We all know that to get ahead in this world we need to be smart, willing to work hard and really know what it is we’re going after. In any field, it is our abilities, our strengths that seem to count when trying to get ahead. When drafting a resume or presenting a pitch to an investor, we are listing our accomplishments and our talents, as we are hoping to express why we are the ones that deserve whatever it is we’re seeking. It’s all textbook; and anyone can learn and know what it is they’re supposed to do, but to execute it? Well that’s where Cindy Ashton comes in.
Ashton, a stage and presence coach and professional speaker with degrees in both Music and Kinesiology, is changing the game when it comes to public speaking, bringing a new perspective to the art of speaking with her background in the performing arts.
“Ever since I was a fetus, my soul knew,” explained Ashton. “I was swimming around my mother’s belly sporting jazz hands. So I’ve always known that I was meant to bring changes across the world.”
“I started out singing, dancing, acting and that’s what I went to school for,” continued Ashton. “Then when I was 31 years old, my first album came out, my singing album, and people were more interested in the story behind the album than they were with my singing.”
Ashton, born with just a 20 percent chance of living, severe heart failure and structural damage on the left side of her body, grew up very sick and though she continued to beat the odds was told it was likely that she would not survive past her teenage years. For most, living with such pain and surrounded by the doubts of many, stepping in front of a crowd would be the last thing one would choose to build a life around. But Ashton, ever determined to flip the script, did just that, first with singing and performing and then as a public speaker.
“I actually started when I was 22, teaching other people speaking and performing skills,” said Ashton. “I literally put an ad in the Pennysaver for two weeks got 10 clients off the bat and it was all referral after that. What ended up happening is that I loved teaching and I loved coaching and I loved seeing people bring out their best self and so it really fell into my lap. They were never things I intended. I’ve always loved people, I’ve always loved performing but this is not the way that I had seen it when I was a child but it’s worked out great.”
And that’s putting it mildly. In 2010 Ashton received President Barack Obama’s Call to Service Award for outstanding volunteerism and contributions to the community and in 2012 was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal from the Canadian Centre for Abuse Awareness.
“It’s weird to me that that’s happened to me because I know that I give a lot and I give back to my community, but I feel like a lot of people do,” said Ashton. “I guess for me, in terms of those awards and the giving back piece for me, where that really came from is the trials of growing up, being so ill and being so bullied from looking so different, I became like a warrior. When you’re given a 20 percent chance of living and told you’re not going to make it past your teens, you become a fighter and because I was always a person that was always bullied growing up and always different and unconventional compared to everybody else, I just naturally gravitated to the underdog of wanting to help people.”
And helping people is what she does and while her charity efforts have been duly noted and celebrated, it is her professional services that are also making a huge difference to a great many.
Standing apart from the conventional methods taught in a public speaking course, Ashton brings to her students a plethora of experiences and understanding of not only the human body but what’s going on behind the scenes that can either make or break a person’s attempt at connection.
“I’ve done extensive training as a singer, dancer, actor and when you do that you have to develop an immense body awareness but also as a performer you have to be able to create different characters and when you’re performing a play or a musical you’re going deep into the psychology of people and thinking about your body language and how that comes across on stage and how it’s going to affect the other person so they react appropriately to you,” explained Ashton. “Some of these insights are from my singing, dancing, acting background, but then a lot of them are from kinesiology, just learning a lot and making the connection but also part of it is just from my own life.
“I’ve been bullied as a child, I was bullied throughout my 20s and I had to make the connections for myself about oh, alright, so if I show up this way, this is what’s happening, without shame or guilt, I mean we’re all just doing the best we can,” continued Ashton. “But a part of it is just being a victim of bullying and emotional abuse when I was younger. I had to learn, I had to take what I learned as a performer and take what I learned from my degrees and take what I was learned from all my years of coaching … so it’s really an amalgamation of all my work and I just get stronger and stronger.”
