Presentations are an essential part of any business. It is where ideas are brought to light, potential connections are established, and even customers are marketed. That is why it is crucial to deliver your presentations the best you can. In this episode, Michael Zipursky asks Leah Bonvissuto for her expertise in this matter. Leah began her career as a theater director and eventually found her coaching and consulting business called PresentVoices. Having been helping teams improve their presentation skills, Leah shares with us some tips on telling our story, speaking about our work, and showing up with control in situations at work and life. She talks about learning spontaneous speaking and why it is the best public speaking form. If you don’t feel comfortable in speaking situations, fret not because Leah has you covered with some advice on how you can use your voice to land big consulting clients and more.
I am with Leah Bonvissuto. Leah, welcome.
Thank you for having me on.
I’m excited to dive into this. You’ve accomplished a lot. You were raised by a Broadway musician and a mime turned magician. You began your career as a theater director but in September of 2018, you found your coaching and consulting business called PresentVoices. You’ve worked with businesses like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, helping their teams to improve their presentation skills.
The focus is on spontaneous speaking. It’s something that I’m passionate about because it’s not something that came naturally to me. I make a joke of that being because I was raised by a mime. It was a result of social anxiety and challenges in talking about my work, which I found to be a common theme in the different people that I work with.
Tell us a little bit more about that. You went from being a theater director to the founder of a successful consulting and coaching business. How did you make that transition? Take us a little bit back. What was going on in the theater world that caused you to make the decision to step out and start a consulting and coaching business?The best public speaking is spontaneous. Click To Tweet
The theater world was my world. It was all I knew. I was raised by a Broadway musician and a mime turned magician. She’s a magician, my mother. It was natural for me to be pulled to the theater, but also because I had tremendous social anxiety as a child. The theater was a place where there were rules around how you connect with someone. There was even a script so that you knew what to say. It was a way that I could develop relationships with people on stage and find a more confident version of myself. I always dreaded the breaks as an actor because you had to then be yourself and socialize. It was tricky for me. I became a theater director because I believe it was an entrepreneurial itch and I wanted to be more in control of my career. I also loved helping people tell stories on stages of all shapes and sizes, from backrooms and bars to the educational theater.
It wasn’t quite enough. I started to get another itch. Part of that was because I was competent and confident doing the work itself. The moment I had to talk about the work, meaning meeting with a press or interviewing with producers, my identity went out of the window and all of that social anxiety came back. Years ago, I started to wonder why and I dove deep into not just my acting background, but more specifically tools of presence and mindfulness. How could I bring myself to the present moment and incorporate tools that helped me feel more confident? That would result in me being able to communicate more clearly.
I started doing this work in hospitals. I was brought into a public hospital here in Brooklyn to help their frontline staff have better patient communication by using tools of eye contact, body language, and mindfulness. It was impactful that I never went back to the theater. I started doing this work in 2014. From that, I built this company and it has been incredibly validating on a personal level. I dare say almost every person I’ve met feels this way on some level and that these tools are actionable and put into practice. We can change our soft skills. We can change the way we speak about our work. We can have more control over the way that we show up in situations at work and in life.
One of the questions I was going to ask you is based on the background of your environment. One might think that you were a theater director, that you naturally were comfortable in communicating and being around other people and putting on a show. That was not the case. For everyone who’s reading this and thinking, “I resonate with Leah’s situation because maybe I’m not the most “outgoing” person. I don’t feel like I’m an extrovert. I’m not comfortable in a lot of social situations.” You’ve clearly shown that you can overcome that.
I’d love it if you could offer 1 or 2 ideas or tips or things that you would suggest to people who might feel that their lack of social skills or their lack of excitement around going out and meeting new people and having more conversations. There’s something that’s holding them back from doing that, but deep down inside they know that if they were able to do more of that, they would be more successful. Since they’re not able to do it, they’re likely looking at the glass half empty like, “This is something that’s holding me back. I might as well have to accept it.” They accept a lower form of what they could become. A couple of thoughts or perspectives from you on that would be great.
It’s a real fallacy that this comes naturally to most people and it’s something that we are all socialized to believe. It has been my experience that this does not come match naturally to most people. It doesn’t come naturally to me. Some of the best performers in history, some of the strongest speakers in history have had difficulty with spontaneous speaking. When I say spontaneous speaking, I’m including public speaking there. I believe that the best public speaking is spontaneous. I also believe that we are public speaking constantly at work these days at video conferences, team meetings, podcast recordings and advocating for ourselves. It’s incredibly important.
