How to Find Your Voice
Some people always seem to know what to say. Luckily, eight of them went to Sarah Lawrence—and are willing to share their secrets. No matter where you are (Kazakhstan, anyone?) or how you want to speak out, these alumnae/i offer concrete tips on how to express yourself with passion, precision, and humor.
Written by Sophia Kelley MFA ’10 + illustrations by Phil Wrigglesworth
Bruce Fishelman ’71
Lawyer | Los Angeles, California
“Enthusiasm can be your biggest asset: The people you’re trying to convince will sense your passion.”
Bruce Fishelman says he’s not okay with losing. Luckily, he doesn’t do it much: In 30-plus years of complex tort and civil litigation, he’s won or settled the vast majority of his cases. He had his first experience arguing persuasively (and winning) as an undergraduate, when he convinced the Sarah Lawrence administration to allow him to keep his dog on campus. When preparing for a trial, he uses a mnemonic device he created—STOP—to help ensure he wins.
- Simplify. An argument must be clear and understandable if you want to persuade others, says Fishelman.
- Be truthful. If you genuinely believe in what you are arguing, you are much more likely to seem credible, and thus to win. Fishelman counsels his clients that whatever comes out, as long as they are telling the truth, it can be dealt with.
- Organize. Prepare both mentally and physically (by assembling any evidence or supporting documents).
- Exude passion. Fishelman says that decision makers have to believe that they are involved in something important and that their decision matters. Enthusiasm can be your biggest asset: The people you’re trying to convince will sense your passion and take your argument more seriously.
- Stop before you start. Before presenting your argument, review it and make sure you are prepared. According to Fishelman, if you follow the above advice, you have a fair shot of winning most arguments, whether in front of a jury or just with a group of friends. “I use it all the time. It works with everyone … except my wife,” he laughs.
Shqipe Malushi ’85
Gender adviser and humanitarian | Kabul, Afghanistan
How can you make a difference in global problems like war, famine, and poverty? An Albanian born in Kosovo, Shqipe Malushi entered the United States at 25 and later became the first woman from the Balkans to receive political asylum. She has devoted her life to international humanitarian work and to empowering others. In 2006, she began consulting in Afghanistan, where she works as a gender adviser and leadership trainer for government employees.
- Know why you want to serve. “I was always preoccupied with the war in Kosovo, and I know what it means to live in war. So for me, believing in peace and promoting peace is the most important thing in my life,” Malushi says.
- Practice at home. There are many issues, like homelessness and domestic violence, that you can volunteer to work on locally. The experience will help you learn about service and how to be part of positive change.
- Find legitimate organizations in the country where you want to help. Nonprofits should have verifiable information about their accomplishments. Ask for referrals and project reports to make sure the organization is reputable before you commit.
- Study the culture and learn a few words or phrases in the language. Basic communication skills will help tremendously, Malushi says.
- Network. Find people who have been involved in similar work and share experiences. The Internet is a great resource for fundraising and connecting with others. Malushi recommends Facebook—even many Afghan women are using it, she says.
- Be prepared for medical emergencies. In war-torn areas, danger is a way of life. Before you leave, assemble an emergency medical kit in case of sickness or accidents.
- Document your work. A recorder, a journal, and a camera can help you keep track of your experiences, your progress, and most importantly, the difference you will make in people’s lives.
Jessica Halem ’94
Comedian | Portland, Oregon
“Listen to what’s going on around you and build upon it.”
“Laughter physically loosens you up to receive information or to connect with other people,” Jessica Halem says. As a comedian and social justice activist, she has used humor to share her ideas with audiences for more than a dozen years.
- Look for the ridiculous in everyday life. Halem walks around with a notebook at all times because she thinks the best material comes from real life. “I try to do a lot of jokes about the workplace. Maybe it isn’t ‘ha, ha.’ But it’s where you can find the ridiculous, the strange,” she explains.
- Use yourself as the example. The best comedians don’t make fun of other people, Halem says, but instead use themselves as the fall guy. “Being the fool allows people to relate to your experience.”
- Get to the punch line. For Halem, the essence of good comedy is finding the funny and getting to it as fast as possible.
- Meet the audience where they’re at. Halem says that in comedy and in social justice work, you can’t communicate effectively unless you understand your audience and respect where they are coming from. “Allow people to reveal themselves, and then help move them somewhere else.”