With that said, taking in all her experiences and understanding of why someone is speaking or standing a certain way, Ashton is able to teach others how to recognize for themselves all the ways in which we sabotage ourselves and how we can turn that around. By bringing an awareness of self, Ashton believes, and has been proven, that we can unlock our most persuasive and powerful selves. It just takes practice and determination.
“What makes me really successful is I work with the body chemistry and what’s happening in the body so that we release,” explained Ashton. “We all have stress in our lives, we just do, that’s just life and some days are worse than others and some days are better than others, but how stressed we are directly affects how we come across to other people and so what really differentiates me is that I combine actual performance skills with stress management so that you come across as calm, focused and confident in every moment of your being and every situation.”
As the written word can only do so much, to get a better understanding of Ashton’s methods, check out either of her websites, YourPersuasiveVoice.com – geared more towards corporate and organizational techniques and SpeakImpactInfluence.com – a great resource for budding entrepreneurs. In the meantime, below are some tips and points of contention on public speaking well worth checking out.
On the Misconceptions of Public Speaking
Ashton explained, “The first is that if you’re an introvert you can’t be a good public speaker. I actually disagree with that; I often think people like me who are big personalities and extroverts actually push people away because they’re so big they intimidate people unintentionally and I often find that with my introverts there’s just a few little tweaks for them and they are highly magnetic because they’ve got that quiet presence that draws people in, whereas an extrovert can completely overwhelm an audience or overwhelm people if they’re networking or having a conversation so that’s the first misconception is that you have to be extroverted.
“I’m North America’s Unconventional Speaker Trainer and the reason why is that to me, there seems to be a perception out there [that] to be a good presenter you need to be super polished, you need to have everything memorized script wise. I call this Robot Training and I’m sure it works for some people and obviously there’s lots of very, very successful people out there who are teaching this way and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, it’s just my perspective on this is that the way that our world is going and especially because I work with a lot of women, women want to connect with each other, women want to leave a legacy and you know, it’s about relationships and to tell a woman you have to memorize a script and try to stand a certain way and smile a certain way and dress a certain way just makes her feel like a porcelain doll and like she’s not a real person. So, I really believe, in terms of the misconceptions, that it is a misconception that you have to be perfectly polished and scripted to be an effective presenter and I disagree with that. I really think it’s more about unleashing your quirks and your natural magnetism and what I mean by that, I really believe that what we think as our disabilities and what we think our quirks and the things that are imperfections it’s the things that makes us really loveable.
“The stress that we carry in our body is far more of an indicator of how you come across than is anything else so you can polish and dress or you can try to stand tall but if you’ve got stress… Let me give you an example, so if somebody’s really stressed out because they’re grieving, they tend to hold tension in their chest and when you hold tension in your chest and you’re grieving, you tend to slump your shoulders, your voice gets quieter and when your voice gets quieter, you don’t sound very confident and it doesn’t really draw people in, it doesn’t read very well. So my work is, yes I bring in performance skills from my performing background, but I really work on the stress levels and really learning how to release the muscle tension in the body so that people can really show up with good, natural posture instead of trying to make them stand well and really be able to release jaw tensions so that they are articulate and magnetic in their speaking voice. Really my work is about unleashing the stuff that’s not serving people and letting you bring out your natural magnetism and your natural self once you’ve released all the barriers.”
Etiquette on Announcing Nervousness
Ashton said, “You probably don’t want to do that but I think it also depends on the context of where you are, certainly if you’re on national television you’re not going to be whining or ‘oh my God I’m so nervous’ but there’s something to be said about being authentic and naming the elephant in the room, especially if it’s debilitating you. If you can’t get control of it, sometimes just naming the elephant in the room is ok, but again it’s going to depend on the situation. If you’re presenting to a board room, you need to get some training and deal with the nerves because you do not want to be trying to close a ten million dollar deal and say, ‘Hi guys, it’s me and I’m excited to be here and I’m really, really nervous!’ It’s going to lose all your credibility but, for example, if you’re giving a talk and you’re in front of a certain type of demographic like people who read self help books for example, and if you’re vulnerable like that, they’re going to like you, so it really depends on the crowd, the context, where you’re at, but in general, you probably don’t want to. Everybody needs to learn how to deal with nerves.”
