Alumni & Friends
Want to become a more credible public speaker? Learn how to balance a pair of folded socks on your head, says Cara Hale Alter (B.A., ’84; M.F.A., ’91). In order to appear more confident and capable in a face-to-face conversation, Alter explains, specific rules apply. Keeping the head still while speaking is a key one to practice. The communication expert wrote her new book, “The Credibility Code,” to show how these kinds of nonverbal skills can raise or lower a speaker’s status even before she opens her mouth.
“Before people can hear your message, they create a filter through which they listen to you, and they decide how much weight to give your message,” she says. “Your style could completely override your message.”
It’s a lesson she learned at SF State as she pursued her M.F.A. in theatre. “I began to watch how actors intuitively know what body language signals to use to send certain messages,” Alter says, “and I began to think that there must be very specific behaviors that send those messages.”
As the founder of SpeechSkills, a San Francisco-based communications company, she still uses her acting skills to “flip in and out of characters” during training sessions. Clients from companies such as Google and Caterpillar “give me feedback that that’s the very reason they understand what I’m talking about,” she says, “because I can change my persona simply by changing a behavior.”
The code includes skills that seem intuitive at first. Make and hold eye contact. Keep a strong, straight spine. Point your nose at your listener. Avoid “derailers” such as folding your arms or relying on conversation fillers such as “um” and “uh.” But as people spend more time interacting online, Alter says, “in those moments when it matters most — in face-to-face communication — they’re just not as practiced.”
Balancing socks aside, her clients appreciate the practical advice and exercises she offers in the book. They don’t necessarily “want to dig into the psychology” of confidence and public speaking, she said. “They’re intelligent, busy people who say, ‘just give me the ground rules.’”
Fear of public speaking has never been an issue for Alter, who met her husband Ed Alter (B.A.,’83) when she joined an award-winning SF State debate team as an undergraduate. “We were well-respected across the nation, and we were a school to watch out for,” she recalls. After completing her M.F.A., she taught a speech and articulation class at the University that she credits with launching her current career. “It’s really difficult to get rid of the fear of public speaking. It’s pretty hard-wired,” Alter admits. “but if you have confidence that you look good, even if you’ve got that adrenaline in your system, for most people that’s all that matters.”