Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Voice coaching: What I learned

I use my voice a lot. I give talks at conferences, I teach workshops for GDI, and I record videos for Khan Academy.

But I’ve never loved my voice. I grew up with British parents, so I spent my life wishing I had an accent that sounded as smart as theirs. And now that there are videos of my voice on the internet and comments underneath those videos, I know that there are a few aspects of my voice that don’t always work so well, like the clarity of my pronunciation, upspeak tendency, and verbal tics.

I thought I’d go the DIY route first, by watching Youtube videos on how to have a British accent, figuring that’d solve all my problems. Unfortunately, that backfired - I attempted a more British pronunciation in my next video, and succeeded in sounding like I was speaking through marbles in my mouth.

So I decided to enlist the help of a professional: a voice coach. It took a bit of wading through singing voice coaches to find a coach that focuses on speaking for every-day life and presenting: Alicia Bales.

We started off with a consultation, where I described in my own voice what I wanted out of my own voice, and then she recorded my voice going through various exercises, like counting as high as I can in as high of a voice as possible. She wrote up a multi-page analysis of my voice with recommendations for key areas of improvement, and came up with a 12-week syllabus for how we’d get there. The full 12 weeks is a bit pricey, but thankfully, my employer Khan Academy agreed to count it as a professional development opportunity.

Over the next 12 weeks, we went through a wide range of exercises, in diaphragmatic breathing, tonal sounds, pronunciation, articulation, word emphasis, and more. I started noticing an improvement in my voice recordings after just the first few sessions, and a definite improvement after we were all done.

Here are some of my big takeaways from the experience:

  • I don’t need a British accent to sound “smart.” That’s what I told her the first day, and we proceeded to have interesting discussions about why I thought that, and what are the actual aspects of a voice that sound “smart.” Now, I’m happy with my accent, and I focus on having a clear voice and articulation.
  • I’m much more aware of my voice, and the states it falls into. I can tell when it’s low energy (when it “fries” - which isn’t as clear) and I have strategies to bring energy and clarity back into my voice.
  • I can see the correlation between my voice and my confidence. I go into a low energy voice when I’m in a situation where I’m intimidated or don’t want to be intimidated. Now that I can see that correlation, I can actively decide if I want to stay with that voice (like if it increases intimacy) or if I want to switch into a clearer higher energy voice.
  • I always knew that I “mispronounce" a few words due to the influence of British parents, like “idea” (idear!). Now that I’ve gone through entire vowel/consonant pronunciation worksheets, I have a full list of all the words/sounds that I pronounce in the more British way. I can actively decide whether to stick with that pronunciation or gradually move over to an American pronunciation (like “dodder” vs “dotter” for “daughter”). My voice coach was careful not to prescribe that I had to always use American pronunciation - she just wanted to make sure I was aware of it.
  • Diagram of breathingI have a better understanding of how breathing works, thanks to the diaphragmatic breathing exercises and binge-watching 3d simulations of breathing on Youtube. I was confused before by “breathing in” (which actually pushes the stomach out) and “breathing out” (which brings the stomach in), and always felt not quite right during meditation and yoga breathing. Now, breathing is coming more naturally.
  • I was always uncomfortable with therapists/therapy. After going through the experience of the 1-on-1 sessions with the voice coach, I became much more comfortable with the idea of a therapist (an emotion coach!), and I signed up for therapy soon after. The voice coaching was my gateway drug to more personal growth experiences. :)

I learned much more than that, of course, and I’m still working on applying what I’ve learned. One day, when I have time, I would love to have a voice study group to give me an excuse to be more regular about practicing.

I highly recommend voice coaching for those of you who feel a need. I loved getting to know my voice so much better and learning ways I could make it more of a powerful tool in my life.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What I learned from Burning Man

Burning Man is often described as a giant party in the desert. But I’ve also seen it described as “part entertainment, part therapy” and I think that description is much more accurate, at least for my own experience. Burning Man was a week of ups and downs, where I learnt about new ways of being, new ways of interacting, and new ways of thinking:

