Allison Shapira never imagined she’d write a folk song on the steps on the Paris Opera House. As a child, she always dreamed of being an opera singer, but after giving up singing at age 19, she lost touch with her voice. It took her almost a decade to pick it back up with folk singing. Now, helping other people find their voices—whether it’s singing or speaking—has become Allison’s life mission.
Allison likes to quote Marianne Williamson, “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.” She believes all of us owe it to ourselves to find our voice and share our story with the world around us. When we do that, not only are we making ourselves happier, we’re making the world a much better place to live.
As a keynote speaker, Allison shares her story—of losing her voice and finding it again. She sat down with IVY Magazine to talk about finding your voice and ways to become a more powerful public speaker.
Allison is an IVY member (DC). Connect and collaborate with her here.
Photograph by Stuart Isett/Fortune Most Powerful Women
What’s your most audacious life goal?
I want to use my business and my music to inspire and empower other people. That’s exactly what I feel like I’m doing now. I walked away from a safe job to move to a new city and launch my own company. That company is helping other people find their voice and gain the courage to speak, so that they can find their own way to impact the world. My audacious life goal is to do more of this in a way that impacts more and more people.
How did you end up teaching public speaking?
I’m an opera singer by training, so my first experience on stage was performing. When I left the field of opera, I started working in diplomacy and realized everything I learned as a singer made me a great public speaker. I learned to convert my stage presence into executive presence. I started with one client, then another, and then the business continued to grow.
What are the top traits in a good public speaker?
First, a good public speaker really knows their content. Second, they really like their subject. Third, they’re authentic when giving a speech. The worst thing is a canned script that you could read on a company’s website. The best speakers make you feel like you’re having a personal conversation.
The best speeches I hear are in my classes and workshops at the Harvard Kennedy School and elsewhere. People will get up and give these unexpectedly wonderful speeches that no one has ever heard before and no one will ever hear again. The speeches that really “wow” me are the ones that you don’t expect. One of the most meaningful speeches I’ve heard recently was President Obama’s eulogy after the Boston marathon bombings a few years ago. He spoke at a memorial ceremony and gave a powerful address filled with moving imagery and a deep personal connection to the audience. I still get goosebumps when I watch it.
How does public speaking stand to have a global impact?
We all have ideas we want to promote in the world. It takes leadership to inspire others to achieve something larger than ourselves, and the way in which we inspire others is through communication. The ability to put a vision into clear, compelling, persuasive language is literally transformational. That’s why I love teaching it. I’m not only teaching people public speaking skills, I’m giving them a safe space to try out new ideas and feel more confident. By finding their voice, their find their courage to speak.
How much of being a great speaker can be learned?
Public speaking is a skill, not a talent. It’s a skill that everyone can learn, like playing the guitar or tennis. Some people will be great from the moment they start to play. But for the rest of us, we know that if we practice and take lessons, then we’ll improve.
What are your top three tips for members?
1. Before writing a speech, always ask yourself 3 questions: Who is your audience? What is your goal? Why you: why is this subject important to you?
2. Be yourself. Include personal example and stories. If you’re not interested in the speech, no one else is going to be interested in it. There are no boring speakers, just bored speakers.
3. Practice out loud. So many times we just “wing” a speech and expect it to be good. No one sits down and plays the guitar for the first time perfectly.
What’s the most transformative speech you’ve heard personally?
In 2004, a little-known state senator from Illinois got up to speak during a long day of speeches at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. I was sitting in the audience that day, waiting to hear John Kerry. In the middle of the long, boring day, this relatively young man got up whom no one had ever heard of, and he gave this incredible, personal speech that brought people together and brought them to their feet. He built us up instead of tearing others down. That day, everyone looked around and asked: “Who is that guy?” That was State Senator Barack Obama. That one speech catapulted him to the international stage more than anything else could have done.
Can you tell me about your interest in folk music and how it relates to public speaking?
I started in opera but it was never what I loved to sing. At home, I loved listening to the music of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. I decided to learn the guitar so I could play some folk songs. In the process, I realized that I was never meant to be an opera singer: I had really been a folk singer all along. There’s a powerful difference between opera and folk music. Opera is about perfection; you’re trying to hit that perfect high C or sing in flawless Italian. I’m certainly not perfect and most of us aren’t. I gravitate toward folk music because it’s about authenticity and passion. It’s the same way I feel about public speaking. No one wants the perfect public speaker. What they want is someone who is authentic and passionate. If you have those qualities, then you can make a few mistakes and no one worries about them.
Photograph by Stuart Isett/Fortune Most Powerful Women
Tell me about Vital Voices and your involvement in the organization.
Vital Voices is an incredible non-profit founded by Hillary Clinton and Melanne Verveer that finds incredible women leaders around the world and invests in training and mentorship to make them even more effective, focusing on three areas: politics, economics, and human rights. This organization sends me around the world to teach public speaking, negotiation, and business networking so that these women can be more effective even in their work and bring change into their communities. I’ve had a chance to work in South Africa, Uganda, Argentina, Northern Ireland, Japan, and elsewhere with women from nearly 100 different countries. I cannot describe how meaningful that experience is to me.
The most surprising thing about working with women around the world is seeing how much they know, yet how much they question themselves. This is not just in other countries—I see this in the United States, too. I find that women bring so much value and experience to their activities, but so many lack the confidence to stand up for their own worth. In many countries, there are political or physical risks of speaking out. There are women running for office in countries where it’s considered rude for women to even speak in public. Imagine how much courage it takes to speak up; that should inspire us here at home.
You’ve been a member for a while. What’s your favorite IVY memory?
This is not a particular memory, but a feeling. When I look at all the different things you do—a boot camp outdoors, a book event with Chris Matthews, a pool party—it’s such a diversity of events. I never know what kind of experience you’re going to put on next. I love that diversity. I’m more than simply someone who goes to book events or someone who enjoys an evening party. Your events appeal to us in many forms. The diversity is what I love the most.
Visit Allison’s website to learn more about her work and watch some of her videos.