tears pricking behind my eyes. The latter was part of the reason I always avoid confrontation of any kind – I don’t want to cry. But Judith’s advice was invaluable. She told me to write down exactly what I want to say in tricky situations, and group similar items together with examples so I have something tangible to back up what I’m saying. She told me to practice it, and take in my notes. It seemed like common sense and yet I’d never done it before. We practiced it over and over again. We amended it and re-wrote it. By the end I felt sure of what I was saying and really believed I should be heard.
But what about that nervousness I felt every time I was in a confronting situation? We walked back to Judith’s flat to spend time working on that. We talked about my feelings around safety. I’d inherited a lot of anxiety from my Dad, who is perpetually worried about safety even now and had been since I was a child. Growing up, we lived in a neighbourhood in South Wales that was a bit apprehensive about having too many ‘coloureds’ moving in. Our next-door neighbours routinely called us ‘Pakis’ – but in the Eighties, the police would have done nothing about it. And this country was so different to the family-filled, familiarity of what my parents had left behind in India. As a result, my dad was always scared that something would happen to me. Which led to me being scared of anything new myself.
We named my fear Rupert. Rupert was what was holding me back. I had to actively ‘throw’ him away before going into tricky situations – for example, by reaching into my stomach where the fear sits, and imagine pulling it out. As I went back to my hotel for the night I had a lot to think about. What I’d thought was a vocal issue had turned out to be something far bigger, but each time we worked on something the more it all clicked together.
The next morning we continued to work on practical ways to help me be heard. Judith taught me a brilliant trick for an instant self-esteem boost: using my fingers to say the 10 things I’m brilliant at before a meeting or speech. She also taught me to sit up straight in meetings to engage my ‘adult’ mode, and to exercise my voice to ensure it didn’t come out too quietly in tricky conversations. Then we did some vocal projection exercises to actually hear how loud I could be (very loud it seems… who knew?!).
Armed with my new tools I faced one of my challenges – a tricky work conversation – the very next day. I practiced what I wanted to say a few more times, and I threw Rupert away in the loo before the meeting. I went through the 10 ways I’m great at my job and made sure I sat up straight. I felt grounded and adult, and my little girl voice was more confident because I knew exactly what I wanted to say. It was the first time I felt like I’d ever controlled a conversation in that situation – I’m usually waiting to be attacked or made to feel small. I walked away feeling far more positive about situations like that in the future, whereas before they’d be a source of poor sleep and massive anxiety. Huge, huge win.
The week after it was Stylist Live, which gave me feelings of actual terror. I’ve given a lot of talks in the past, but they still fill me with fear. I used Judith’s techniques: I read my cue cards repeatedly whilst standing up, I reminded myself of the 10 reasons I’m good at my job before I went on stage and I tried as best as I could to keep and take control of the situation. It wasn’t perfect, but it’s a work in progress and I know what I need to do to make it better next time.
I thought my quiet voice was just something I was born with, but it turns out that it was symptomatic of so much more. And while I’ll never be a foghorn, being able to assert and express myself when I need to has been invaluable. To say it was a life-changing experience and journey is a total understatement. I’d like to say ‘hear me roar’ but I don’t need to be loud to be heard – I just need to know I deserve to be listened to. And now, finally, I do.
The evidence of stress in our lives is everywhere, from bad sleep to increased anxiety. So in January 2019, stylist.co.uk is dedicated to creating a life less frazzled. We’ll be focusing on uplifting news, feelgood features and recommendations for fun things to do, with the goal of making you feel calmer and more positive about the coming year.