What I realized when I began working with the types of people I work with, which is everything from confident-seeming CEOs to data analysts and engineers, to people who might call themselves more introverted, to people who might call themselves soft-spoken, to people who feel strongly about the need for authenticity in the way that they speak and work. These are the values I look for in people that I want to work with. To be able to amplify those voices at work, for people to amplify for themselves a voice that might not traditionally be heard in workplaces is thrilling. I believe it’s the future of work. Suddenly, we’re hearing from more kinds of voices. The trick is though that most human beings are lost in thought most of the time. All of the research suggests that this is not getting better, it’s getting worse. Our attention spans are getting shorter.
The technology, that’s definitely the case. I see that all the time. I used to be able to watch a movie and I’d be fully focused on the movie. Now I find myself watching a movie and my hands are going to my phone. I’m trying to do two things at once like, “What are you doing? Just watch the movie.”
That is a good realization. Even the awareness around your hand going to your phone is a tremendous step in the right direction. The work always begins with awareness. If I can have more awareness around my innate process, how I innately approach different situations of spontaneous speaking, I can then begin to make conscious choices to move everything that’s unconscious to conscious. I’m a big believer that there’s nothing wrong in any communication or in any communication behaviors that some people are unfairly given feedback for at work or criticized for about the way that they speak. No one should tell anyone else how to speak or what to say. It doesn’t work. It’s completely up to the individual to feel in the driver’s seat of their own communication. When working with people, I act as an outside eye. I’m very much targeting the work around what their goals are and what they want to work towards.
Is there a resource for everyone who might be in that position that is resonating with this if they want to go deeper? I want to dive into your story a bit more, but I don’t want to leave people hanging. I think this is an important topic. Is there a resource that you might suggest that people look at if they want to dive deeper to be able to delineate and differentiate between the conscious and the subconscious and what their intentional vote?
I’ve started PresentVoices on Instagram as a place to talk about talking because we don’t talk about talking. I want to normalize the anxiety that many of us have speaking up at work. On Instagram, I’m @PresentVoices.co or you can visit my website, PresentVoices.co, where I have a new section and a blog. I write about this all the time. My work is meta because the work is my personal process. This has been the process that I’ve put into place for myself in order to be present in my interactions.If you have more awareness around your innate process, then you can begin to make conscious choices to move everything that's unconscious to conscious. Click To Tweet
I definitely want to call out to make sure people can go to your website. Beyond the work that you do, is there someone that you learned from or some other resource that you feel is a good one for people on this topic?
There are people I’ve followed in this world who have influenced me. People like Brené Brown, who’s studying vulnerability and shame. People like Julia Cameron, who wrote The Artist’s Way. There are countless meditation resources that can help you bring your attention to the present moment. I believe communication and meditation are the same things, but communication is with another person. Being able to bring yourself to that present moment is the foundation of everything that I do.
Thank you for those resources. People will have a lot that they can dive into if they want to go deeper into that topic, which is an important 101 in the business world. It does get glossed over and passed aside for metrics and all these other hard sides of the business. At the end of the day, we’re all humans and we need to make sure that we’re enjoying ourselves and living life and living to the fullest. Being able to recognize it or improve ourselves and find ways to do that thing is incredibly important.
One thing that I want to hit on here that stood out to me when I looked at your website is that you use data, you use numbers more than almost anyone that I’ve seen. For example, on your About page. You talk about 86.4% of people have it or improved ability to communicate with confidence and 99.8% absolutely learned actionable and practical tools from your work. How do you track those things? A lot of people that I’ve talked to and consultants to come into our coaching programs, when we talk about it, because I’m a big believer in using data like this, they go, “I don’t even have that. I’ve never tracked that.” Clearly, you’ve been doing that. What’s your process for being able to track that data?
The history of statistics around public speaking will show you that 74% of people are terrified of public speaking and more people fear it more than death. I have always asked this question in the rooms that I have gone into. For the past years, I’ve been in hundreds of rooms of all different sizes, different experiences and different industries. Most of the time, working with people who are incredibly high achieving at some of the world’s top tech companies and other organizations like financial services and healthcare. I always ask this question and in every room, the number is far higher than 74%. In most rooms, I had eyeballed it to be closer to 90%. It started to amaze me, how could this be? It wasn’t just in rooms of engineers and people who might call themselves introverts. This was in rooms with sales organizations and sales leaders. I started to realize that in order to make this more tangible and to help people look at it in a more objective way and get out of our heads because that’s always the goal in the work, there needed to be a visual manifestation and an ability to isolate the different areas of communication.
