053 Celebrity Voice Coach Ursula Meyer on How to Project a Powerful Presence with Your Voice

053 Celebrity Voice Coach Ursula Meyer on How to Project a Powerful Presence with Your Voice

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Would you like to captivate an audience with a confident and persuasive speech? Listen in as Celebrity Voice Coach Ursula Meyer discusses how you can use your voice to attract and hold the attention of your audience.

Ursula Meyer has been a voice coach for 30 years. She has taught at the Yale School of Drama and she’s currently teaching at UC San Diego. Ursula has coached voice, speech and accents extensively in regional theatres around the country. She has also taught voice for 15 seasons with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Ursula has had the privilege of training and coaching actors such as Paul Giamatti, Blair Underwood, Liev Schreiber, Richard Thomas and Sanaa Lathan.

As mentioned in the episode, Ursula will also be at the Heroic Public Speaking live event in February teaching voice lessons.

“No speech really should be a monologue. It’s a dialogue where they are thinking and responding with the way they are leaning forward or back or breathing with you, that they are conversing with you.” – Ursula Meyer

  • What actors understand about voice that normal people don’t. (4:04)
  • Two Aspects of the Voice – Psychological and Technical. (8:12)
  • The effects of stress on your vocal cords. (11:03)
  • What you should do when you run out of breath while you are speaking. (16:39)
  • The power of pause – how to properly give your audience space to hear what you are saying. (20:48)
  • How you can influence how people feel with the way you speak. (23:03, 25:32)
  • The “gibberish game” and how it can help improve your speaking. (31:36)
  • What it means to earn the pause. (35:22)
  • How to improve on breathing from a technical perspective. (40:13)
  • How Ursula worked through a vocal challenge in her life and what she learned from it in the process. (56:45)

0:00:01 Michael Port: Welcome to Steal the Show with Michael Port. This is Michael. I have a guest today. Her name is Ursula Meyer. Now, voice is a big deal when it comes to presenting, to performing. And when I was in graduate school at NYU, we spent five days a week training our voices for three years. That’s a lot of time. I found it very boring often. But, I knew that it was very, very important to do. Now, most people who we serve, they don’t have an opportunity to do that kind of work. But, the voice tells the world so much about you.

0:00:44 Michael Port: So, I have brought Ursula to you today. In part, because she is one of our faculty members at Heroic Public Speaking. She will be at our live event in February teaching voice. And if you wanna learn more about that event, you can go to heroicpublicspeaking.com/live. That’s heroicpublicspeaking.com/live. So, here’s a little bit about Ursula, she’s been teaching voice for 30 years, and she’s only 29 which is amazing. [laughter]

0:01:18 Michael Port: And she taught at the Yale School of Drama which is arguably the second best graduate training program in the country. It’s actually, it’s not true. It’s arguably one of the three best graduate schools in the country, I think. That’s from my perspective. And she’s coached voice and speech and accents extensively in regional theatres around the country. She’s currently teaching at UC San Diego, which is a wonderful school also. I believe she’s also teaching acting there as well as voice. She’s taught voice at the Guthrie Yale Rep. South Coast Repertory, the Old Globe Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, the Utah, Santa Cruz, Idaho Shakespeare Festivals, and for 15 seasons with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

0:02:09 Michael Port: And she graduated with distinction from the advanced voice studies program at the Royal Center School of Speech and Drama in London. It’s actually the Royal Central School, excuse me. She’s gonna give me a hard time about that one. And, as a professional actress, she worked at the Seattle Rep which is a very well respected repertory theatre. The Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, another phenomenal theatre. Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Again, another one of the best regional theatres in the country. Shakespeare Santa Cruz, and various other Shakespeare festivals throughout the country.

0:02:49 Michael Port: Listen to this, these are some of the people that she has had the privilege of training and coaching, Paul Giamatti, Blair Underwood, Liev Schreiber, Richard Thomas. Yes, the Richard Thomas who played John-Boy on The Waltons. Sunna, I think it’s Sanaa, if I’m pronouncing her name correctly, Lathan who was the lead in Love in Basketball, not sure what it is exactly.

0:03:13 Ursula Meyer: That’s it.

0:03:13 Michael Port: But, I looked it up. Is that right, Love and Basketball. Malcolm Gets, who was the lead in Caroline in the City. Amy Aquino, who has been on literally every TV show known to mankind. And she was also Amy soon to be Port’s teacher when she was at Yale. Now, if you haven’t met Amy, she is my fiancé, and also my partner at Heroic Public Speaking. And she was at the Yale School of Drama when I was at NYU, and of course, she got into both programs. I didn’t, which is still a bone of contention between the two of us. And I always say if she had gone to NYU, then maybe we would’ve been married for the last 25 years instead of having waited so long to meet. [chuckle]

0:03:55 Michael Port: So, Ursula. Welcome to the show.

0:03:58 Ursula Meyer: Thank you so much Michael. I am very excited about this project, very excited.

0:04:04 Michael Port: Good. Now, let’s start with some basics. What do actors understand about voice that normal people don’t? And when I say normal, that’s a compliment.

[laughter]

0:04:20 Michael Port: Actor’s are a species in and of themselves. So, what is that actors understand about voice that regular people don’t?

0:04:27 Ursula Meyer: Well, everybody comes to the voice work, I think from the same place. There’s always something when you listen to yourself the first time on a recording or something, and you think “Oh! Is that me?” So, we often have a fear of really letting our voice come out. I think that actors have that advantage that they can pretend to be someone else, and then their voice can come out in kind of disguise. But, when I work with them, I work the same way that I work with, “Normal people” because the confidence and ease, and strength, and playfulness that you want in performing plays is the same confident ease and strength you want all day every day. And whenever you have to express yourself from an authentic place.

