Episode 49 – The Art of Speaking with Susan Heaton Wright

Susan Heaton WrightSusan Heaton-Wright has performed on many of the world’s greatest stages as an opera singer, but it was only after she’d had her baby that she realised the skills she’d developed – being able to walk into a room with confidence, to project her voice clearly and perform in front of an audience – could be invaluable to business people.

A whole new business emerged, and now Susan helps people speak in public effectively (she also has a side-line in providing live music for events, but that’s a whole other podcast…).

In this episode we talk about the beautiful synergy between writing and speaking, and how authors can create and use speaking opportunities strategically to promote their book and build their business.

There’s a bit of podcasting love going on too: Susan is the host of top podcast Superstar Communicator, and occasionally the interviewer/interviewee roles get a bit muddled…


Executive Voice: http://www.executivevoice.co.uk/

Superstar Communicator podcast on iTunes

Viva Live Music: http://vivalivemusic.com/

Alison Jones:                        Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. Today, I’m here with ex-international opera singer and fellow podcaster, Susan Heaton-Wright. Susan coaches business leaders around the world to make more of an impact when they speak on the media, at conferences and in their organisations. She writes prolifically on speaking and communication and particular on her blog, Superstar Communicator, which was a finalist in the UK Blog Awards 2014 and ’15. She’s the host of the Superstar Communicator podcast, which is the go-to resource for anyone interested in speaking. She’s also the creative director and founder of Viva Live Music, providing bespoke themed entertainment for high-end events around the world. Welcome to the show, Susan.

Susan H-W:                            Welcome, I was just taking a slurp of water just as you said that, but welcome.

Alison Jones:                        It’s so funny, isn’t it, when two podcast hosts interview each other…

Susan H-W:                            I know. Absolutely. Whenever I do get interviewed by other podcast people, they say they can tell that you’re a podcaster. It’s the whole vibe. You know what I mean?

Alison Jones:                        I do know it. We just love talking and being recorded. I don’t know what it is. Your CV is terribly glamorous, isn’t it. I mean high-end events around the world, opera singing. You’ve done solos around the world on the most elevated stages, haven’t you? Everywhere. Tell us a bit more about that background. What got you interested in speaking from that fabulous, glamorous opera background?

Susan H-W:                            Well, it’s really interesting because if you were to meet me as a child or even a teenager, you would never believe that I went on and did what I did because I was a very, very shy person. For all of those people that say that they’re introverts, I’m an introvert, too, and don’t use that as an excuse for not talking and not going out there. Please, that’s my number one mantra. A series of things that happened in my life meant that I didn’t go in a straight line. As a teenager my dream was to travel the world, teaching in different countries because you know in the 80s, it wasn’t as easy to travel as a woman, I think you would agree, or feel safe, no mobile phones and things like that. That was really my dream. I took a geography degree.

I’d always been involved in singing. I would sing mezzo or soprano but mainly mezzo because I could keep a harmonic line so I was always useful in a choir but didn’t do solos. Circumstances meant that … I was out in Kenya. I was already booked to teach in a cattle ranch in Nevada. Unfortunately, circumstances meant that I had to come back to UK because I was involved in a very serious car accident, which was life-changing, the injuries. That put a kibosh rather to that dream.

I went along to an audition to one of those big choirs they used to have in London. They don’t so much now. Somebody said, “Why don’t you go along and audition and join because you like singing?” It just so happened that the conductor who was there, who now is an international conductor, heard me and said, “Susan, you’re not a mezzo soprano. You’re a soprano and there is something in your voice that is extremely special. You must go and get it trained.” From that, I was getting it trained and eventually went to music college and I went to music college late. Although, I had some funding, some people gave me trust funds, I couldn’t afford to go to a London college. I went back and lived with my parents and studied there. Then got a scholarship to study in Italy. Then was literally a jobbing singer until I had my son. When I had my son, as you know, when you have children you get to meet really different people from the people you hang out with.

Alison Jones:                        Very true, all the normal traditional boundaries of who you are just fall away, don’t they?

Susan H-W:                            Absolutely, it’s like going to university again, isn’t it? You know, freshers week, in a funny sort of way, not with all of the other things.

Alison Jones:                        There’s much less beer.