The tendency is when we don’t feel in control in our conversations, for us to say, “I’m not good at this,” it becomes a blanket. That lack of confidence is far more harmful than any other potential type of feedback that you can be giving yourself. To inspire my many customers and clients who are data experts, I partnered with a data engineer. I built a data assessment around the different constellation of experiences that I have heard time and time again from hundreds to thousands of people. I have found over the years of doing this work that most people are experiencing similar things. I’m focused on professional communication.
How are you getting the data from the marketplace or your clients? Do you have a specific tool? Are you asking certain questions? Give us a little more insight into that.
I built a Google form and it is part questionnaire. It’s gone into more of a data assessment. I partnered with a data engineer. He built me a wonderful tool that auto-populates from people submitting those Google forms. I’m asking questions on 27 different variables when it comes to communication.
Who sees that? Who are you getting that in front of?
I am sending this to every individual coaching client that I work with. I will use that assessment at the beginning of our work, at the end of our work, and sometimes in the middle. That client then gets a visual representation that’s all branded. It’s beautiful. I’m proud of this. This was my biggest project. They’re getting a visual representation of it. It is completely self-assessed. I believe in the power of that because at the end of the day, if you feel more confident in your communication, nothing else matters. I do have instruments that are designed for managers and people who are more on the outside and observing that person’s behavior as well. I use these assessments when I do team workshops.
My team workshops can be galvanizing because we get in a room and a bunch of people, who might not be willing to admit these vulnerabilities and other circumstances, finally have an opportunity to do so. I did a workshop with a group of sales leaders at one of the world’s top tech firms. The entire room was director level and above. These are incredibly high functioning individuals and 100% of the room reported challenges with competent communication and managing speaking nerves. It was astounding to me and it helped to level the playing field that we’re beginning this workshop about vulnerability and communication. Not only the entire room, but their bosses as well are acknowledging the challenges around the trickiness of communication.Lack of confidence is far more harmful than any other potential type of feedback that you can be giving yourself. Click To Tweet
You’ve shared how you collect this data, which is great. That’s when you’re starting with a new client and then at the end of that engagement. You have a page on your website that’s called Metrics, where you have lots of nice tables and charts. It is visual. Talk to us a little bit more about why is that there? What’s the purpose of you having that specific page?
It’s to show that soft skills are not only measurable and tangible, but they’re learnable.
How are you using that in your marketing? What role does that Metrics page play? Do you ever take little pieces of it and use it in conversations or proposals? How do you use that for your marketing and sales efforts?
It’s been thrilling to say and the data have been the proving factor here that every single workshop that I have done this data assessment with, where the entire team is taking the assessment before the workshop. Usually, two weeks after, they can see how the tools are integrated in real-time. Every single team has shown improvement in every single area surveyed. That’s a big deal for people to be able to realize that they can move the needle on their communication skills. These tools feel ingrained in who we are and a representation of the fact that we feel we’re failing or we’re not connecting with people. To give people a boost of confidence on an individual level that they have the ability to be their own leader, to feel confident and to see their own abilities change is astounding. I work with organizations. The main focus of my work is partnering with organizations who are interested in amplifying all the voices that they have in their teams. This is a wonderful tool when I’m speaking to an organizational head, especially someone in learning and development or HR to help them understand how they can better equip their teams with the tools to communicate better. Communication is the most important skill in life and work.
It is powerful that you have a way to demonstrate. You have proof that what you do works. When you’re having a conversation, you don’t need to sell as much. You can talk about the results that people are seeing and that does a lot of the selling for you. A lot of consultants don’t even take the time or make the effort to track that type of thing. They are not even capturing the data. Many haven’t even made a list of their accomplishments, the outcomes and the results they’ve achieved for clients. Therefore, they aren’t able to use that in their marketing. They have to work harder to make a sale to push and persuade because they don’t have the materials that could support them in doing that. Would that be an accurate statement?