0:05:20 Ursula Meyer: I think actors maybe are a little bit more willing to look silly or foolish or play games because that’s what they do when they’re in rehearsals. But, I feel like voice is for everybody. There’s probably not any time in your life when you won’t be asked… Any portion of your life where there’s some occasion where you’re going to have to speak in public. Like the eyes, Shakespeare says “Are the window to the soul,” Your voice when it comes out is really your reflection of your inner person, and so, but it’s hard. Our tensions are lifesavers sometimes and when we don’t feel comfortable revealing the absolute truth, then we tighten our jaws or our tongues or our lips and stop that sort of free sound from coming out. I love… I love working with public speaking classes because the motivation is so strong and I feel like what… Not to say anything against the theater, but I feel like what people have to say in science, in medicine, in… The kinds of people that I work with at UCSD, if I can get their voice to feel, to come out comfortably, truthfully, with variety, with purpose, then they’re gonna change the world and I can have some part of helping them get there.

0:07:04 Michael Port: Well, which is wonderful ’cause our motto at Heroic Public Speaking is, “Saving the world one speech at a time.”

0:07:13 Ursula Meyer: Wonderful.

0:07:13 Michael Port: Because our voice is what helps people to get… To think differently, to feel differently, to act differently. And so, let’s talk about the two different aspects of the voice. One is the psychological aspect, and that’s…

0:07:33 Ursula Meyer: Exactly.

0:07:35 Michael Port: And so that’s a big, big deal. And then the other is the technical aspect, and some people are just born with massive voices. They, for whatever reason, they just have been given these vocal chords that are huge, and flexible, and strong. Michael Hall was one of my classmates at grad school, and for those who don’t know him, he’s the lead in Dexter, and he plays Dexter, and he’s also an extraordinary singer, extraordinary singer.

0:08:10 Ursula Meyer: Yes. I’ve heard him sing, wonderful.

0:08:12 Michael Port: Okay. He’s wonderful. The windows used to shake in the rooms when he’d sung. But I, in three years, I never once saw him lose his voice. He just had one of those voices that was strong. And I often lost my voice. I always had a gravelly voice. And interestingly enough, when I was in grad school, they gave me a hard time about it. So, I came out of grad school feeling like there was something wrong with my voice because it wasn’t as pure as maybe they were looking for. But then, you know what paid the rent when I was out of grad school was voice overs? I mean, I killed it in voice overs because they wanted that gravelly, raspy kind of thing. And I learned how to play that. So, it’s interesting how psychologically I built up this resistance to my natural way of speaking and I was trying to create a voice or a sound that wasn’t necessarily freeing up my natural voice. But then, what actually was natural for me was what was most effective for me professionally, interestingly enough. So, can you speak about first the psychological aspects of voice, why we hold our breath and what happens to us when we do, why we often will silence ourselves? And then we can go into some of the technical aspects of voice, to free it up and open it up.

0:09:40 Ursula Meyer: Yes. I mean, the Alexander method has a whole way of speaking about tension. Animals, they have a conflict or a confrontation with another animal, they can fly away or they can fight it out. And we don’t have that ability. I always say, you’re in a car, you’re driving along, somebody cuts you off, you can’t just chase them down and smash their car. You can’t. If you accidentally cut them off and they’re angry with you, you can’t just run away. You have to kind of sit on that awkward uncomfortable event which isn’t even a major event. We have lots of major events which will hold our voices hostage and that’s just part of life. Things happen. And so, instead of speaking out, we’ll tighten our jaw, we’ll hold our breath, we’ll close our larynx, and that will be like a souvenir of the event for a long time sometimes.

0:10:44 Michael Port: And do you find that this is exacerbated when the stakes get higher?

0:10:50 Ursula Meyer: Absolutely.

0:10:51 Michael Port: So, right before you’re asked to give a speech of some kind, all of a sudden you start to feel a scratch in your throat. People often ask us that, like, “Why am I getting scratchy?” and I’d love you to speak to that, too.

0:11:03 Ursula Meyer: Yeah. I mean, stress has a biological effect on the vocal folds. It dries them out. The vocal folds are like fish. They really like moisture. And so, and you wanna think of them as folds, not chords, because they have mass… There is mass to them. And so, a lot of what I do with vocal health tips is about water, is about taking time before you… When you get into an air conditioned space, because all those things that dry out the vocal folds, smoke, alcohol, cigarettes…

0:11:43 Michael Port: I often joke that the two hardest things that we… The two hardest things for us to do is to get our students to give up the coffee and the booze. Those are the two toughest ones.

[chuckle]

0:11:56 Ursula Meyer: Well, and if a little bit of coffee with a big glass of water or less caffeine in your coffee. There’s ways to compromise. But right before a speech, I mean, there are certain kinds of lozenges, the non-chloraseptic kinds. I have a whole list of things that I give my students to help keep those fish happy. And then there are certain things you can do to relax yourself, to get your mind in the right place, so that the tensions don’t escalate when you have the stress. One of the things is a simple warm-up. Even if your voice feels good that day, my actors will say, “I skipped my warm-up and boy-oh-boy in the third act, my voice was not there for me and I was feeling so fine that day.” But the warm-up just gives you a foundation, a groundedness, your breath is there, you go beyond the pitch range you’re gonna use, you go beyond the volume that you need. And so, you’re in a zone where you can pretty much do anything and anything could happen and your voice will be there for you.

0:13:07 Ursula Meyer: And I have lots of warm-ups that you can do in your car, that you can do sitting down, that you can do in a room where you can’t be very loud, just to get everything… And that kind of… Once you’ve done the warm-up, it’s almost like there’s a meditative quality. You feel like you don’t have to worry, your voice is there, so you can focus on what you’re gonna say. You can focus on how you’re gonna play with the audience, what they need, if you need to build or if you need to take some parts quieter. It’s always a worry. People worry about, “I hope I don’t lose my voice,” and I really wanna take that worry away because you really don’t lose it, it’s always there.

