You are what you speak: Speech coach readies for national exposure

TRAVERSE CITY – Tom Clynes is a journalist and photographer. He's reported on Ebola outbreaks and armed conflicts in central Africa, and he's retraced Sir Edmund Hillary's climbs in New Zealand.

But in April, he was in Traverse City getting public speaking coaching from area consultant Onlee Bowden. He's actually been to town before to visit his sister who lives here. So when he first met Bowden while sitting next to her on an airplane and they started talking, he decided this would be his next-perhaps not so exotic-adventure.

"I'm asked to speak quite a bit and I never felt that I was that good at it," said Clynes, who lives in Vermont when he's not traveling around the world.

After just three sessions with Bowden, Clynes said he noticed significant changes-with the professionalism of his delivery, a more streamlined approach to his presentation and with a message that came more from the heart.

Bowden's training program is called Speak-for-Yourself, a homegrown program she designed to make people feel more comfortable and confident in any public speaking situation. And Bowden knows what it feels like to have that shake in your voice, to feel your face flush or to not remember what you said.

"I had a huge fear," she said of her early public speaking experiences.

Putting people at ease

A former communications instructor at Central Michigan University, Bowden honed her craft in front of her students.

"That's what made me a comfortable speaker," she said, and made others comfortable, too.

She drew on her background in drama-which taught her how to claim her space physically, project her voice and gesture to complement her speech-and combined it with the concentration she learned while earning a black belt in martial arts. Then she mixed in some communication theory and organizational strategies. It was a formula that worked. Her public speaking class became the most popular on campus.

She also did some "grooming" of political candidates, helping them prepare for everything from debates to parades. But a move to Traverse City and some different work in organizational development put her public speaking work on the backburner. That is until she was contacted by a former student who was going to be on stage with Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Around the same time, she also decided to put together some local trainings through Marigold, a local group for women in business.

The turning point for Bowden was when she worked with Doug Luciani, president of the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce. "People started noticing something different about Doug," she said. That's when she knew it was time to focus on this work she calls "life changing" for her clients.

That nagging fear

"The fear of public speaking is the professional's Achilles heel," Bowden said. "You are the most out of your comfort zone and the most vulnerable. Instead of rising to the challenge, some people hide from public speaking situations or turn down opportunities. They turn down ways to grow their business."

Bowden said people often become too focused on themselves when the spotlight is on them. But she said it's important to remember who you are in your interpersonal relationships and take that personality into the public speaking environment.

"The key is not to try to be perfect, but to be passionate," she said. "That's the best part of your personality, the way you are when you are relaxed and with friends."

During his presentation to a group at the Traverse Area District Library who gathered to see his photos and hear about his far-flung adventures, Clynes got to try out his newly acquired training in front of a live audience, including Bowden.

"She has some unorthodox ways of teaching," he said, "and helped me get rid of some of the baggage."

A contributing editor for National Geographic Adventure, Clynes also writes regularly for Popular Science, Men's Journal and Backpacker. However, he now is working on a piece about Bowden and her public speaking training that they both hope to see in a future issue of Fast Company magazine. BN

Onlee Bowden provides public speaking training in both group and private sessions. Reach her at (231) 590-1499 for more information.