Emotional Intelligence and Speaking Like a Leader

sicola, Dr. Laura

Dr. Relly Nadler: This weeks Leadership Development News features Dr. Laura Sicola who has spent more than a decade coaching, lecturing, researching and publishing on cognition, pronunciation, culture, the voice and related effects on learning. Her primary goal is to help executives develop their vocal executive presence; she calls it VEP. Establishing themselves as leaders whose voice is heard and messages are accurately received while making authentic connections with their audience.

Dr. Sicola has given presentations on the intersection of pronunciation, cognition, culture and learning and has done trainings from Kyoto to Cairo and California to Connecticut. Her clients include Fortune 500 companies as well as not-for-profit, women’s leadership and international education organizations. She is on the faculty of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and she lectures on second language acquisition theory, pedagogy, and overseas some of the field work where teaching English to speakers of other languages is a program that they have there at UOP. She speaks English, Spanish, Japanese, and has studied Arabic and Italian. Her website, in case you want more information, is www.vocalimpactproductions.com. Cathy, why don’t you tell us how you and Dr. Sicola met?

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Absolutely. This was one of those fabulous, serendipitous meetings. We are both part of a executive program for women called Half The Sky. This program, which you can look at online at www.halftheskyleadership.com, is a pretty fantastic outreach by a wonderful woman executive by the name of Grace Killelea. Grace is one of those people who wants to help as many women as she can in the time that she has on this place known as Earth. Somehow, Laura and I were fortunate enough to be on her faculty. We crossed paths as speakers at an event. This was really an insightful opportunity for me to learn how people speak and how they can perceive themselves as speaking and how those things are so different and why for women in particular, although this applies to men and all generations as well, it’s so important to have very distinct presence through your voice and their communication. She is going to wow you with some of these insights which are pretty easy to grasp, but they are very complex if you look underneath the brain activity and the neuroscience, and obviously the physical youth of your vocal chords and lungs, and how emotion and emotional intelligence plays out in that relationship to voice and communication.

One of the big questions that Relly and I always like to ask is: Who have been the people in your life who have been thought leaders for you, or the most influential for you? Then we’ll jump right in to what executive presence is and what it means for everybody who is listening today.

Dr. Laura Sicola: Again, to both of you, thank you so much for having me on the show today. This is really exciting and I’m so glad to have the opportunity to share these ideas and share the experiences with you and your audience.

As far as the most influential people for me, there have been a handful in the last few years who have shown me the path of where the research and where all of the study comes into play, not only for academic purposes, but really seeing how much of a real world application and value there is for this kind of work.

Originally, I finished my Doctorate about five or six years ago and it was all about voice and pronunciation and learning cognitive processing and culture. I met someone very serendipitously, much as I met you Cathy, by the name of Chris Caine who at the time was working as the Vice President for Government Programs at IBM. He and I were talking and he said do you think you could put a program together for me for my worldwide leadership team on culture, learning and language and it’s affects in business globally now? So that was a fantastic first opportunity for me into the world of entrepreneurship and into being where people really did value the underlying work. So he was quite the catalyst and he has now gone out on his own to start a company called Mercator XXI, which is also a global consulting firm.

Since then in developing business, Grace Killelea, as you mentioned where you and I met, has also been a great influence in recognizing where women in particular have the need for this kind of executive presence and where the work that I’m doing in voice and speaking and applying it to the cause of those leadership for women. Also Sheryl Sanberg and her book Lean In and that whole concept, as much as she is a controversial figure, I think her underlying premises are great. When I read the book, I thought to myself how it’s not just about your choice of what to say and your choice of behavior, but your ability to lean in vocally, when you do take that step literally or figuratively; to lean into a discussion and to an opportunity. You have to sound like you mean it and sound like you belong there. You have to vocally lean in. That was something that has really stuck with me.

What has been interesting for me is that one of the earliest lessons that I learned as a professional was right after college and I’m not going to throw myself under the bus by telling you exactly how long ago that was. When I first graduated I decided to become a teacher. I was getting ready to go to Los Angeles, I had grown up in a very average New Jersey suburb and lived on the East coast most of my life. I moved to California to teach in the inner cities in South Central Los Angeles.

My father had been a teacher of middle school for almost 40 years at the time. My biggest concern was respect. How would I get the kids to respect me and not run all over me? I asked him one day how he made that happen, because he always seemed to have it together every time I visited his school. He said something that I don’t really think I understood at the time, but now closing in on a couple of decades later, it resonated more and more in my current work, ironically. He said to me, “It’s not enough to demand respect, you have to command it.” That distinction between demanding and commanding respect is something that has really taken time to evolve in my understanding, and it’s become a real linchpin of my work in vocal executive presence.

Your business card can give you a title, but you have to show that you are there. You have to command that room. Do you know what I mean?

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Yes. Number one, it is something that is very important for people to understand that carrying a business card that has your title on it doesn’t necessarily give you the power to address others in a way that you think is going to engage them. We’ll talk about the distinctions between power motivations and emotional intelligence in communication.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Can you break down, when you talk to groups about commanding respect, what it looks like?

Dr. Laura Sicola: The idea of commanding respect is very much in line with the concept of executive presence on the whole. There have been a few studies and leadership research in general had been trying for a long time to really operationalize what it means; what it looks like, and how you measure it. A lot of it has to do with things like leading by example, being willing to make the hard decisions and stick by them and see them through. The executive presence is a combination of being able to walk the walk, talk the talk, and look the part, all together.