You’ve hit the nail on the head. I innately don’t enjoy selling and I am not very good with numbers. This is an area that I have recognized, where my weaknesses naturally are and helped me make it easier. I do a lot of work with sales teams and my heart is with people who struggle with that sales process and finding it naturally. I relate to entrepreneurs who chat or challenged by that as well. You are exactly right, I can send someone these charts and they do a lot of the work for me. I’m glad to say that the data represented that and represented what I’ve been seeing in this work for many years.
Let’s talk about that a little bit more. You’ve learned some well-known brands over the years. Names like Square, LinkedIn, Google, Facebook, a whole bunch of others from what I can see. I’m interested to learn a little bit more about what’s working for you when it comes to marketing. How did you land those companies as clients? Will you tell me how do they come?
I have a 100% referral-based business. It has been completely thrilling that since starting to do this work, I have not had to market.
When did it start? When you launched the business, did you reach out to anyone? Did it start from a referral at the beginning? Take us back to that initial. People would be going, “That sounds amazing,” but that must have taken some time or some things must have happened in order for you to be at that stage.” In the early days, was it also 100% referral? If so, what was the origin?
In the early days, the only people I knew were artists and educators. I was passionate about that, but I knew that there was something here even before I knew what the work was. In the beginning, I did a lot of pro bono work, mostly with friends. It was everything from career coaching to speaking coaching. I am focused on public speaking at first because that was the thing that seemed the most accessible to me. There’s a stage, there’s a script, and there’s an audience. It’s clearly defined.
That’s your background and you’ve been doing that. It leverages your strengths.At the end of the day, if you feel more confident in your communication, nothing else matters. Click To Tweet
Quite frankly, business was not my comfort zone. One of the first things that happened was that I had scheduled calls with people who were doing work like this and to ask them questions about what they did at the beginning, what they regretted doing, what they would have changed if they could do it differently. I embraced as much as I could, my lack of business knowledge and confidence. Early on, I realized that I don’t know a lot of people in the world that I’m trying to enter. I began by doing free workshops, mostly at co-working spaces. That helped me define what the work was. Then, I did a workshop with a group of women leaders who happened to be all women, although I work with people of all genders. In that room was someone who was a leader at LinkedIn. That was how I got my first big corporate client. Before that, it had been a lot of nonprofits and educational organizations.
From there, it has spiraled to be one person enjoys the work and because that person is usually in a leadership position, they then bring me in to train their team. There’s movement in a lot of these tech companies. People move up quickly. They move around quickly. People were seeing strong results from the work that they would tell people that they knew. It has been truly referral-based since then. A lot of my clients start as individual coaching clients. From there, they bring me in to do team workshops or the consulting model where I’m working with the CEO one-on-one. I’m listening to everything the entire company has to say in order to make sure that people are feeling heard.
You’re quite active on Instagram. It’s interesting because, for a lot of consultants, the idea of Instagram or even social media is a waste of time. It’s a distraction. It’s what you do when you have a few minutes to update or say happy birthday to someone. It’s in worst form when you can’t even reach out. That’s a whole other story. I always find it interesting. It’s a quick diversion here for a moment. When you know someone has a birthday and you send a happy birthday message to them on Facebook, but you don’t pick up the phone or send an email. There’s just a quick little happy birthday. To me, that’s one of the lowest form or lowest values of social media. It’s taking away the human interaction and showing that you care and putting in. You’ve done the exact opposite. You’re using social media and it seems like a great benefit. Talk to us a little bit more about that because most of your business comes from referral, yet you invest time into Instagram. What’s the purpose of your Instagram account and how are you using it? What’s the thinking behind it?
It’s brand new. I launched PresentVoices on Instagram at the end of 2019. I’d never done much in terms of marketing. My focus personally and in my work because it can be meta. It has been on speaking and in-person communication, then phone and video conference and all the ways that we speak and talk. I’ve started to realize that there are many other ways to project our work into the world. For me, my personal challenge has always been around writing. That has been such an interesting challenge for me. I’m calling it the next frontier in my work. Writing becomes this way of looking more inward. The ways I have found to be able to be quiet with myself in order to hear what I want to say when I’m in-person with people, the connection there is fascinating when it comes to writing. I recognize the ability of the internet to project my work further into the world.