Why we Fear Public Speaking & What We Can Do
Ashton said, “I think that we are raised in a society that it’s not ok to be yourself. We need to look like the size 3 model on the cover of Vogue, we need to be as smart as I don’t know who in the world, Einstein, I don’t know. I think that public speaking is the number one fear because we’ve got to stand up and it’s very vulnerable and we’re naked and we’re opening ourselves up to judgment of other people. We’re basically being seen, we’re letting our voices be heard and for the most part, growing up and the way our society’s structured, it’s not ok for us to speak out and we need to fit a certain mold, so really it’s just a whole vulnerability thing and being exposed and having to speak the truth and that’s pretty darn scary to do that.
“Most of the time, half of the reason why people have nerves is because they’re not clear on what they’re going to say and I get people that say, yeah but I wrote it down and I have my bullet points and it’s like, yes and if you were a figure skater would you write down your routine once and then expect to win an Olympic gold? You wouldn’t, you would be extraordinarily nervous out on the ice so it’s the same thing as a lot of people even when they do organize their points, they don’t know it to the point that it’s like walking. Now, if you know what your talking points are and you’re really crystal clear, it just rolls off the tongue, that’s half of where the nerves are – is that people just are not clear on what they’re going to say and it’s not in their bodies, writing it down is not enough, you’ve got to rehearse it just like you would for some championship in the Olympics, you’ve got to rehearse it. So that’s the first thing and that will take off the mental stress around it.
“The second thing I have everybody do is work on the physical side. So the first thing is you get rid of the mental stress by knowing what you’re going to say, the second thing is that you want to physically get yourself calm so when you exhale longer than your inhale, (this is before you go on stage) exhale nice and long, when you exhale longer than your inhale, it grounds you, it slows your heart rate it focuses your mind, it relaxes your muscles and it just calms your nerves right down, what it does technically speaking is it stimulates a parasympathetic nervous system that is in charge of the heart rate, the mind racing, the muscles, and so it just calms everything down so exhale longer than your inhale.
“So we’ve covered the mental, the physical, emotional. So to be emotionally ready what I tell my clients to do is get some kind of a sensory trigger. So, this is really from my acting background, so when you watch an actor on stage or you watch an actor on the screen, you’re either completely drawn in by them or you go ‘ugh, that’s such fake acting, I so don’t believe them’. The actors who are really good at drawing you in, we have things called sensory triggers, which means we’re triggered into a certain emotional state that we want to be in, so, when you are going to go out and speak you need to ask yourself what state of being do I want to be in? I had one of my guys who is a realtor and for him it has to be power, what is that trigger that will trigger power in me, for other people it’s joy, for other people it’s confidence, so it’s really about identifying what state of being you want to be in and the second step to the sensory trigger is saying ok, what can trigger me into that? Is it a song, is it a memory, is a movement, is it dancing, is it a picture that I look at, is it something I physically feel that calms me and brings me joy? It’s really about getting those triggers. Everyone has to find something that will trigger them to feel confident, powerful and /or joyful.”