0:13:51 Ursula Meyer: And when I’d have breakthroughs with people vocally they say, “You gave me my voice.” I say, “No, it’s your voice. I just gave it a permission to come out.” And a lot of it is just simple body loose things, things that I have for the shoulders, things that I have for the lower back, places where we don’t realise that the muscles of the larynx have tendons, and things that attach way down into your sternum into parts of your back. And when you loosen those things up, there’s a freedom. And those tensions could just come from sitting at a computer all day or having to drive a long distance, and you don’t realise that you’re taking that tension with you into your speech or into your speaking. So, there’s lots of things we can do to help get you into a place where when the stakes go up, your voice doesn’t run away.

0:14:46 Michael Port: Well, one of the things that drove me to write “Steal the Show” in the first place was the recognition that the way that we perform during life’s high stakes situations determines the quality of our life.

0:15:01 Ursula Meyer: Yeah.

0:15:02 Michael Port: So, if we fall flat when the stakes are high, then not a lot happens. But if we can shine when the spotlight is on us, well then we can play a pretty big game. And…

0:15:12 Ursula Meyer: Exactly.

0:15:13 Michael Port: And when we talk about voice, the voice is something that people often think of as something that stands alone, almost separate from the body.

0:15:31 Ursula Meyer: Yes. And, my teacher Cicely Berry who’s at the Royal Shakespeare Company, one of the greatest voice teachers in the world, although I’ve been very lucky to work with a lot of good people, Kristin Linklater as well. But Cicely used to say, “Speaking is a physical act.” And we forget that, we forget that the whole body is involved and the whole body is connected.

0:15:53 Michael Port: Yeah.

0:15:53 Ursula Meyer: A lot of exercises I do are just to kind of trick your body into thinking you’re gonna do something athletic, which you actually are.

0:16:02 Michael Port: Yes.

0:16:03 Ursula Meyer: Speaking is athletic.

0:16:04 Michael Port: Yes.

0:16:05 Ursula Meyer: But we don’t think we have to breathe as fully. If we do a couple of jumping jacks, if we pretend we’re gonna shoot a basket, suddenly the breath kicks in and you have all this support, and you don’t realise that you need that. You need that to speak, you need that to energize, you need that to do longer thoughts or wider pitch range. And so, a lot of the stuff I do early in the warm-up is just some real simple, getting the body, tricking the body into thinking that we’re gonna do something quite active, which we are.

0:16:39 Michael Port: Yes. And this is one of the reasons that we’re having you come to Florida for this event, so that people can do these things in a room with you because, if you’ve never had a teacher, if you’ve never done any of this kind of work, even the language around it could be confusing. And you need to feel it. One of the questions that people often ask is what to do when they run out of breath, ’cause they often feel like they’ve run out of breath while they’re speaking. How can people solve this problem and what does that mean when they’re feeling that?

0:17:19 Ursula Meyer: Well, there’s a number of things that could be happening. There could be, as they feel like the breath is going, they’re tightening and that’s gonna stop it sooner than it needs to. And then you wanna kind of figure out, what is stopping, is it your shoulders, is it your neck, is it your chest, is it your knees, is it your feet, and so we do little experiments. We’re like scientists trying to… Or detectives trying to figure out what it is that’s stopping that breath. Then another thing is you might be… When we go on a car trip across country, we mark where if you’re gonna… Certainly if you’re not gonna go on a major highway, if you’re gonna take some back roads, you’re gonna find out where the gas stations are because you don’t want to run out of gas in the middle of the Mojave Desert. So, you have to decide, “Okay, I’m gonna make sure that I get gas here because it’s a 100 miles to the next gas station.” So, when you’re looking at your speech, I have a way of just giving people places where we know we wanna take a breath. And we mark those. Places where we might wanna take a breath, and it’s a sensible spot, and a reasonable chunk of text where we don’t think we’re gonna run out.

0:18:37 Ursula Meyer: And then places where if the stakes get high or if the energy is big or if we get a little nervous, places also that we could take a smaller breath, and then I teach a full breath, a half breath, and a catch breath. And all of those three, I will say, “You know air is cheap. For a little while longer, let’s just put in extra spots that make sense, so we’re not going to a place where it doesn’t make sense to breathe.” And then the audience is like, “What? Why did he stopped in the middle of that thought?” There’s all kinds of sensible places that you could stop. And… Yes, go ahead.

0:19:10 Michael Port: And one of the… Just one of the things that Ursula is referencing now is content mapping. And this is one of the things that we teach. And I’ve done a podcast on this, really very specific podcast on content mapping. And Ursula, this whole concept really is eye opening for our students that they can actually take texts, and work on it in such a way that they scoped what they’re presenting. So that in fact, it becomes more authentic rather than less because that’s the assumption that people who don’t perform often make. That, “Well, if I rehearse it, well then isn’t it gonna be authentic? Is this gonna seem stiff?” But of course, that does happen if you’ve only done a little bit of rehearsal because then, you’re trying to recall what you did in rehearsal while you’re performing. And then you’re not in the moment.

0:20:12 Ursula Meyer: Right.

0:20:13 Michael Port: And so we’re taking them farther, so they’re doing a lot more rehearsal, a lot more preparation, so that they can be much more comfortable and improvisational in the moment. And that’s what you’re talking about isn’t it? Doing this content mapping and finding the parts, the places to breath, which then also helps the audience understand because our ideas are only as good as the audience’s ability to consume that.

0:20:44 Ursula Meyer: Yes, exactly. You have to give them space to hear what you’re saying.

0:20:48 Michael Port: Yeah. So, talk about the power of the pause.

[laughter]

0:20:53 Ursula Meyer: Well, I would say… Well, that’s a good question, the power of the pause.