I realized in the middle of 2019 that most people in my life, including some of the closest people in my life, didn’t know what I do. They believed that I was helping people with public speaking. Here I was, passionately focused on spontaneous speaking and conversational communication. I’m seeing the Instagram account as a way for me to more broadly project what it is I do. More than that, I want to revolutionize the way that we think about talking and to realize that if we can all talk about talking and how hard this is for us, we can level the playing field in terms of the types of voices that are amplified and the types of ideas that are being heard. I’m starting a series called Talk About Talking on Instagram where I’m going to interview people about how they use talking in their work and how they use their voices in order to impact the world. I definitely have a book in the future that the account on Instagram is helping me find that voice and helping me determine what that’s going to look like. I have to say, it is not an instrument to get more clients. It’s a creative opportunity for me and it’s a challenge that I’ve been enjoying as struggling as that might be.
You mentioned that numbers may not be your strong suit, something that you leverage data to help you with. I’m interested to explore your approach to pricing. How do you price your offerings? Are you using hourly fees, project rates? Are you on retainer equity performance? Take us through what does your typical pricing structure looks like?
This is something that I know is a huge challenge for small business owners. I’m a big believer in transparency. I surround myself with small business owners who I admire and we talk about this. We compare rates and we share proposals. We have a community where we can ask each other for advice. That is invaluable. It’s key in order to not undervalue what you do. I am guilty of continuing to discount and to undervalue myself. It’s a complete reflection of insecurity and vulnerability that I feel is a constant process for those of us who are running around businesses. Over the years, I have developed a framework that makes sense to me.
I’ve had to make it make sense for myself the way that my individual coaching packages are different from a team workshop. I do everything on a package rate. I do not charge per session. When I work with individuals, that’s either a six-week coaching process or a three-month coaching process that involves a 90-minute session approximately every two weeks. I also make myself completely available on an unlimited basis via email because as people are changing their communication styles, it can be destabilizing. They need to be able to reach out to me as their partner and outside eye to say, “This tool is feeling okay, should I keep going in that direction?”
The pricing on that is different when you’re working with an individual. When you say individual, do you mean an individual in terms of an executive in an organization?
Yes, most of my individual clients are professionals in the corporate world. A lot of them are having a professional development budget to cover our work together. That’s wonderful. In other points, I’m hired directly by the organization.
That’s the one-to-one work that you do. In terms of the workshops and the consulting, are you using a similar pricing structure for that or is there something different that’s done?Soft skills are not only measurable and tangible but they're learnable. Click To Tweet
I have a spreadsheet in Google Sheets that helps me understand the number of hours I’m putting into a certain process so that there is a baseline there that makes sense to me. I have solidified in my pricing so that I have a half-day workshop, a full-day workshop and a two-day workshop. That’s when I’m doing these one-off workshop experiences. That takes into account the telephonic consultations I’m doing, the planning and seeing it as a fact that if there are twenty people in a room, that value is being brought to twenty people. That’s the mental adjustment I’ve had to make in 2020 to understand the ways in which the pricing structure is different, particularly because the individual coaching is a more affordable option because it’s for one person.
When we’re looking at impacting an entire team, it’s going to cost more because the lasting impact of that is much more impactful on an organizational level. For the consulting packages that I’m doing, for the most part, I’m with an organization one day a week onsite and that’s a full day of training. We’re having one hour of consultation separate from that where we are deciding who is going to have individual coaching, who is going to have team workshops, and who is going to sit with me and micro-sessions so that I’m having an ear to the organization’s needs. That is a monthly retainer fee.
Typically, how long do those engagements last for? If you’re doing one day a week onsite, I’m imagining that you’re going to start to reach capacity fairly quickly or that might be a concern for you.
I only take on two organizational clients at a time. At any moment, only two days of my week are onsite in those intense client relationships. In those moments, when I have two organizations at a time, I’m limiting my individual coaching clients because it is a ton of work and emotional energy in order to be that present and available to an organization, which is incredibly important.
Leah, I want to thank you for coming on here. You’ve shared many ideas in different areas from a business perspective, marketing around the data, but also the importance of talking and looking inward before you can even start to think about looking outwards. That’s an important nugget for people to consider. I want to make sure that people can find out more about you and your work. Where is the best place for them to go?Communication is the most important skill in life and work. Click To Tweet
My website is PresentVoices.co. You can read about my work there. I work with people over video conference and in-person. Check us out on Instagram, @PresentVoices.co, where we’re talking about talking. I’m excited to be featuring people in the upcoming weeks. I’ll get in touch with you if you would like to be featured and talk about how you use talking in your work.
Thank you, Michael.