  • I learned that I still have a lot of social anxiety in new situations. I spent the first 2 days in an anti-social funk. I felt like I didn’t belong, like I wasn’t cool enough, like I didn’t know what to say or how to act around everyone. I eventually got out of the funk, thanks to a few nights of sleep and the emotional resets of the mornings, plus a reminder from my partner that other people felt that way too. I’m glad I got out of the funk, but I hope I can learn from the experience how to get out of funks faster - or how to avoid getting into them to begin with. I’ve seen how important my first interactions and thought processes are in new social situations, so I need to really prepare for those, so that I can start off on a good social foot.
  • I learned how to let go of accomplish-all-the-things mentality. Burning Man is chock full of workshops, and I love workshops. I was hoping to fill my day with workshops from 9 to 5 to make sure I got to experience as much as possible. But I soon realized that it just wasn’t possible/desirable to fill my schedule to the brim and experience the rest of Burning Man culture. I wanted to get to know my campmates, so I chose to have long breakfasts in the morning, meaning I missed all the morning workshops. I wanted to experience the offerings of random camps, meaning I sometimes missed afternoon workshops too. At first, I wasn’t happy about all of that workshop missing, as I was thinking to myself how much I was missing, but then I’d remind myself that if I’d never know about a particular workshop to begin with, then I wouldn’t be stressed about missing it— so why should I stress now that I knew it existed? There are lots of things that we all miss ever day that we don’t know about, and our lives go on.
  • I learned new forms of group play. There was an entire camp devoted to different forms of contact between people, and I got to experience a few of them:
    • Contact improv: It’s hard to explain what this is, at least in writing. It’s connecting physically to another person, like with your hand or arm, and moving with each other. It’s like a conversation between two bodies, and it can be both intense and fun, especially when you start lifting each other. It was also a good experience for my partner and I to do together, as it meant watching each other get quite physically close to people besides each other, and being okay with that. Mostly okay. :)
    • Ecstatic voices: We spent the first half of this workshop making sounds. Then we sat around in a “sound circle”, spending 30 minutes listening to ourselves, listening to each other, and making sounds inspired by our own inner voices and the external voices around us. At times, there would be harmonies and crescendos, and at other times, it would be a complete cacophony. It was fantastic to release all that sound energy in the group circle.
    • Acroyoga: One of my campmates is a yoga instructor, and offered to teach Acroyoga one day. I was the only one that took her up on the offer, so I got a private lesson. I first experienced the “lunar” side of Acroyoga - the more therapeutic side where the base stretches the flyers in ways that feel so good. Then we played with the “solar” side - the more acrobatic side where the base gets the flyer into positions that look impressive and that really feel like flying. My campmate told me that she originally got into Acroyoga when she was single and lonely, and she found that the physical interaction of Acroyoga was enough to lift her out of a loneliness funk. After my own session of Acroyoga with her, I could definitely see that benefit.
  • I learned new forms of meditation: I typically think of meditation as sitting in one spot, listening to a voice tell me what to do and how to breathe. I discovered many other flavors of meditation in the Burning Man schedule and tried out a few:
    • Singing bowls: This was the closest to what I think of as meditation. We sat around a man who alternated between singing and making sounds by tracing his fingers around bowls. It was beautiful, and an opportunity for me to see if I could declutter my mind without a narrator. (Not that well, yet!)
    • Laughter meditation: I walked into a room full of people walking around and laughing, and assuming that I missed the instructions, I joined them, alternating between forced laughing. and spontaneous laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. We then laid on the floor in what I know as the “Ha ha game”, where each person lays their head on the next person’s belly, and you attempt to make each other laugh by laughing yourself. We laid there for the rest of the time, emitting all sorts of human and animal laughter sounds, and I loved it. 
    • Deep listening: This was halfway between meditation and voice coaching. As a group, we both made and imagined sounds - like my favorite, the sound of a nearby waterfall, growing louder as we got close and stepped under, then growing softer as we walked away. We also listened to the sounds around us and tried both “inclusive listening” (focusing on a single sound) and “exclusive listening” (taking in all the sounds at once).
    • Chanting: My partner and I walked into our camp’s dome one day to find a circle of campmates chanting. We joined them, and proceeded to chant the same two “sentences” over and over. It was beautiful, and put me into a very relaxed and open state. 
  • I learned to be more comfortable with affection. Burning Man culture is huge on hugs. New strangers hug each other when they meet each other, and I was very adverse to that at first. I thought to myself, “No! You have to earn a hug first! You can’t hug strangers!”—but I eventually came around to appreciate the awesomeness of that much affection and warmth. I even had a few very-long hugs with friends, managing to stay in them without making awkward comments the whole time.
  • I learned how to be more comfortable in my body. No, that doesn’t mean that I spent the week naked. But many folks did spend it naked, or near-naked - and seeing their comfort with their bodies helped me have more comfort with my own. If all of them were okay enough with their bodies to walk around with them on full display, then why shouldn’t I be okay with mine? Maybe next year, I’ll show my belly to the world. Get ready! :)

Besides learning a lot, I was also very inspired by the creative and participatory nature of everything. I hope to find ways to bring more of that back into the "default world."

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Will I speak at your conference?

I've spoken at quite a few conferences in my time as a human- I started back when I was in Google developer relations, and speaking was actually in my job description. After I left Google, I was flattered to find that conferences kept inviting me to speak. I said yes to many of them, since I get a lot of great things out of speaking at conference.

But lately I've started to notice that I don't enjoy that much at conferences. In fact, it's often the opposite. I spend the majority of my time in the hotel room, hacking on work projects while wishing that I was back home. What changed?