0:21:01 Michael Port: Well, I mentioned… I mentioned it Ursula because often people who teach public speaking who don’t come from performance or don’t have the kind of background or training that we do, they will often tell people to slow down. They say, “Slow down, slow down.” And then what happens is, we speak like this. And we…

0:21:23 Ursula Meyer: Yes. Now, I call it, “Russian retard.” So, there are… You have to have places where the momentum goes, and you’re taking the audience for a kind of a little bit of an e-ticket ride, and then places where you… It’s not manipulative. It’s places where you land, and give them a chance to absorb, and then take it to the next place. And building, building is like climbing stairs, but we don’t climb stairs with very deliberate spaces between each step. We take a couple, we take a couple more, and then we land at the top. So, it’s finding how to use pauses. I would say, you have to earn them. If you pause too much, then you give people time to sleep. But you have to earn them. But when you have them, it gives them time to… No speech really should be a monologue. It’s a dialogue where they are thinking and responding with the way they are leaning forward or back or breathing with you that they are conversing with you. And so…

0:22:30 Michael Port: I love that. Yes, yes, yes, I love that you just said that.

0:22:33 Ursula Meyer: Your ability to pause is like giving them a chance to think, to respond, and then you take them to the next place. Yeah, go ahead.

0:22:42 Michael Port: One of the things that people are often surprised by is… Is my suggestion that the audience will sink their breath to you.

0:22:54 Ursula Meyer: Absolutely.

0:22:55 Michael Port: So, could you speak about how that works or how people can leverage that to understand it?

0:23:03 Ursula Meyer: Well, think about when you watch a movie, and the person is not even a live speakers. But if there’s a suspenseful moment, the entire audience is holding their breath with the heroine. It’s very, very powerful when you send… I would say to my young teachers when I’m teaching them how to teach, “When you say stretch or when you say drop over your spine or move your head, you have to send your voice into their body. You have to send it into their arms, so they can stretch, so that your voice is helping them stretch.” So when you’re effectively speaking, I think you’re sending your thoughts into their… We talk about being moved. Being moved is literally feeling the vibrations of someone’s voice vibrating your body. So, that you go out and tell other people about what happened to you. And you move them by how you retell whatever moved you.

0:24:05 Ursula Meyer: That’s why opera singers, when they sing that high note they can make that glass shatter because vibrations travel through space. And so, one of the things you wanna do when you speak to people is literally vibrate them. Get them, their bones to respond with your bones. And that’s why I often say if you go to a rock concert or a speaker that is really in their throat and really pushing, you can come out with a sore throat just from listening to them. Whereas the opposite way is you go and hear some kind of open, free, authentic sound, you can feel warmed up at the end of it. You can feel like your voice is freer because of the power of those vibrations. I mean it’s a science thing. It’s not actually a mental trick.

0:24:55 Michael Port: And you teach speech as well.

0:25:00 Ursula Meyer: Oh yeah.

0:25:00 Michael Port: So, talk to them about the sounds of words. Because you’re talking about how the audience feels the vibration of your voice. And so, we have different resonators. We have our chest voice and we have our mask and head voice, etcetera. And we also have the sounds of the words which are produced by our articulators. I did that on purpose. No, I didn’t.

[laughter]

0:25:32 Michael Port: And of course, cut sounds and feels very different than love. So, could you talk about how the way that you use your speech influences the way people feel?

0:25:42 Ursula Meyer: Oh, absolutely. And the best place… When they say, “Oh, that’s just in Shakespeare” or “That’s just in poetry.” I say, “No. Actually it’s in political campaigns and it’s in advertising.” When there’s a very strong need to get people to respond to what you’re saying, people will use sound. When we’re little, we respond to the sounds more than we respond to the words. Dylan Thomas said, “I love the way the words the grown-ups said made shapes in my ears.” If the sounds made shapes and little kids you give them complicated poems like the “Jabberwocky” which has all nonsense words and they understand it perfectly because they respond to the sounds of it. So, when we have a product that’s named “Dash” or “Buzz” or “Fizz” we immediately conjure an image of what that might be. It’s, the sound of it excites us and makes us think it’s something that’s going to work quickly or is going to clean well.

0:26:50 Ursula Meyer: Well, we have soothing product names or soothing ways of talking about a product. The consonants do things. They’re very clever. We have consonants that we call “plosives.” I call them ‘explosives.’ “buh,” “duh,” “guh,” “tuh,” “puh.” They pop, they click, they awaken you. Then we have sounds that are, what I call them ‘continuance.’ They go for a long time. “wooz,” “zooz,” “joo,” “th.” And they soothe. And you can hear it in all kinds of advertising as well as beautiful poetry. Where someone will use sounds to do things to people, to make them feel warm, to make them feel… Like they need to do something now. So, as you said like the the word ‘cut.’ But we have dozens of words. We call it ‘onomatopoeia’ it’s a very fancy word but it sounds like what it is. Shakespeare has a sonnet, “When I do count the clock that tells the time.” And the k and the t sound like a clock ticking. You can do that with how you write your speeches. You can do that with phrases you want the audience to take away. There’s a reason why when we say, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” we remember that. You could just say, “We should all volunteer more.”

[laughter]

0:28:23 Ursula Meyer: But people aren’t gonna remember that the same way that they’re gonna remember something that has a clever way of speaking. And the cleverness is not manipulative. It can be manipulative. Certainly you can tell them, in the commercials they can. But it also comes from wanting your listener to come away remembering what you said, which is why we remember song lyrics more than we remember our exact conversation at breakfast this morning. Which is why we remember poems from childhood more than we, and slogans from television commercials more than we remember maybe the lecture someone gave on some subject in school. Because we had those carefully chosen phrases that have that extra bit of verbal relish and the extra bit of rhetoric that makes them memorable.

0:29:21 Michael Port: Beautiful. This is one of the things that we work on with our students. When they craft their speech, we ask them to think as much about what they’re saying, as about how they’re saying it even before they get up on their feet to perform. And…

0:29:40 Ursula Meyer: Great.

0:29:41 Michael Port: Because often it’s the ideas that we think about rather than how we articulate those ideas. And not just the way we organize the ideas, but the actual sounds of the words that we use and the rhetorical devices that we employ and when they start to experience it, they start to see it.