Susan H-W:                            Yeah. You meet all of these really, really interesting people, who suddenly value what you do within a different context. I was being asked, “How is it that you can walk in a room and you feel confident?” I said, “Well, I don’t always feel confident but I will play a role, stick my head up, chest out, even if your heart’s going twenty to the dozen.” I can merge into the background if I want to because it doesn’t bother me. I don’t need to be the star. You know how some people they’ve got to be the star in a room. It doesn’t really bother me. I can switch it on when I need to.

I kept being asked about projecting the voice and charisma and all of those sorts of things. Then when Nick went to school, I realised that that was something that I could do to really support people at different stages of their careers within the corporate environment or as entrepreneurs. That’s literally how it worked. I had never done public speaking, either. As I say, I was very quiet at school. I’d get quite anxious at reading a paragraph in English, one of those kids. I pushed myself to start doing public speaking so I could really, really understand that. Now, public speaking is part of my business.

Alison Jones:                        That’s fascinating because I think most people tend to assume, in fact I probably tend to assume, that there are people who are just innately good at speaking. I can get in front of a room. It doesn’t really bother me that much. I actually really enjoy it. I assumed that that was kind of an innate thing. It’s so fascinating that you had to train yourself against your instincts. Presumably, that helps you help people who have the same reluctance and the same concerns about it.

Susan H-W:                            I couldn’t agree more. It probably makes me more sensitive and empathetic to what people are feeling. Fear is a big thing. I know from when I was a performer that actually fear is your greatest friend. If you are able to manage it and use it in a positive way, it gives you that edge. It means that you really care about what you’re doing.

Alison Jones:                        Absolutely. I think if you haven’t got adrenalin before you stand on the stage, then you’re going to underperform and sell yourself short. I always like to interpret it as excitement rather than fear. It’s almost the same physical feeling, isn’t it?

Susan H-W:                            Definitely. Getting back to what you were saying about me pushing my boundaries, looking back to that teenage child, I think that we all have our own hangups. We all have baggage of what people say. I genuinely believe that to a certain extent I was getting messages from people around to be quiet and things like that and didn’t have the necessary tools and skillset to be able to stand up and speak.

Alison Jones:                        I can see that. Actually, drawing it into writing, this podcast is very much for writers, but in fact speaking and writing do seem to be incredibly closely linked these days, don’t they? There is no guarantee that if you’re good at speaking you should be good at writing or if you’re good at writing, you should be good at speaking. Somehow, you have to do both. What do you do if you’re somebody that expresses themselves very well in writing but you find speaking impossibly hard?

Susan H-W:                            Do you know? I always say to my clients that if you write down what you’re going to say and then speak it, then you might modify some of the… I was going to say pronunciation, no punctuation. It will help you with the actual structure and the shape of the phrases and the paragraphs and the natural way that we drop the sentence, the energy at the end of the sentence in English. For those people who are very reluctant, I’ve been there. I know where you’re coming from. You feel that step up from writing and almost keeping what you’re feeling, what you’ve written, secret because you’re not sharing it verbally, is to stand in front of a mirror and read it to yourself. Try and catch your eyes in the mirror.

Alison Jones:                        I like that, yes. You get that immediacy, that feedback.

Susan H-W:                            Absolutely.

Alison Jones:                        When you speak the words, because you then hear them, as well as hearing them inside your brain if you like, they activate a different part of your brain, don’t they? You actually take them on board in a different way.

Susan H-W:                            Yeah, they do. I would imagine that for people that are really, really good writers, not like me, writing a blog, which I don’t think is in the same level as some of your authors. When you start speaking, when you start reading it, you’re going to adjust it. You might change a word, change the formation of the sentence because it almost takes a different meaning when you speak it.

Alison Jones:                        In fact, with technology these days there’s so much more overlap. There’s so many people who, certainly from an accessibility point of view, will be using screen readers. Actually increasingly because of machine learning, we’re having our books read to us by our Kindle and so on. It is important that it sounds good as well as reading well.

Susan H-W:                            When you read a sentence, if you emphasise a particular word, it can completely alter the meaning of the sentence. If you read out the sentence, you might think, “Oh, gosh. I need to change the word or perhaps slightly alter the structure.” If it’s going to be spoken by a Kindle or something like that, it might take a completely different meaning from what you want, which is a bit scary actually, isn’t it?