The Difference Between Men & Women
Ashton said, “Men in general tend to show up in business with more confidence. I remember once having a client a couple of years ago, he was brand new as a coach, he went out charging $5000 coaching packages and I‘m like dude I’ve been doing this for 18 years and my packages are $5000, so men just have that natural confidence. They just tend to command a room, I don’t know what it is, if it’s DNA – maybe it’s because women have only been emerging as powerful leaders in the last 100 years, we’ve been making that shift, I’m not sure, but in general men do tend to come across more confident, they’re willing to ask for more money, in general. Having said that, what I notice in a lot of men is, especially the one’s that try to be the alpha male that goes out on the stage and goes ‘Rarrrr!’ like the big Tony Robbins, now Tony Robbins can get away with that because he is an alpha male, but I do find that a lot of men try to go out on stage as an alpha male and sometimes they’re not but beyond that, women are smarter, it’s not that we’re smarter, we’ve always been brilliant, but women are just stepping up and we do not want to be in a room where some man is barking at us and intimidating us from the stage and so, more and more women are just simply not falling for the alpha male and I’m not talking about Tony Robbins, because he’s fantastic, but some of the men come on stage and they’ve got the ‘I know everything follow me guru kind of thing’ and it’s flying less and less with women because women, again, are about connection, legacy and authenticity and women are finding their voices stronger and stronger as each decade develops. So yes, women do have a tendency to not command a stage as much, they have to find that power within them but again it really depends on who the person is, and what they stand for and where they’re at in their career, it’s really hard to generalize.
“One of the things I find with my clients is that the women often ask me ‘how do I be a strong woman and not come across as a bitch?’ There is a way for women to hold their ground without looking like a bitch and still being completely feminine. We have a center of gravity, where the weight of something is. The problem with a lot of women is because we hold a lot of tension in the chest, especially women who have bigger boobs, and that’s just the truth, they’ve got more room up there, they’re feeling a lot of tension, it’s just the truth. When the center of gravity is higher, it makes the energy seem unstable and so if a woman is trying to be powerful and command from there, she looks like she’s a raving bitch because she just seems very frazzled and overdoing it, but when she drops her voice, what happens is when we drop the breath down to the pelvis and we speak from our bellies, it makes us stand with more power without trying too hard, it’s really hard for me to explain without you seeing this physically, but the energy is more stable. They just look stronger in their body and the voice is rounder without sounding too nasal and too high. Men are the opposite of dogs, they can’t hear high tones, so again, women who are trying to be powerful end up coming off as angry and aggressive when they try to get louder because they go into a higher voice, so that’s why you want to drop into your body and it makes your body seem more stable like we already talked about but it drops the pitch of your voice and its commanding without sounding like you’re beating somebody up.”
Ashton said, “I let people keep their quirks. It makes us human – the reason why it’s important is because and again I’m not sure, it depends on what your role is, but if you are trying to be persuasive with somebody, when you’re totally yourself and you’re that transparent, you’re going to attract the people who are going to be your best clients, you’re going to attract the team members who are going to be your best team members. It just eliminates people, I mean I know with me, people either love me or they can’t stand me and that’s OK. It’s like Here I am, so deal with it and it’s awesome because the clients I have are amazing, I have so much fun because I’m totally myself and it either resonates or it doesn’t so being totally yourself, part of it is learning to live truthfully in your life and instead of trying to put on a façade, the minute you put up a façade, then you end up being in a situation where you don’t have enough good relationships because people are treating you based on your façade, not who you are and that creates all kinds of physiological and emotional issues.”
Most Impactful Advice for Women
Ashton commented, “If something is not going the way we want it, somebody’s arguing with us or somebody’s disagreeing with us, we tend to get frazzled and hyper and then we end up leaving our bodies and I don’t know how to explain that, but we don’t stay present and we end up reacting in ways that don’t serve us. We look back and go, ‘why did I make that deal?’ Because I got frazzled. So, my best advice for women is when you’re in situations when you’re stressed, you need to make a decision or are in conflict, start to exhale longer than your inhale, seal your feet, slow down and really get yourself grounded because what’s going to happen otherwise is you’re going to speed up and you’re going to get all frazzled and then you’re going to make a decision just to get rid of it. I think that women get in trouble all the time by going on the emotional state of where they’re at instead of grounding themselves, slowing themselves down and getting their brains thinking and then they regret it.”