0:30:10 Ursula Meyer: Yeah. I mean, I always ask people, who do you admire? What speakers do you admire? And a lot of the speakers that they will come up with have the ability to… They repeat certain things. “I have a dream, I have a dream.” It’s a very simple thought. There’s not a lot of fancy consonance and rhetoric in that, but it’s carefully chosen and carefully repeated and echoed throughout the speech so that the people come away with that message in their heart. All kinds of devices that you can put in your speech, and some of that is just when you use what we call monosyllabic language. So simple sentence that has only one syllable words and people will remember that, come away with that. And what I would say when we do poetry or Shakespeare is, form is content. How you say it is actually sometimes what it means. And so, if you have a lot of soft sounds or if you have simple words or if you have opposites, you are trying to create a feeling of contrast in the idea. And the feeling of soothing-ness in the idea or a feeling excitement in the actual idea. They work together.

0:31:36 Michael Port: One of the games that we often play with our students when they need a little breakthrough, is the gibberish game. Now, I don’t…

0:31:45 Ursula Meyer: Great game.

0:31:46 Michael Port: Do you know the gibberish game?

0:31:47 Ursula Meyer: Yes.

0:31:48 Michael Port: So, this game I learned from Paul Walker, who passed it to Dan Cordell, And then Dan Cordell taught it to us when we were in grad school. Paul walker was our games teacher who passed away while we were in school. And then, Dan Cordell took over for him and taught for many years at the NYU grad program. And I imagine many other people play this game. I don’t know the origin or who originally created it, but it absolutely terrifies people when we first explain it to them when they are not actors.

[laughter]

0:32:21 Michael Port: I mean, actors are like “Oh, great! Give me the gibberish game!” But non-actors often say, “You want me to do what?” And for those who have been exposed, the uninitiated to the gibberish game, This is all we do. We ask you often to tell the same story in English, in gibberish. Except this time, you are an alien from another planet. And on this planet, they are so animated that if you think of the most animated person that you have ever seen in you life, multiply that by a thousand. And then we have a translator. And the translator translates for the alien who only speaks gibberish.

0:33:06 Ursula Meyer: Oh, wonderful!

[laughter]

0:33:07 Michael Port: It’s just fortunate that we happen to have a translator who speaks gibberish, who spent some time on that planet and also speaks English. Then he just happens to be in the room. So, what’s amazing about it is what you are talking about is exactly what happens. The translator is somehow able to understand, and I really mean able to understand, the story because they pick up the sounds of the words and they extrapolate a meaning from… And I shouldn’t say word. The sounds of the gibberish and they pick up a meaning, and then they translate that to the audience in English. And…

0:33:41 Ursula Meyer: Terrific.

0:33:41 Michael Port: Very often when we ask the audience to tell us what happen in the story, and sometimes what we’ll do is we have people write it down so that each one has their individual perspective and it doesn’t become biased. 50% of what they remember or understood or took away from it is actually what the person was trying to say in gibberish.

0:34:03 Ursula Meyer: Wonderful! Yeah, I have seen Shakespeare in Romanian, and Japanese, and several other languages. And even when I don’t know the play that well, when they are very clear about their purpose, I know exactly what they are saying. I do just a little kind of exercise, a little bit like this where I take… They take their speech that they’ve already prepared and they have to… I say “Suddenly English is gone. You have to communicate it without English.” And they just take a couple of lines, say it to the person with the gibberish. And then, they go back and say it in the English. And one of the things that happens is because they feel that there is a barrier, a language barrier. They’re using their mouth more, they’re using their eyes more, their sound has a little more focus and purpose, so that when they go back to speaking it in English, the words have a little more muscularity and vigorousness and energy, because they had to have that obstacle. So, that’s another way to play around with that.

0:35:22 Michael Port: Earlier, you talked about earning the pause, which I wrote down as a note, which I thought was absolutely brilliant.

[laughter]

0:35:35 Michael Port: And I want to carry on with that concept because the breath is so powerful and it grounds us into the earth, that it scares us sometimes. Because I’m sure most people have been in a situation where they were very upset, and they felt like they were gonna cry. But if they just held their breath long enough, they wouldn’t. But as soon as they take a breath that’s a little bit deeper than just below the neck, the tears flow. They just open up entirely. Because you can’t hide from the breath, and the hiding is a really… Is something that we see a lot. People will hide behind podiums, they’ll hide behind chairs. Actors will do this all the time. They hide behind whatever’s on stage.

0:36:40 Ursula Meyer: Exactly. Furniture.

0:36:40 Michael Port: Come on out in front. But what happens when you breathe fully, is it’s hard to hide. People see your emotions more and since there’s so much power in this pause, and there’s so much power in stillness, and power in silence. And we’re trying to encourage folks to embrace that, to play with it, to test it, to see what it’s like to stand on a stage in front of an audience as a public speaker and not speak. That is often much more anxiety provoking than speaking, a mile a minute. So, can you talk about how one manages their breath and their body when they are in silence and they have hundreds, if not thousands of eyeballs staring at them and they feel uncomfortable? What do they do?

0:37:39 Ursula Meyer: Yes. Well, I would say the first thing is, when you’re in silence, keep breathing. Don’t stop.

0:37:48 Michael Port: That’s good, because you may fall down and pass out.

0:37:50 Ursula Meyer: Yes. And also allowing your… Allowing life to go on. Allowing your feet to stay released, your neck to stay released, your shoulders to stay released, and then you’re still… You’re not stopping the energy of what you’re sending out. You just aren’t using words right now. So, you might be saying in your mind, “So, I just said a lot of stuff. What do you think?” or, “Let me know how you’re feeling about what I’ve just said,” or, “I challenge you to try what I just said,” or whatever. The mind is still going and so you’re still essentially having a dialogue and the vocabulary of your dialogue is silence. That’s part of your text, and so it can be really a pleasant moment. We have so little silence in our life these days. We have such a busy back and forth, a noisome world, and it’s kind of a relief. It’s like, “Lets stop. Lets just stop and digest.” Literally like Thanksgiving, we’re gonna stop eating for a while and savor what we’ve just eaten or look each other in the eyes. That’s another hard thing, is not eye contact, really seeing and looking at the person and sending your thoughts into them through your eyes. That’s something. There’s a lot to do in the silence that would be active. What you don’t want to do is stop, literally stop and tighten up.