- Agree and build upon others’ ideas. “The number one rule of improv taught at Second City is ‘Yes, and …’ Someone starts a scene off and you have to agree and build upon it,” Halem says. This technique can be useful when you encounter negative people. Agreeing with your detractors can take the wind out of their sails. “Listen to what’s going on around you, listen to what people are responding to, and build upon it.”
- Take an improv class. According to Halem, improvisation techniques build skills that are useful no matter what field you’re in. “If you have to work on a team, if you have to give presentations, if you ever go to cocktail parties—improv and comedy teaches you the fine art of listening, of going back and forth.”
Walton Burns ’99
English tutor | Astana, Kazakhstan
On an Internet phone call from Kazakhstan, Walton Burns laughs as he recalls his first attempts to buy groceries in his new home. “I had a lot of fun going to stores, pointing and gesturing.” It wasn’t the first time he’d experienced a communication gap in a foreign country. As a Peace Corps volunteer, he taught English in Vanuatu, an island nation in the South Pacific. After getting a second master’s degree in sustainable development (the first was in theology), he relocated to Kazakhstan, where he recently started his own tutoring company, English Advantage.
- Express yourself with your hands, face, and body. “It’s amazing how universal body language and facial expressions are,” Burns says.
- Be patient. You might need to try several different ways of getting an idea across, but a positive attitude will go a long way. Burns recalls that when his mother came to Kazakhstan for his wedding, she didn’t speak a word of Russian, and his wife’s family spoke almost no English—yet they were able to communicate. “My wife’s grandmother would turn to my mother and tell her about a traditional dish. And my mother would respond. It was amazing to watch.”
- Pay attention to the other person. Notice her body language and facial expressions—is she following your message or expressing confusion? Also be aware that subtleties in tone—sarcasm, for example— can get lost in translation. Many languages, including Russian, tend to be more monotonic than English, according to Burns.
- Know the culture. In Kazakhstan, everybody eats tomato and cucumber salad. So when Burns asks for tomatoes at a store, the shopkeeper might automatically assume he also wants cucumbers. Being aware of local customs will help you understand the miscommunication and clarify your intentions.
Sally Jane Kerschen-Sheppard ’00
Playwright | New York City
Although people talk to each other every day, writers often struggle to create conversation that sounds authentic on paper. Playwright Sally Jane Kerschen-Sheppard runs an alumnae/i playwriting workshop in Manhattan and is working on her second feature-length film script.
- Get rid of verbal pauses, ticks, and niceties. In movies and TV shows characters rarely give typical “hello” and “goodbye” greetings, Kerschen-Sheppard says, because viewers all know what those sound like. Instead, she suggests: “Skip the extras and refine the dialogue to get to the stuff that matters.”
- Experiment with “parallel monologues.” When two characters are talking, they don’t have to respond directly to each comment. We do this all the time in real life without recognizing it, Kerschen-Sheppard says, and writers can use this approach to achieve a more authentic sound while quickly conveying essential information.
- Keep it snappy. While parallel monologues are a good technique, don’t get carried away with long, uninterrupted paragraphs of dialogue. In real life, people cut each other off. They speak in incomplete sentences. To Kerschen-Sheppard, the best dialogue is short and full of back-and-forths.
- Avoid explaining too much. Remember that dialogue is just one tool. “It’s not just writing what people say, it’s also writing what they do. Usually the idea is to keep verbal exposition to a minimum and show things through actions and attitudes,” Kerschen-Sheppard explains.
- Listen to others read your work out loud. This will help you tell when it doesn’t sound right, especially if you can find actors to read your work, she says. “When the rhythm is off, when it sounds forced or fake—everybody can tell.” Kerschen-Sheppard puts this into practice at her alumnae/i playwriting group, which meets once a month, does a cold reading of the work aloud, and then discusses it. For more information, e-mail email@example.com.
Cappy Warner ’66
Episcopalian Priest | Boca Grande, Florida
“Sometimes we talk too much ... it’s what’s happening inside that’s important.”
“Each individual comes to God differently. I don’t know why that’s such a surprise to people. We don’t agree on so many things, why should our faith be any different?” muses Cappy Warner. As an Episcopal priest, Warner has been helping people communicate with God for more than 20 years. She says prayer can be a powerful way to gain perspective, realize all we have to be thankful for, and forgive ourselves and others.
- Be quiet. “Sometimes we talk too much. We may hear God more in our silence,” Warner advises.
- Try a daily prayer ritual. According to Warner, reading from the Book of Common Prayer, meditating, praying when you’re walking or running, or simply saying the Lord’s Prayer can help you feel closer to God.
