This year, the TEDxPenn series was devoted to presenting the work of ingenious Penn students and faculty whose discoveries have slipped under the radar. Of the most pertinent to my daily life was Laura Sicola’s focus on public speaking and the impressions we can make as leaders.

Penn Graduate School of Education faculty member and consultant Laura Sicola

Penn Graduate School of Education faculty member and consultant Laura Sicola

Sicola, founder of Sicola Consulting Group and faculty at Penn’s Graduate School of Education, opened with a key piece of insight: “Knowing you’re an effective leader is knowing people will follow you, requiring that you command their attention.”

It is not always apparent how useful it is to know how to speak to people effectively. Fortunately, Sicola recognizes that most people don’t know how, and provided us with a few helpful hints:

• When introducing yourself, start by letting the pitch of your voice go up on your first name, pause, and then down on the last name. This helps people remember your name. Why does this work? Humans process voices in tone units, the basic unit of intonation in a language which consists of syllables spoken in the same pitch, and by using this technique, we help  our minds hear tone units that it can easily remember, Sicola said.

• Avoid upspeak. That is, the “valley girl” intonation. A monotonous lilting upswing can make it hard for people to remember what you’re saying. Sicola calls this the “anti-authority” and mentions that most successful leaders avoid this.

• Our bodies don’t know the difference between being excited and nervous. So when we get on stage and our hearts are about to jump out of our throats, it’s our job to keep reminding ourselves that we are excited, not anxious. Audiences interpret what you say 7 percent based off your words, 38 percent based on the intonation of your voice, and 55 percent on your posture and body language, Sicola said.

• Voice is all about context. James Earl Jones’ deep, rich tones would not fit Fran Drescher’s role in The Nanny, and she would sound equally as ridiculous declaring “Luke, I am your father” in Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back. It is most important to identify which part of our personality we want to shine through in order to get the audience to listen.

Laura Sicola captured live during her TEDxPenn talk.

Laura Sicola captured live during her TEDxPenn talk.

As I tried to pinpoint the ways in which to accomplish these methods, I realized I hadn’t the faintest idea about how to command the attention of a crowd.

As a Wharton undergrad, my ears perked up at Sicola’s mention of corporate presence, which she describes as the ability to command the attention of your audience so that they see you as a leader. Her questions really made me think. Do my words stick with people? How do I sound when making tough decisions? And most importantly, does the way I speak highlight or undermine what I’m saying? I’m sure my fellow aspiring leaders worry about these daunting tests of communication. It was reassuring to hear that those of us who were not born natural public speakers can learn to make our audiences as excited as we are about our topics.

The purpose of the independently organized TEDxPenn conference in early November was to bring together a diverse bunch of Penn speakers, ranging in areas of expertise from undergraduate students to faculty in order to engage, challenge, expand and spread ideas.

The presenters following Sicola were equally inspiring. Richard Liu, a Wharton undergrad, traveled throughout China to study and help prevent early childhood lead exposure. Sandhya Jetty, another fellow Wharton undergrad, carried us through the story of when she was 5 and wanted to print toys off the Internet, to her current research which explores the many uses of 3-D printing. Finally, Barbara Kurshan, the executive director of Academic Innovation at the Penn Graduate School of Education, shared her model of providing teachers and entrepreneurs with seed money to fund their ventures in education and business.

As each showcased their research, it began to feel as if whatever we put our mind to, we could accomplish. And thankfully, if there’s one thing Penn students know how to do, it’s persevere.

Editor’s note: After we posted this article, Dr. Sicola was kind enough to write in and clarify some of the details of her TEDxPenn lecture. See her note below:

Dear Editors:

I was pleased to see that my TEDxPenn talk was so well received by Wharton students and covered by student-reporter Emily Chisholm in your recent blog, “Owning the Crowd Like a TED Talker.”

There are, however, several misquotes and/or misinterpretations in the article, which are important, particularly with regard to some statistics and a few other facts. Since I was credited with making those statements, it is important for me to set the record straight:

1. Regarding self-introductions and saying one’s own name, we process speech (not voice) in tone units, which are phrases or sentence parts that you speak in “chunks” between logical pauses or breaths (often clauses, grammatically.) It is specifically the strategic intonation contrasts, the placement of and transitions between high and low pitches, that promotes our ability to process a message more easily. That’s part of why the rise-pause-fall pattern for names is effective. When everything is on the same pitch it is monotone, which is exactly what we do not want.

2. I was incorrectly quoted as saying, “Audiences interpret what you say 7 percent based off your words, 38 percent based on the intonation of your voice, and 55 percent on your posture and body language.” I made no such statement. These numbers have no connection to message content, but rather reflect how listeners interpreted the speakers’ sincerity with regard to their feelings and attitudes, which is related to one’s credibility, an important leadership quality. I also mentioned that people frequently misinterpret and overgeneralize the 55-38-7 values with regard to message content, and to beware of doing so, and this is case-in-point.

3. The underlying theme of the talk was developing “executive presence,” more specifically what I call “vocal executive presence,” not “corporate presence.”

4. My company that specializes in vocal executive presence and leadership communication training is Vocal Impact Productions. It is true that I am also the founder of the Sicola Consulting Group, but that company focuses on intercultural communication, which was not the focus of the TEDxPenn talk.

Thank you for the opportunity to clarify the above points, and happy holidays to all.

Laura Sicola, PhD