In the end, are you credible when you do it. Is there something about you that makes people know that you mean business, not in a threatening sense but that you are for real. It’s interesting because the cause of credibility is so important in leadership and that ability to command a room. When people are evaluating your overall credibility through your speech, there are studies out there that show that about 38% of that evaluation is based on the tonality of your voice. That’s not to say that the other 62% is based on the words that you use. On the contrary, that’s about 7%. The other 55% is more the non-verbal pieces: the way you gesture, the way you look, other pieces.

Thirty-eight percent is based on your voice, the tonality, the sort of highs and lows and the way you use that range. I’m petite, just over 5 fee tall. When I walk into a room nobody is afraid I’m going to take their lunch money. It’s not that kind of a presence. I need to be able to walk in there and stand next to a guy who is 6’4” and 240 who they are going to look at an may assume he’s the boss by his size, if he is dressed well and looks confident; and have the floor, there needs to be something in the way that I present, in the way I look, in the way I sound, in the way the package comes across that lets people know that I’m HIS boss, or that we are at least equal; whatever the position is, there shouldn’t be any doubt regardless of how big somebody is physically. Does that make sense?

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: That makes perfect sense. I guess what is going through my head is having been a partner in two of the world’s largest consulting firms where I was the boss of people who fit the description that you just shared, it’s interesting how because I knew I was the boss, and I needed to give the opportunity to do what you described as walk the walk and talk the talk, and gain their credibility in front of our clients, often I would actually be powerfully present, but not vocally obstructive. Does that make sense?

Dr. Laura Sicola: Absolutely.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Can you explain to me why perhaps I did that? Maybe because I was confident, because I didn’t have to worry about my position, the client knew who I was—I’m answering my own question. Maybe you could talk about, as we get into this conversation, what is executive presence? Obviously I’ve felt it, I felt I had it and I was trying to establish it for these young men and women around me. How can leadership presence really make a defining difference in establishing a business person or a coach, or anybody who is a thought leader as that leader?

Dr. Laura Sicola: Your vocal executive presence or your VEP is your homework of do you even sound like a leader. As a leader, you can treat your people well, you can make the tough decisions, but the same way that it is hard to get people to take you seriously and trust you if you don’t look like a leader; if you’re all wrinkled, if you are in sweats, your hair isn’t combed—whatever it happens to be. It’s just as hard to persuade them that you are that leader that they need to follow and take seriously if you don’t sound like it and look like it.

You dress the role, with your choice of clothes. But you dress your message in your voice in the same way. It make every bit as much of an impact. For example, I can say the same phrase in two different ways and have it mean something very different, or have you respond with a very different feeling internally. If I say for example, “Way to go! closing that deal last week!” As opposed to saying it in a different tone, it comes across differently.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Did you hear that Relly!

Dr. Relly Nadler: Oh yes, definitely. In the first one there is a lot more enthusiasm, commitment, and sounded more genuine. The second one just sounded more perfunctory.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: This is what I love about Laura’s work. If you can imagine, those of you in the audience, being in a room full of very powerful executive women who are up and coming in organizations around our nations who are hearing these distinctions and some of them while they get it or got it, didn’t hear the importance of the distinction until they could make the connection.

Relly for you and I, it’s such a part of how we work with our client base. What I think gets taken for granted, Laura, in a lot of the workplaces where all of us exist and continue to work in and be a part of our industries and our communities, we don’t know just how important it is. I would love for you to use more of those examples because they are so powerful.

Dr.Laura Sicola: Sure. For example, if I say to you, “Come by at 2:00, I’ve got a lot of things I want to talk to you about,” as opposed to saying it in a very hesitant manner without the welcoming inflection.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: I don’t know if I’m showing up when you say it that way. You don’t sound so positive there. Or maybe, it’s something I did wrong that you want to talk to me about.

Dr. Relly Nadler: One of the things, Laura, that both Cathy and I are interested in, and what is great is that you are top of that kind of the curve of research, is just how fast someone makes an impression. That’s what you are kind of picking up on or alluding to, just in the voice. That the other part is almost non-cognitive that is picking up something about that. When you talk about credibility what are some of the things that you have heard about how fast someone can make an assessment about the person that they are listening to?

Dr. Laura Sicola: It’s interesting. If you speak to image consultants, they’ll tell you that you have 7 seconds upon walking into a room to make your first impression because that is how long it takes people to size you up visually. They are going to decide whether they think you are intelligent, whether you are nice, whether you are someone they want to talk to, etc. To me, my response to them is that I think that assuming you are in person, because if you are, then for me it’s the next 7 seconds that really count because that is when you open your mouth and that’s when you are going to either confirm their suspicions or contradict them by the way that you speak.

The voice has both positive and affective or emotional influence on the listener;  think about famous people’s voices and how you have loved listening to them or can’t stand listening to them. James Earl Jones, Oprah Winfrey; what great voices they have. They could read the phone book and I would sit there and listen to it from A-Z. Then you think of other celebrities like Gilbert Gottfried, or Fran Drescher, who are fabulous actors, but I would not want to listen to them for a prolonged period of time.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Gilbert Gottfried has made his career on having an irritating voice.

Dr. Laura Sicola: Exactly, but that’s it, it’s irritating. So in certain roles, at certain times, it’s the only person that can fit that mold. But, you probably don’t want to buy insurance from him. You probably don’t want him to be the funeral director that your family has to work with. There’s nothing soothing about it and if you know that your client, in that moment, your audience, needs something soothing, something reassuring, then he is going to have to work pretty hard to adapt in a way to take that irritating-ness out of his presentation.

We all can do it, that’s the thing. We are all born with the voices that we have. I will never sound like him, but I will never sound like James Earl Jones either. But, I can do a lot to sound more like either one of them, in order to have those personality features come out. Find out more about the fascinating topic of speaking like a leader. Listen to our complete interview above.

Thanks for joining us,


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