Alison Jones:                        Yes, it is. It’s terrifying. It’s that ambiguity. Of course, you never see ambiguity in your own stuff because you know what you meant.

Susan H-W:                            Absolutely. Perhaps if it’s somebody who’s reading English, whose first language isn’t English, or perhaps you know, Americans where they have a different emphasis on words within a sentence, there could be some ambiguity.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, when you said that bit about the energy falling at the end of a sentence in English, I was just thinking mentally about Australia when the energy goes up at the end of the sentence.

Susan H-W:                            Absolutely. You know the Californian girl, in the ’80s?

Alison Jones:                        Of course, everything’s a question?

Susan H-W:                            Yes and the flick of the hair.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, those little cultural tics that you sort of don’t notice unless you’re trained to notice them but actually can have quite a huge impact on how you’re received.

Susan H-W:                            I agree with you and it’s all down to understanding your audience. That Californian girl, that sort of ’80s Californian girl, would not necessarily resonate with perhaps a mainly male, middle aged audience, with respect to them. That’s my husband, possibly your husband. With respect, they would not engage as well with somebody who was delivering a speech in that way.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, it’s just addressing it appropriately, isn’t it?

Susan H-W:                            Absolutely.

Alison Jones:                        The words that you use, the tone that you use…

Susan H-W:                            Definitely. You modify the way that you deliver your speech to different audiences. You might change the vocabulary. Next week I’m speaking in Lithuania. I have to be aware that the examples I use and the language, the actual vocabulary I use is quite simple because most of the audience there won’t speak English fluently. I need to make it as easy as possible for them to understand and have some takeaways.

Alison Jones:                        Absolutely and which, of course, does apply in a book as well because you have to have your target reader in mind. Because you’re doing it in real time, I suppose it’s that much more important when you’re speaking. There’s one question I need to ask you. My listeners will kill me if I don’t. (I know this because they told me.) How do you get speaking gig in the first place?

Susan H-W:                            Okay. Well, I have, in the past, it has been very much word of mouth. What I’m doing now is that I have an assistant. We are actually asking specific organisations if it’s possible to speak and this is the type of topic that I cover, and go from there. We have a conversation.

Alison Jones:                        You’re doing it very proactively. You’re actually targeting people and saying, “I speak on this subject. Is this interesting to you?” What kind of response do you get to that?

Susan H-W:                            Some people ignore you. Let’s face it. Some people ignore you and other people are interested. One thing, I’ve been working with a coach. I don’t know if you know Rebecca Jones, who …

Alison Jones:                        I do, yes.

Susan H-W:                            She has really encouraged us to say, “Look, you need to be paid for your expertise, sharing your expertise.” I quite agree with her but it’s thinking about who your target audience is. Is it worthwhile doing a freebie when there’s an opportunity that some people will come up to you at the end and say, “Could we have a chat?” Perhaps, in which their negotiation, being aware of all of those things.

Alison Jones:                        That’s quite similar to books as well, isn’t it? Because some people see the sale of the book as the thing, the book is the product. I think most business authors see the book as a way in to actually move significant revenues and relationships.

Susan H-W:                            I think that’s interesting because that’s how I was regarding my speaking before, that it was a way in. In fact, I’ve been paid for a few gigs in the last year. Hear me say gigs?

Alison Jones:                        I think most speakers do, don’t they? I would call it that as well. I’ll let you off with that.

Susan H-W:                            Okay. Actually, doing this course with Rebecca made me see that I needed to value the content, that actually they were getting proper training with that. There are circumstances, say if it’s a lunch and learn, you should really be either saying, “Right at the end of this, I need to have two proper conversations with people immediately afterwards to discuss the training that we would be able to offer. I’m demonstrating my knowledge, a few takeaways but that’s a starting point to work with your employees or ostensibly to charge.”

Alison Jones:                        That makes complete sense to me. You’re up front. You’re thinking about what is the strategic role of this. If you know it’s going to build your network in a way that you want to make a relationship that you’re after or give opportunities for certain things, you can build in a call to action. Then you might say this is free because it’s marketing activity, whereas if it’s delivering content then you put a price on that, but it’s that being really clear up front what this engagement is going to do for you and what you want out of it.