1) I really, sincerely enjoy my work - designing the computer programming curriculum and experience for Khan Academy. When given the option between designing a presentation to give to a conference audience and designing an online course for thousands of eager students, I prefer the latter. I've always been better at creating the 'educational' flavor of learning experiences versus the 'entertaining', and that's exactly what I get to do at work. So I find that when I'm speaking at a conference, I postpone making the presentations because I'm excited about KA course work, and I am too easily tempted to hack on KA work during the conference (especially when the alternative is a scary networking event!).

2) I really, sincerely enjoy my home life - my family and friends, and in particular, my partner. I have a partner now that I want to do so many things together with -- romantic things, coding things, arty things, travely things. If I'm away at a conference, I'm missing our date nights, our dinners, our event planning time, all of that. Sure, I could theoretically "appreciate the time away", but there's only so much of that I can appreciate. At this point, I'd rather appreciate the time together.

3) I don't have many new technical topics to talk about. We do use nifty shiny new technologies at Khan Academy like Facebook React, but most of my code is Python/Flask/Backbone. Some of it is React, but my colleagues have much more to say about it than I do (and they're speaking, yay!). I spend most of my mental effort thinking about teaching the basics of coding, not thinking about new coding practices and technologies.

So, will I speak at your conference?

If it's local to me, and if it's a topic that I've already spoken on, then it's quite likely that I'll say yes.

If it's local to me, and you want me to speak on a new topic, then I'd have to consider if I have anything to say about that topic and have the time/desire to make those slides. Also, you should tell me what that topic is. :)

If it's in a far away land (a plane flight), then it's likely I'll say no. I get too homesick when I'm away now, and my partner can't afford to pay for so many flights. If you're actually able to pay his way as well, then hey, I'm liking your offer more and more. Otherwise, I'm honored you want me, but alas, it is probably not meant to be.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

I don't always have to be The Entertainer

"The Entertainer came out tonight."

That's what my partner told me a few times, after dinners with old friends of mine. He says he doesn't quite recognize "The Entertainer", that it's not the version of me that he's grown to know over our past 8 months together, and that he's bothered by some of my behavior in that version of myself.

It took me a while to figure out who this Entertainer was, and why it might be bothersome, but I think I've got it now.

As a kid, I determined pretty early on that the way to get friends was to impress people. I remember coming up with party tricks for the cafeteria lunch table in elementary school (I would offer to eat everyone's brown paper lunch bags and rate their deliciousness). I remember offering my house T1 line to potential house-comer-overs in middle school (back when home internet connections weren't a thing). I remember bringing bags full of candy and toys to school for *every* holiday, offering them to every one of my classmates.

...And it worked! Well, at least, it did superficially. I always had full birthday parties, I always had a place to sit at lunch, I always won our class presidency elections. But now that I look back, and realize how few "friends" I kept in touch with since then, I wonder if it really worked? Was I actually friends with all those people? Did I actually even know anything about all those people? What if I just spent my childhood entertaining them, and never remembered to have a real conversation with them?

It's hard for me to really say because my memory is so poor to begin with, but I *can* evaluate my current life and how I'm relating to the people around me. I've realized that I know very little about most of my Khan Academy and GDI colleagues, and anything I do know was information they proactively shared. I suspect I resort to being "The Entertainer" around them, like at the lunch table, because that's the way I've learned to relate to the world.

But why? Why do I feel such a strong urge to entertain? Like most of the things I'm discovering about myself lately, it seems to be a social anxiety that comes from a fear of unworthiness. I think I'm afraid that if I don't entertain, then I haven't earned my place at the table. If I do, then I've proven myself worthy of love and attention - even if it's only a particular version of myself, even if it means most of my connections are devoid of true 2-way interactions.

I've decided that I don't always have to be The Entertainer anymore. I can be the Listener -- the Curious Cat -- the Eager Participant -- the Smile&Nodder -- a self that is comfortable with my place at the table. I don't think its going to be particularly easy for me to become a Listener; I don't have a whole lot of practice. I seem to be able to become a Listener in the presence of my partner, for whatever reason, so I'm going to try to call on that self when I'm not around him.

I will be happier in the long-run if I can become comfortable with not being The Entertainer. I want to relate to people in a way that isn't fueled by my fear of unworthiness, but fueled by a genuine desire to connect more deeply with them.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Why am I so afraid of mingling?

I was at a meetup tonight, and after a round of introductions, the host said "and now we'll mingle before the talk!" At that point, I literally hid in the bathroom. I waited there until the sounds of mingling died down, and I knew it was safe to rejoin and watch the talk. This wasn't the first time I've hidden in the bathroom during the mingling part of a meetup. It wasn't even the second or third time. Bathrooms and me, we're old friends.