0:39:32 Michael Port: So, let’s do that. Let’s give people an opportunity to sit and think about what we’ve been talking about, and what resonates with them. Some things that have had affect on them as a result of this conversation and some things that they may want to explore in the future, and we’ll just take ten seconds to do that. [pause]

0:40:08 Michael Port: And that’s ten seconds. That’s all it was.

0:40:12 Ursula Meyer: That was fantastic.

[laughter]

0:40:13 Michael Port: What’s interesting about audio programs, podcasts, the radio, is that silence is non-existent. Silence will kill you. You turn on the radio and there’s nothing there, “Oh, I guess there’s no program,” and you turn to the next station. And so very rarely do you get much silence in radio but it is a very, very powerful tool. So, talk to us about the technical aspects of the breath because if somebody’s taking an intro to… To voice. Maybe they did it in college, they took an acting class or something, or they just got some advice from someone, somewhere. They’re often told to breathe from the diaphragm, and historically, I found that that’s very confusing to people and it’s not actually where your lungs are. So, could you just talk to them and explain to them really how the mechanism works and how they should think about it and work on improving the way they breathe from a technical perspective?

0:41:24 Ursula Meyer: So, do we have an hour?

[laughter]

0:41:26 Michael Port: Well, we will in Florida. You’ll have lots of time with them there.

0:41:29 Ursula Meyer: Yeah, I am… Well, I have a lot of different things I do. Because everybody learns differently, so sometimes we just spend some time on our backs, on the floor, the way we breathe beautifully every night. Because you do breathe beautifully when you’re asleep. You breathe fully, and the whole body’s involved. I mean, you watch babies breathe; we also always breathed beautifully as babies. Because babies breathe, their whole body just expands and contracts. There’s no part of them that isn’t opening and closing. And so, we don’t necessarily forget how to do it, but we… And life goes… Life is challenging and so then there’s all these sort of holds on the breath, or tightenings of the breath, tightenings of muscles around the breath. So, I do some just plain ordinary relaxation work and then we say, “Well, let’s just checkout what’s happening now that our body is relaxed,” and lo and behold the areas of the breath are moving the way we would love them to move all the time.

0:42:35 Ursula Meyer: I also show anatomy pictures and a lot of times people love that, because they say, “Oh, those are my breath muscles, those are my rib muscles, those are my… ” That’s what the diaphragm looks like. That’s why people talk about the diaphragm, when it’s actually the abdomen that is being pushed out when the diaphragm is being pushed down.

0:42:56 Ursula Meyer: And then I also talk about the fact that you don’t take a breath, you don’t inhale really, it’s not an action only if you’re trying to suck in air, which it’s not, but we do. We actually allow breath. We have a thought, our muscles respond to the thought, the diaphragm contracts downward, the ribs contract outward and breath falls in, breath drops in. And usually, in sort of ordinarily everyday life enough breath drops in for what you’re about to say. Usually in conversation you don’t stop and say, “Wait a minute, I’m running out of breath.” You usually, because the stakes are not as high, get the right amount of breath in and use the right amount of breath to say what you need to say. So, a lot of that is just sort of putting ourselves in positions, finding… I have lots and lots of breath exercises where you suddenly go, “Oh, it just fell in, it just dropped in. Wow, I got a huge amount of air, and I didn’t do anything.” And that’s an important thing… That’s an important sort of mind shift, is that ability of allowing the breath in of creating the space and the freedom in the ribs, and the shoulders, and in the lower body so the breath can happen. And then learning how to use it, and how to not actually control it but organize it so that you have the right amount for the longer thought, or the louder thought, or the more emotional thought that you wanna use.

0:44:30 Michael Port: What are the things…

0:44:31 Ursula Meyer: Is that…

0:44:31 Michael Port: Yeah, that’s very helpful. Thank you. One of the things that resonated with me during my first year of graduate school, was the fact that I could use the musculature around my ribs, to increase the expansiveness of my breath.

0:44:54 Ursula Meyer: Yes, absolutely.

0:44:56 Michael Port: Because when I took… I did an undergrad degree in theatre, and we were taught to breathe from the belly. And it didn’t work for me, I couldn’t… My belly doesn’t go in and out like a big belly, and then a little belly, it’s not… It just didn’t make sense to me. I was having trouble, I still was breathing high.

0:45:22 Ursula Meyer: Right.

0:45:22 Michael Port: And then when I got into grad school, and I started to experiment with moving air into my body or dropping as you’re describing it, dropping the air into my body by allowing my ribcage to expand, so my lungs had more room. That had a great effect on me. And the back body being able to fill up the back of your body, sides of your body.

0:45:50 Ursula Meyer: Yes, Kristin Linklater talks about it as a six sided box, so… And a lot of people…

0:45:57 Michael Port: I remember that from grad school, yeah, now…

0:45:58 Ursula Meyer: People don’t even wanna use the belly because then they have a big belly, and that’s a misnomer that you should just let your belly drop.

0:46:04 Michael Port: That’s right.

0:46:05 Ursula Meyer: She doesn’t want that either. You want the back to expand, you want the sides to expand, you want there to be an energy going down and even a little bit of softness and energy moving up, so that all sides of the box are moving. And then you really feel like you have a kind of big pillow of support underneath you.

0:46:23 Michael Port: You feel so powerful, that’s what’s extraordinary. When you breath in the world around you, it just feels… It feels big.

0:46:32 Ursula Meyer: Yeah. It’s really the answer. You ask a lot of great actors, “What’s the answer to your great acting?” They will often say, “Breath.” And it’s the answer to digestion, it’s the answer to sleep, it’s the answer to really being able to listen to what somebody’s saying, if you’re breathing them in. There’s all kinds of benefits to breath work. I mean that’s, yoga is a whole huge mindset that has it’s foundation in breath.

