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I Feel a Song Coming On

Belle Linda Halpern is an accomplished cabaret singer who performs at least once a month. The rest of the time she coaches businesspeople on how to present more effectively.

This weekend, at a nightclub in Harvard Square, Belle Linda Halpern will be singing her favorite selections from several popular musicals, including "Pirate Jenny" from "The Threepenny Opera" and "Something's Coming" from "West Side Story." Right now, though, she's helping me with a presentation - and I'm the one bursting into song.

Halpern, cofounder of the Cambridge-based Ariel Group, Inc., is an accomplished cabaret singer who still performs at least once a month. The rest of the time she coaches businesspeople on how to present more effectively by communicating more emotionally. "We follow your train of though and we admire you for your logic. But of we want to connect to you as a person, we have to see how you feel about things."

I turned to Halpern for advice on a talk I was scheduled to deliver to 80 people. It was, I realized, a well-structured presentation - so well-structured that my audience could plan exactly when to fall asleep. Introduction. Point one. Point two. Conclusion. Pass the NoDoz. I thought I needed professional help. After listening to me, Halpern agreed.

First, she said, I needed more animation. Instead of using logic to make transitions ("Now that you understand my first point, let me turn to my second.") I should use expressive hand gestures and add "emotional colors" to my face. "I'm not suggesting that you be flamboyant," Halpern counseled, "but we have to see how you feel about things."

So we tried an exercise. Halpern assigned me a topic (my neighborhood) and asked me to begin speaking. Every 10 seconds she called out a different emotion - love, hate, humility, happiness - for which I made an "expressive" transition. ("I love the people and sense of history in my neighborhood. I hate when I learn about a crime on my block.") Time and again, Halpern pushed me to communicate with tools other than my voice. "If I were deaf - or in the back row - I should know by your body language what you're talking about," she explained.

Actually, my voice was the next big challenge. Describing my voice as monotone assumes it has a tone in the first place. So it was time for another exercise, this one involving Shakespeare. Halpern asked me to recite a four-line passage from "The Tempest," adopting a different voice for each line. "Be not afeard" (Ethel Merman yelling across the street); "The isle is full of noises" (the high talker from "Seinfeld" whispering in your ear), "Sounds and sweet airs" (James Earl Jones yawning), "That give delight and hurt not" (Kenneth Branagh playing a king). The idea, she explained, is to "stretch" your voice the same way you stretch a rubber band. It snaps back, but it's more "flexible" than before you stretched it.

The biggest problem, though, was my reluctance to pause - a common presentation flaw. I'd make a point and then rush into examples without letting the point sink in. "I know that pauses feel like gargantuan amounts of time when you're up there," Halpern sympathizes, "but for the audience, a few-seconds pause is generous. It says, 'I think this is important enough to give you a moment to take it in.'" When I can't stand the silence, she added, I should take a few steps around the stage or take a drink of water. Whatever I do, the objective is the same: just stop talking.

We finished our crash course by revisiting my original presentation. Who would have thought it could be so engaging? Introduction. Pause. Fearful face. High voice. Point one. Pause. Excited hands. Strong voice. Point two. Pause. Finale. Applause.

Siskel and Ebert, where are you?

Contact Belle Linda Halpern at .

A version of this article appeared in the Feb/Mar 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.