Susan H-W:                            Absolutely. You know, just engaging with some very, very experienced speakers, where most of their income is coming from speaking, they are still being asked to do things for free with the, “Oh, well, it will be good marketing for you,” from multi-national companies. You know, yeah. It’s exactly the same with music and you need to be really clear and say, “Actually, this is a paid gig. I’m providing content within your event, within your conference. I’m not able to sell from the stage.” (I would never do that anyway.) It’s not possible to do a call to action or flog a book at the end and they should pay for that content.

Alison Jones:                        Then they’re really clear about… these are my parameters. I guess also it depends on where you are in your career as a speaker. You’d have accepted things starting off that you wouldn’t later on.

Susan H-W:                            Absolutely. If I think about my speaking from when I did little things at the WI, Rotary and local business groups, I worked out what worked, what interested audiences. Don’t sniff at those opportunities at first – I learned a great deal from those and I’m hugely grateful to those people that gave me those opportunities. I’ve reached the stage where I am an expert at what I do. It’s almost devaluing if I say, “Oh, I’ll come in for an hour.” You know that the speaker that they had the previous month was being paid X amount as well. There are those things going on. Actually, you don’t want to do it as a basic sales talk. That certainly doesn’t fit in with my values but you’ve got to have something out of it, your time, your preparation and everything else. Being quite clear does help.

Alison Jones:                        You mentioned about the call to action when you talked about that corporate gig. Tell me a little bit more about how you plan and incorporate a call to action into your talk.

Susan H-W:                            Right at the end, I will do it in quite a soft way. I will always say, “You know? This is the sort of work that I do with people. If you would like to have a chat with me, I’d be delighted to have a chat and perhaps we can arrange to have coffee if there’s somebody in your teams that is doing some work that they need to do some speaking or they need a little bit of help, just give me a call or have a card.” I used to do something. I always offer a cheat sheet from the talk so that there are references to some of the … I always refer to a couple of videos and TED talks, scientific information. I like to be able to say, “Grab your cheat sheet, then you can see further about this.” It isn’t a scientific talk that I’m giving but I do refer to them. I feel that it just isn’t my opinion. It’s showing that it’s proper.

Alison Jones:                        Of course, that cheat sheet then becomes a tangible reminder with your contact details I’m presuming.

Susan H-W:                            Absolutely. Yeah.

Alison Jones:                        That’s a nice follow up. It’s really striking me as you’re talking about a call to action. That starts quite a sort of a soft, non-specific come and have a chat with me but, of course, you can because they’re there. People always come up and talk to you afterwards, don’t they?

Susan H-W:                            Absolutely.

Alison Jones:                        I’m just comparing it with a book, where you haven’t got that directness: when they put the book down you risk just completely going out of their head.

Susan H-W:                            Yes. It’s really interesting because talking to a couple of the speakers, they said, “Well, you know, we know that people just turn up for this speaking and then they go because they’re going somewhere else.” They think that the whole thing is just when they’re on stage. Actually, if you hang around afterwards, you can find out far more about an organisation. You can really engage with people and people that might not be happy about asking a question. You can get in conversation with them and you’re networking.

Alison Jones:                        That’s so true, isn’t it? For every one person that actually has the guts to put their hand up at the end of the talk to ask a question, there’s probably 15 sitting there with a question they haven’t quite articulated to themselves or they don’t want to look a fool or they’re just too shy.

Susan H-W:                            Definitely. That’s why, I don’t know if you’ve come across various technology for speakers where the Q and A’s can actually be sent by text message… I’m pros and cons for some of this technology and how it’s used but that’s another conversation. In the context of that person who always, every conference, always asks a question and you can’t get rid of them. You can’t stop them talking.

Alison Jones:                        Then they say, “It’s more of a comment than a question.” Well sit down then!

Susan H-W:                            Or, they’re trying to upstage you. You just think, “Oh, just bog off.”

Alison Jones:                        There’s always one.

Susan H-W:                            Everybody else, their eyes are rolling, “Oh, God, not again,” or alternatively, those people that don’t want to make a fool of themselves. It just balances that a little bit and it can be managed a bit better.