0:47:04 Michael Port: So, let’s talk about that for a second, because often people are told to practice yoga to improve their breathing and I think that can work very, very well. However…

0:47:19 Ursula Meyer: Well… Yeah. I would say there’s a big however.

0:47:21 Michael Port: Right, that’s what I wanted to get at. However, when you’re doing Ujjayi breathing you’re controlling your breath in a very specific rhythm, according to very specific physical patterns, but…

0:47:36 Ursula Meyer: And we don’t want that.

0:47:36 Michael Port: In life, in speaking, in performing it’s an entirely different moment to moment experience. So, could you speak to that a little bit, so people don’t confuse the two types of breathing?

0:47:50 Ursula Meyer: Yes, and I don’t take a lot of different kinds of yoga, so there’s probably different breathing and different kinds of yoga. Most of the time the yoga breath is, as you say, more controlled. And also, through the nose. Now, I’m not against breathing in through the nose for life because the cilia, the little hairs in your nose, purify the air that’s coming in, humidify the air, and actually even when we’re stretching and that’s why… The good thing about yoga is it really stretches out the muscles you can use for breath, the ribs, the back, and even the pelvic muscles. All those get stretched out in yoga. And so, when you breathe in through your nose it stimulates those ribs, it stimulates those muscles. So, it’s a great pre-stretch before you do your work for your voice, but your throat won’t open with yoga breathing. There’s not that feeling of a release, like in a yawn, your jaw won’t release when you do yoga breathing. And also, you want to breath in for speaking where the words are gonna come out, and so that’s kind of one activity. The air drops in, it gathers its strength, and then it comes up vibrates, those vocal folds and out comes that idea. And so you really wanna link those two things.

0:49:12 Michael Port: I have no doubt that the doing and having a yoga practice or some sort of physical practice that connects you to your breath can be extraordinarily helpful. As a performer, it’s just a slightly different craft, is what you’re suggesting?

0:49:26 Ursula Meyer: You bet. Yeah.

0:49:29 Michael Port: Yeah, this is great. I love this so much. That’s fantastic.

[chuckle]

0:49:33 Michael Port: Now, here’s where I’m really… This is really why I wanted to bring you on to the podcast. I wanna know what Amy was like as a student at Yale drama, that’s what I wanna know. Then I wanna a good story that I could go upstairs with and be like “Hey, guess what I heard Amy?” But what was she like as a student because…

0:49:52 Ursula Meyer: The only, the saddest thing is that… I mean, it’s a happy thing that I found my husband and started my life as a family with my husband, but I left Yale before she graduated. So, I only worked with her for part of the time. The person… I think the first two years or maybe just the first year, she’ll have to remind me. But that was the foundation work and she was a fantastic student, and a beautiful, curious soul. She had a lot going for her because she’s so beautiful, and smart, and physically elegant, and graceful. But she really wanted the work, she really wanted to find out how to let her throat go, how to let her voice come out, how to get the pitch range, how to get variety. And so, she was… I don’t really have a story to out her on, I just have…

0:50:57 Michael Port: No, I was just kidding about that.

0:50:58 Ursula Meyer: I have… It’s sometimes the liability to be the tall, pretty one. And I never felt that with her, I felt like she was in the trenches, just excited and curious. And one of those things that’s great about Amy is that she was curious about the “tedious parts of voice work.” I made them keep journals and she was interested in the small successes, the subtle successes. And I think that’s so important. It’s great to have a big breakthrough, everybody loves that big breakthrough. But then the real work begins, where you say, “Oh my gosh, I was able to let my shoulders go and feel a little more freedom” or “Today, I had a less useless tension when I was driving than normal. And now, I feel a little bit freer.” And just get interested in those small successes because they really do add up…

0:51:53 Michael Port: It’s so neat to hear you speak about Amy that way and remember her in that specific way because I think it’s one of the reasons that she’s such a remarkable teacher now. And our students connect with her because they see her as somebody who is incredibly detail-oriented,

and so curious about them. And I think curiosity is such an important part of creativity and if you are curious, then you might be a learner. And I think that the future belongs to the learner.

0:52:34 Ursula Meyer: Wonderful.

0:52:35 Michael Port: And those people who are coming into public speaking, who didn’t see themselves as performers, historically, are now realizing that, “Wow, I can look at public speaking as performing, authentic performing.” Because sometimes people get nervous that performing is fake.

0:52:57 Ursula Meyer: Right.

0:52:58 Michael Port: But I think good performance is not about fake behavior. Good performance is authentic behavior in a very manufactured environment.

0:53:08 Ursula Meyer: Exactly.

0:53:10 Michael Port: And a lot of the environments we’re in are very manufactured. So, the breath to me is what allows you, what enables you to be most authentic in these high-stress manufactured environments.

0:53:28 Ursula Meyer: Yes, and it’s very challenging. You can be very proud of yourself when you’re able to expand and be grounded, and be truthful in a heightened situation. But that’s what’s gonna have that impact, because it’s an act of bravery, and those people who are listening to you are gonna be inspired by the bravery of standing and sharing something that is true. I mean, even though I say that to actors who are pretending to be somebody else. The story they tell is something they wanna say. And so, inhabiting this person’s persona, whatever this character, is finding out their truth so that this true story, this the story they wanna tell, impacts people as something that could be true. So, I’m… And it’s always… There are many selves. You have yourself that you are as a parent, there’s yourself at the grocery store, and then there’s yourself when you’re speaking in public. And it’s okay if those selves aren’t all exactly the same, and if there is a sort of heightened energy to it, and if your voice is maybe a little fuller when you’re speaking to a group.

