When you invite an improv actor into your communications class, you have to be ready for anything. Thank goodness, my class was alone in the basement of the business school that evening.
I'd asked my actor friend, Chris, to give my students some coaching to help with oral presentations. We started with a few vocal warmup exercises and some practice with delivery stance. So far, so tame. And then, Chris asked everyone in the room to stand up and project their voice--not at public speaking volume but so loudly that we could hear our voices bounce back at us from the concrete walls.
So now you're picturing 40 university students leaping to their feet and shouting, right? Wrong. Our first group yell sounded more like a stage whisper than the Tarzan yelp Chris was after. "Louder!" he demanded. And then again, "Louder!" He wasn't going to be satisfied until the walls were reverberating like the backdrop at a rock concert.
If the Dean of Commerce had walked by the classroom door at that point, he might have thought all chaos had broken loose in Business Communications. But all of us in the room that night were learning something profound that we could apply to our business writing as well as our business speaking.
Most of us, Chris explained, are uncomfortable hearing our own voice. Just think of the first time you heard a recording of yourself speaking. Was your reaction, "Gee! I sound fantastic. I should go into radio!"? If so, congratulations on finding your career destiny. Those of us with lesser vocal talents tend to react in protest: "That's not me! There's something off with that recording. I don't sound so nasal (or squeaky, or raspy, or other adjective of your choice)."
Discomfort with the sound of our own voice can cause career-crippling anxiety, preventing us from making ourselves heard in meetings and presentations. This fear of public speaking may have complicated layers, but it stems from the basic fear of hearing our own voice.
The same can be said about writing. Many of the clients I've worked with have suffered from writing apprehension, which, in its severest form, becomes writer's block. While most people assume that writer's block happens because of a lack of skill, that's not usually true. The leading cause of writer's block is a lack of confidence, an uneasiness with "hearing" one's own voice as it emerges in written language.
To help my university students overcome their speaker jitters, Chris recommended that they practice listening to themselves speak. That's great advice for writers as well.
Two of the best ways for improving your writing fluency (your ability to quickly generate writing) are journalling and reading your writing aloud.
Journalling gives you a private, soundproof room in which you can bounce your voice off the walls without worrying about anyone else hearing the noise. You can journal about something as mundane as what you ate for lunch or your score on the squash court, or you can write about life's deepest mysteries. The topic doesn't matter so long as you practice hearing, and appreciating, the unique timbre of your own writing voice.
Reading your writing aloud not only builds confidence but also improves editing skills. When you practice listening to your writing, you remind yourself that writing is really a form of conversation. If you can hold a conversation with someone, you can write. So what is there to be anxious about? When you "talk out" your writing to yourself, you'll also be surprised by how well your ear can pick up and correct awkward phrasing and issues with grammar and punctuation.
Learning to listen to yourself as a writer will make your writing more conversational, personable, and clear. Challenge yourself to get comfortable with the sound of your own writing voice through journalling and reading aloud. As you practice these kinds of listening, your writing will take on stronger tones of authenticity and authority. And who knows? You may even start to enjoy the process of creating written conversations with your readers, which is all business writing is really about.