Coaching the caged bird to sing

Last week I was enjoying delivering a leadership workshop with my great colleague, Andrea when I was reminded of one of the many wonderful phrases crafted by Maya Angelou. She said of herself: “I am fine as wine in the summertime.”

It’s bold, evocative, succinct and the words have music in them.

A lot of my work centres on helping my clients to find their voice as part of developing as a powerful leader. When they find something as simple and compelling as Maya’s words, I know that I have done my work well.

But if you don’t have Maya Angelou’s gifts, where and how do they find those words?

The first step is to decide: what it is that you want to offer? A client’s initial answer is often framed in terms of the competences or characteristics that they bring. It’s worthy but unexciting. And it’s not really what they offer. What matters is what it’s like to be led by them. It’s what people remember. It’s what they need to convey. In the words of Bernadette Jiwa (whose blog ‘The Story of Telling’ is one of the best marketing blogs around) – “Don’t sell the guitar. Sell the music.”

The second step is to ask: what is special about you? Marketing gurus often challenge us to find our own USP. Good in theory but difficult in practice. Why? Because few of us have something that is truly unique. If you do, go with it but if not then three truths help:

  • You are interesting (especially if your audience is the right one for you) and
  • You are unusual or extraordinary in some way and
  • You have many facets (some of which stay mainly hidden)

And in combination, these three can make a voice that is close to unique.

The third step is to find new ways and fresh language in which to convey who you are. Language has a life-cycle and we are all tired of the familiar so we have to dig in unbroken ground. My approach is to get my client digging with freedom. Then the gems appear. And the richest ground is often:

  • Metaphor and simile – “what’s it like working with you when you’re at your best?”
  • Out of the mouths of … “what’s the most powerful feedback you’ve ever had?”
  • Story and anecdote – “how were you when you did truly great work?”


And we don’t stop until the client finds words that evoke and excite.


The fourth step is the hardest: being willing to show yourself fully, putting the words out there. That takes confidence – not so much in yourself but in the value of what you bring. It takes courage – your audience might not like what you say. And it takes compassion – loving yourself, “warts ‘n’ all”.


And when I get that tingle down my spine, and hear the energy and wonder in my client’s voice, I know they love the voice they have found. You can imagine the mischievous smile on Maya’s face as she said:


“I’m determined to go through life with passion, compassion, humour and some style.”


If this short piece speaks to you, I’d love to help you find your voice.

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