- To help solve interpersonal problems, hold an image of that person in your mind for a few moments. “You see that person in your head like a slide. You don’t have to do anything. Just see the person and move on. It’s very helpful. It’s not so much that the other person changes; we change.”
- Join a prayer group. They offer a variety of approaches, and praying aloud with others can be a different and wonderful experience, Warner says.
- Don’t expect external results. “It’s what’s happening inside you that’s important, and acknowledging that there is a path.”
- Be persistent and patient. Since talking to God is an individual experience that depends somewhat on your personality, Warner counsels perseverance. “You have to find the things that really work for you. If it doesn’t happen, it just might not be the right time. Persist, try another tack, and be gentle with yourself.”
- Don’t be afraid of doubt. “To me, doubt is a very important part of faith. If you accept things without questioning or doubting, how will you ever be sure?”
Michelle Fox MS ’79
Genetics Counselor | Los Angeles, California
Nobody likes to hear bad news, but sometimes delivering it can be just as hard. As a pioneer in the field of genetic counseling—she was the first genetic counselor at UCLA—Michelle Fox has developed many successful strategies for communicating with patients.
- Speak as you would in a normal conversation, assessing the person’s educational level. Fox advocates establishing a rapport with people and not hiding behind technical or scientific lingo.
- Ask them to repeat what you just said. According to Fox, when you ask people if they understand, they will just nod their heads. But if you ask them to explain something back to you, then you’ll know whether you presented your message effectively.
- Take a break if necessary. “If the person in front of you is crying and crying then you might just want to stop and ask if they need a moment. Taking extra time to leave people alone sometimes is the best thing you can do,” she says.
- Never dash all hope, and don’t look too far down the road. When Fox is counseling a family whose child has Down Syndrome, for example, she will often remind them to stay in the present. “We don’t have a crystal ball. We’re not going to be able to predict the child’s future when we see a newborn in the nursery,” Fox explains. And in the field of genetics, advances are made daily. “Maybe a diagnosis has serious implications, but now we’re starting to bridge the gap between diagnosis and treatment.”
- Help build, or at least identify, a support system. People in crisis need aid and encouragement. Ask them where they are going for support, or offer to be there for further conversations in order to help them feel connected. Fox describes one of her goals in speaking with patients: “You want to open the door for them to think that you’re worth calling back. You don’t want them to go away from your office thinking that they’re isolated, forlorn.”
Sam Chwat ’74
Speech therapist | New York City
What do Robert de Niro, Olympia Dukakis, Jude Law, Heath Ledger, and Julia Roberts have in common (other than their Oscar nominations)? They have all had accent training with renowned speech and language pathologist Sam Chwat. He runs New York Speech Improvement Services, specializing in accent elimination, standard American English speech, and voice improvement. The primary demand at Chwat’s office is for accent reduction, but he says there’s plenty to be gained from adopting an accent. “It’s a great deal of fun to put yourself in somebody else’s position and speak as they do. With good intentions, it can be entertaining as well as enlightening about how other people feel when they’re communicating.”
- Determine the pattern of sound. An accent is a code that follows a pattern of sound substitutions, according to Chwat. First you need to figure which non-standard vowels or consonants are being used in the targeted accent. Listen to people with the desired accent, or find recordings or videos and analyze the sounds.
- Drill with a short, scripted speech. Repeat phone numbers or a brief, memorized text to build auditory and motor memory. “The more you do it, the more you retain it. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse,” Chwat advises.
- Generalize and improvise. After training the ear to self-correct and the mouth to physically form the sounds, you can begin to improvise conversation in your new accent.
- Don’t be afraid to assume the mask. You have to be willing to take chances and embrace the role of the new accent. Just make sure you’re intelligible at all times. Chwat says anyone can learn a new accent. “Given a road map in the speech parade, you too can speak however you like.”
Faking a French accent:
- Th becomes an s or a z. Let me zink about zat.
- All ts are ts. In English we tend to make some ts into a d-like sound in the middle of a word, i.e. bitter, batter, butter, better. To the French, a t is a t, like the sound at the end of right, not, yet.
- The r is from the back of the tongue, and produced in a gargle-like way.
- Don’t say h. Ow are you? I am ere.
- The mouth is kept very small for the vowels, as if you’re sucking a straw.
- Er at the end of a word is pronounced as air/ayr. So you would have brozair, sistair, mozair.