Alison Jones:                        I do like that tech. I know they’ve used it in academia for a long time. A lecturer will check in on the level of understanding or do a quick multiple choice quiz. It’s sort of like Who Wants to be a Millionaire, where they ask the audience.

Susan H-W:                            It’s fun in that respect.

Alison Jones:                        Keeps them awake.

Susan H-W:                            It keeps them awake. What I’ve seen is … I always say to the person that is managing that that I want everything switched off while I’m talking because I’ve seen people give talks… They’ve prepared and they’ve flown in from all over the world and then there’s a screen behind them that they can’t see with all of the questions, people making comments and actually trolling the speaker.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, it’s a bit undermining. I’ve seen that Twitter wall. Yes, it’s a bad use of technology, I think.

Susan H-W:                            I think so. I think being aware of the positives and the downside and having the courage to say, “You switch it off. I’m here. I’m not being upstaged.”

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, I know. I love that. I know you blog rather than writing a book. What are your tips, coming from where you come from the speaking background, have you any tips for a first time business book author and the fact that they have to then use this book in their business and communicate more broadly?

Susan H-W:                            Do you know I think that’s an interesting question. That one I spent quite a lot of time thinking about. Certainly with speakers, because we’ve been talking about speakers, one of the things a lot of people say is to get a book written because when people Google you, if you’re an expert, which as a speaker you often are, they will probably go to LinkedIn. They will then go to Amazon to see what you have written, to see what the reviews are. That was something that I wasn’t aware of. If you are a business, a clear niche business or one where you are sharing your expertise, I think that writing a book, which I haven’t written obviously …

Alison Jones:                        I’m still in the throes of it. Don’t worry.

Susan H-W:                            … Is one thing that’s quite useful.

Alison Jones:                        That’s a really good tip, isn’t it, that Amazon is a search engine, frankly. It’s for people who are looking for solutions for problems that they know they have. You’re right that getting good reviews on there is absolutely vital. Inviting people, nagging people who promised you a review and haven’t done it yet, you have to just put yourself out of your comfort zone and do that stuff because it matters.

Susan H-W:                            Yes. Absolutely. You know if you are an expert, it is really stating that. If you’ve got a book, it’s on Amazon, it’s in your niche area … She says, having not written a book.

Alison Jones:                        We still know this. It doesn’t detract from the truth of what you’re saying. I totally get it. Brilliant. The last question I always ask guests as well, as you know, is who else you think I should invite on to this show as a guest and why? Someone with something interesting to say about communication in general and perhaps books in particular.

Susan H-W:                            There’s somebody that I met at an event when I met you in person. She’s called Gosia. She is absolutely amazing. She has got a huge heart. She is wanting people to find the person they are, being the best that they are. One of the things that struck me because she’s been on my podcast is that encourages people to speak things through. We were talking earlier on about writing things down and then speaking them. Quite often coaches will say, “Well, write this down.” She actually gets you to speak it and have a conversation. That’s actually makes it real because you’re sharing your thoughts with somebody else.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, hearing them out loud. I couldn’t agree more. I think Gosia is amazing. I know also that she’s writing a book so I think she’d be terrific, a terrific guest. That’s a top recommendation. Wonderful. Susan, if people want to find out more about you, about your coaching, about Viva Live Music maybe because we didn’t go into that much but it sounds fascinating, where should they go?

Susan H-W:                            My website is executivevoice.co.uk.

Alison Jones:                        I’ll put all the links up on the show notes so you don’t have to spell it out phonetically…

Susan H-W:                            I have got a podcast page, which just has a feed of the last three or four podcasts but it is on iTunes, Superstar Communicator. I would love to have your feedback on it, ideas. I’m always open to new ideas and things. My website for Viva Live Music is vivalivemusic.com and we do all sorts of live music. We do some organising of string quartets and things like that, bands, for weddings, for celebrations, for corporate dues and we have done some things overseas, which is really, really exciting.

Alison Jones:                        That sounds amazing. Thank you so much, Susan. I think we could have talked all day but I’m going to have to end it there. Thank you so much. Good bye.

Susan H-W:                            Thank you so much for having me on here. All the best of luck, listeners.

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