0:54:48 Ursula Meyer: I mean, I always say to the students who say, “Oh, if we analyze Shakespeare then it’ll all be like math.” And I say, “But if you look at it, people that love birds, but are also able to say what kind of bird it is, and what the wing span is, and what the feathers are like, and the size and the shape of it, they don’t love the bird any less, they actually love the bird more because they know so much more about it, they understand it.” So, understanding about speaking, about your voice, about the anatomy, just makes you more confident and also more proud and happy to use it.

0:55:29 Michael Port: This is exactly why I’ve been trying to bring the actor’s craft to the non-actor. And you mentioned the many selves, and in Steal the Show, that’s chapter three. It’s called…

0:55:43 Ursula Meyer: Oh my God.

0:55:43 Michael Port: Well, it’s not called the many selves but the chapter of the title is, “Play the Right Role in Every Situation.” Because we have so many different ways of being and access to so many different styles of behavior that are still true to who we are. We are more than one thing. And there’s the joke in the theater, the actor who says, “Well, my character wouldn’t do that.” And the director usually fires them and hires somebody else. And we do that as people, “Oh, I’m this way,” “This is who I am.” But in fact, maybe there’s much more. And as a public speaker, the difference sides of our personality, the different ways of being that we have access to, are what we wanna embrace. Now, there’s two…

0:56:40 Ursula Meyer: Exactly.

0:56:40 Michael Port: Yeah. There’s two questions that I wanna ask you as our wrap up questions.

0:56:44 Ursula Meyer: Sure.

0:56:45 Michael Port: And they’re similar, I think, but one is, I wanted to see if you can recall a very difficult vocal coaching experience that you’ve had, and how you worked through it with a student. Something that a student was dealing with that was very challenging. And then, maybe also, a vocal challenge that you’ve had yourself and how it impacted you and how you worked through it.

0:57:17 Ursula Meyer: Well, let me start with the one that I had with myself. Before I became a voice teacher, I was playing Sarah in Guys and Dolls, the Salvation Army lady. And I was worried, my mother’s an opera singer and I’ve always felt stressed about being able to sing as well as she does, and I got vocal nodules, actual… There’s these little swellings on your vocal folds that keep the voice from coming together and your voice cracks, and you can’t hit high notes. And it was somewhat devastating. I had to give up the part. I was on summer stock and I had to go on complete vocal rest. And when it was over, I said, “I never want this to happen again. I’m gonna learn about my voice.” And I went to some voice therapists and I went to doctors, but I mainly went to trainers of voice, and said, “How do I know when this is gonna happen? Feel the signs of, Oh my gosh, I’m tense, I’m pushing or I’m coming down with a cold and I need to be careful.” Singing sick or speaking sick is one of the biggest reasons for voice loss.

0:58:38 Ursula Meyer: And so, you have to know when you’re sick, how to protect yourself from the damage as opposed to just… And so now, whenever I feel something, I’m so grateful for that experience of having lost my voice, ’cause when I feel something, I have my little routine I do if I’m sick, I have a little routine I do if I’m just tired, I have a little routine I do when I have a large emotional thing to do in a play. And how I negotiate and be proactive and take charge of how much I can do, and how to conserve and strengthen my voice for when it matters. So, I’m really grateful for that experience, as devastating as it was, because it really made me say, “You know what? I need to learn more and I need to not give over the power of how much I should use my voice or how it should sound to someone besides myself.” I have less bad experiences… Or I wouldn’t say bad, but I have less challenging experiences with students now because… I don’t know. I feel like as the years have gone by, pretty much everything has come up. And I respect and I’m so in awe of the courage it takes to let your true voice come out. It doesn’t have to be a beautiful voice. That’s a misnomer that the voice has to sound beautiful. But freedom, flexibility, that is what I’m after. And when students have an emotional reaction, I say, “Your vulnerability is your strength.” And speaking and feeling at the same time is a good thing.

1:00:34 Ursula Meyer: I remember that when I did my wedding vows, I was very… It was very important to me [chuckle] to be able to weep, and speak because otherwise, they wouldn’t be legal.

[chuckle]

1:00:47 Ursula Meyer: So, when students… I’ve had students with asthma. Boy, deep breathing makes a beautiful difference for them and staying simple, and staying grounded, and getting the breath low in the body. I’ve had students who have dealt with life-threatening illnesses in their childhood. So, when we work on breathing, it’s incredibly emotional because they didn’t always believe that next breath would be there for them. And it’s very important for me to make the space safe, so that we can encourage, nurture. And I also say, too, your tensions… Don’t send your tensions into the stratosphere. Just give them a vacation, and keep their email, so that if you need them, you can get them back at any time.

[chuckle]

1:01:42 Ursula Meyer: But maybe, for brief parts of your life, you can put them aside and see what it’s like to move through life, or move through this experience, or this speech without those tensions and take time. That’s the other thing. Kristin Linklater was a great, and a huge influence on me. She said, when she first started teaching, she felt like she had to go right in, and fix it. And now, in later in life, she says she can see where the voice is going to be. And she can take those first… Help them with those first baby steps of awareness and a sort of game plan for the future. And I find that that’s the most… I’m the most grateful for that skill, that I can hear the future, I can hear where their voice is going to be, where what’s going to happen tomorrow, or the next day and I can give them an inkling of what that is. And then maybe some steps on how to slip make their way towards that. But I’m in for the long game, and I want my students to appreciate that game.

1:02:58 Michael Port: That’s beautiful. Ursula, thank you so much. And I know a lot of people who listen to this are gonna wanna have a vacation, and work on their voice, in Florida, in February. So remember, Ursula will be with us, teaching you this February, in Florida. And if you want more on that, you can go to heroicpublicspeaking.com/live. That’s heroic…

1:03:26 Ursula Meyer: I can’t wait.

1:03:27 Michael Port: Yeah, it’s gonna be fantastic. And that’s it. So, that’s our show for today. Thank you so much, Ursula. And those of you who are out there doing big things, I love you very much, and not in a weird way. I promise. [chuckle] But I do. I love you for standing in the service of others, as you stand in the service of your destiny. We’ll see you next time.

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