So why am I afraid of mingling? Let's break it down:

  • Fear of the approach: I have to pick somebody to go up to, and hope they also wanted me to approach, or are okay with me approaching them. I have to tell myself that they're not going to groan to themselves "ugh, I didn't want them to approach!" I know that, rationally, I shouldn't feel so unworthy of their desire to speak with me, but emotionally, I have that tendency. I am working through that, in therapy and a Radical Acceptance reading club with my partner, but I'm not to the point yet where I can think to myself, "sure, anyone would love to talk to me!" and wholeheartedly believe it.
  • Uncertainty on the topic: Assuming I manage to approach someone, I then have to figure out the right conversation topic. At the meetup, the introductions included a "Ask me about ___" prompt and a "One time, I built ___ " prompt, designed to give us topics to talk about. Because of that, I think I could have approached a few people with a topic that I knew was relevant to my interests, and I'm thankful they provided that fodder for us. I also heard a nice prompt suggested tonight as a general conversation starter, "What's something you've learned recently?" I'd like to try that out, at meetups that don't provide any introduction fodder.
  • Fear of the finish: I have yet to figure out a good way to wind down a topic and leave it on a positive note. Instead, my 1-on-1 conversations often feel like they wither and die a slow, agonizing death. I've gotten suggestions like claiming you have to go to the bathroom, but I don't know that I'm a good enough liar for that, and that I can reasonably use that for every conversation. That's why I much prefer time-bucketed conversations or group conversations that allow for easy in-out transitions.

I know that my anxieties around mingling are fears that I need to work through, as they're tied to my underlying social anxieties in life. But I also believe that events can make networking less intimidating for those of us with these anxieties, and that's why I'm a big fan of more structured mingling. For example, at this meetup, they could have blown a whistle at the end of 4 minutes, and forced everyone to mingle with a new person, and that would have helped with my fear of approach and finish.

I wrote up more about making networking easier in this earlier post, and I think that the pre-matched speed networking is still my favorite of all the structured mingling attempts I've experienced. I hope more events experiment with that. Just in case I'm not the only one that hides in bathrooms. :)

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Towards more "Yes, and"s and less "but"s

Today we had a little Improv 101 workshop at Khan Academy, led by our colleague Kitt Hirasaki. I'm interested in improv both because I find it incredibly fun and stimulating, and also because I'm interested in the way it can help me improve the way I deal with every day life.

One of the great games we played was "Yes, and." In that game, two people go up and the first person starts off with a line of dialogue that hopefully sets out some aspects of the characters, their relationship, and the setting. The next person continues the dialogue, and regardless of what they say after, they must start their line with "Yes, and". This goes back and forth, continuing the scene, until it comes to a logical conclusion.

The idea behind that "yes, and" is to force the characters to fully embrace the reality introduced by the other character, and to build on it. They might still disagree on something in the scene, but they agree on the reality of the world they live in, and that makes it more believable for themselves and the audience. It makes the game collaborative instead of combative, and just feel more positive overall.

Since it promotes creativity and collaborative, the "yes, and" game has since been picked up by entrepreneurs and life coaches as a tool for businesses and organizations, and I just found there's an entire book named "Yes, and".

But back to me and my reality.

After the improv workshop, I went out to dinner with my partner. We were talking about something we weren't fully in agreement on, and happened to fall into the "yes, and" game, which made it feel more collaborative. We couldn't keep that up for long and it turned back into our usual dialogue style, and that's when I started noticing something: I start an awful lot of responses with "But." I haven't done a statistic analysis, but it felt like way more than the average response should start with.

Why? Probably because starting with "but" proves that I've found the hole in someone's statement -- which proves that I was smart enough to find that hole -- which proves that I'm worthy of love and admiration. I'm reading Radical Acceptance right now, which is helping me realize that much of my behavior is me trying to prove my worthiness, instead of me participating wholeheartedly in things I enjoy.

I would like to participate more, to collaborate more, to create more. Tomorrow, I'll try starting less of my responses with "But"; and perhaps even start them with "Yes, and." That may not be the game that gets me to change my worth-proving ways, but it's a start.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Simplifying the Terms of Service

At the GDISF study group last night, one of the attendees was working on the Terms of Service for a new site, and she wanted to give the users a way to see the layman-friendly version of the terms. She was inspired by the "Simply Put" right hand side of the Pinterest site, and was experimenting with other ways to present that.


I'd never seen that sort of thing before, and I think it's pretty neat, so I asked on Twitter for more examples. Here are a few they shared:



Related to this, there's the Terms of Service; Didn't Read initiative that comes up with layman-friendly version of the top TOSes, and there's a list of related efforts to simplify terms and identify ambigious terms from CommonTerms.

How do you make your Terms of Service layman-friendly? Tell me in the comments!