Struggling to command a room can sometimes come down to how effectively you’re using your voice. Executive voice coach, Melanie Espeland is an entrepreneur, and author who trains clients in senior roles in top companies to optimize their voice and be better leaders. She talks about her entrepreneurial journey as a woman, what many executives are doing wrong and how to keep a consistent company culture.
- Command A Room with Skills and Experience
- Ways To Build a Client Base
- Lessons Learned from Digital Marketing
- Using Our Networks Wisely With Ease
- Executive Voice Coach Service is the Espeland Method
- Tips from an Executive Voice Coach
- Potential Futures for the Profession of Executive Voice Coach
- The Luxury of Hindsight
Command A Room With Skills and Experience
Mimi: Melanie, thank you so much for coming today. I'm so excited to talk to you about your journey and you're a fellow CBS grad. And so welcome. Thank you so much for coming on. The first question I have is can you just tell us about your journey from business school and becoming an entrepreneur and starting your own company, as an executive voice coach?
Melanie: Sure. I've definitely had a nonlinear path. So I think it is definitely worth talking about because I think there's a misconception that you need to pick one career and stick to it your whole life when most adults do change careers about three times throughout their life. So for me, I started off actually in the fashion world. I was doing product development and production for fashion designers.
I also worked for Marie Claire for a short time. And that's when I decided to go to business school because I wanted to just learn something new, see other things, just understand what else was out there. And I had an inkling that I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I just wasn't quite sure in what capacity or what my idea would be. But at business school, I ended up getting recruited by McKinsey, so I went into management consulting.
I started to consult also independently while I was in B-School and pretty quickly figured out, post-B-school, that was not for me. I really was excited to try to get into doing my own thing. And I had also a short time at Macy's, on their corporate strategy team, which was an interesting mix of the business schools' skills, consulting, and also working in the fashion world.
Now, from there, I had already been working on performance in the background, I had become a voice actor. I was signed with a talent agency named CESD. I was going on major auditions and I had also studied acting, singing, improv, all of those things. And I started to realize that there was this interesting intersection between the business world and voice and performance, where I would have friends say, "Hey, Melanie, I'm super nervous before I go into an interview. What do I do?" Or "My voice just is too high pitched. How do I change that?"
That's when I started my company, Espeland Enterprises, and it really does bridge this peculiar skill set that I have, which is the background in consulting, in strategy, business in general, and then really understanding voice performance and communication and how you can use those skills to have better communication and just executive presence in general. So that's really the short version of the story. Certainly a long path to being an entrepreneur, but very happy to be here.
Mimi: That's great. And so that's a big step to take a corporate job that I'm sure you were doing fairly well, financially probably being able to pay your bills, to saying, "Okay, I'm going to leap and start my own thing." Did you do that part-time? Did you do it right away? How did that work?
Melanie: That's a good question. It's so scary. I was basically dabbling in consulting on the side and doing some projects here and there. And then what really pushed me, to be totally honest, was COVID.
When that hit in March 2020 and all of New York City shut down, I was furloughed and knew that I was going to be completely laid off in just a matter of months. And at that point, it kind of forced me in a way to really go for it full force and put 100% of my effort into it.
And that's when the business started to explode and grow. And I think that, that forcing mechanism I'm really grateful for because it pushed me in the direction I knew I wanted to go in, but I was just a little nervous to frankly leave that security of having the full-time job. And as someone that is single and has one income, it really is up to me to make the magic happen.
So I would say to most people if you're interested in making that leap, that you will never be fully prepared. If you can lay some of the groundwork while you're still working, of course, that's a great thing to do. You have set up your LLC, getting your website, basic things that are more logistical. If you can do that on the side while you're working, fantastic.
Try to save some money so that you have some runway. But other than that, you kind of just had to dive and go into it. And the worst-case scenario is I knew with my background, my academic knowledge, my experience, I knew the worst case, I could always go back into corporate if needed. But yeah, it was one of the best things I ever did for myself. So I highly encouraged people to do it if they've been thinking about it.
Ways To Build a Client Base
Mimi: That's great. Now, I think the hardest part would be to find clients. How did you go about doing that?
Melanie: I totally agree. That's the hardest thing. One thing that I wish they taught us more at Columbia Business School was marketing, is how to get the word out there. And especially digital marketing, because that's where everything's moving towards. So I would say the first clients were really through two avenues. It was through LinkedIn, so people just Googling or searching on LinkedIn and finding me, and then mostly through Columbia, really getting to know people through the network, really utilizing that alumni database. So that was really the initial way that I got clients.
From there, I started to build more thoughtful mechanisms, I built out my Google analytics, the Google paid ad campaigns. And that was where I started to reach a broader audience. And in addition to that, one thing I really love to do is webinars. So offering a free program for various individuals or for mostly really organizations. So for instance, Cornell, where I went to undergrad, Columbia Business School, Wharton, these are the types of places where I've done different types of webinars. And that's been a great way to just, in general, spread the word and meet some new people.
Mimi: That's great. Now for anybody who's looking to start a business that's similar to yours, how did you go about, pricing and products? How to decide if you were going to do one-on-one or if it was going to be a coaching group or offering classes? Can you talk a little bit about your different products?
Melanie: So that is constantly changing. It is truly a test and learns the type of process for me. I think that sometimes you have to get your MVP out there and just test it. And honestly, I had no idea how to price myself when I started. There are so many different types of coaches out there. And in my research, I found people that charged 40 an hour and people that charged $1,000 an hour for their services, and other people that bundled it in packages.
So there were just so many different ways of thinking about it. I basically just started with a price and then realized that there was still an incredible amount of market demand and then continue to shift it accordingly. So I think again, testing and learning, being able to pivot your pricing and your product is really important, I think in the first year or two. And now, I'm still experimenting with products.
Right now, the key thing I do is one-on-one coaching. We also do a little bit of corporate training with a few different corporate contracts that I have. And the next big step for us is going to be launching all of our online courses. So that certainly is a different type of product, it's passive income and it's also a different price point, which is more affordable. So I do foresee that helping us to scale the business and also work with a totally different client base that we haven't been able to serve. Yeah, that's the next big iterations. So I'm very curious to see how that goes as we launch it in the summer and hopefully we just continue to iterate and it continues to move forward.
Digital Marketing and Commanding A Space
Mimi: Are there any tips that you have learned as far as the marketing and Google analytics and digital marketing that you would share, that maybe mistakes you've made financially, time-wise, that you could pass on?
Melanie: Oh, definitely. I built my first Google ad campaign really not knowing anything about what I was doing. So I probably wasted a bit of money, I would say in the first, I would say three months or so. I think that's an area where if you are not a digital marketing or Google Ads expert, it is definitely helpful to hire a freelance person to help you upfront so you can at least learn some of the basics and especially for getting your ad campaign set up. I also learned that with Google Ads, it is a moving target.
It's constantly changing, the trends in the market are changing, different keywords will become more powerful during different times of the year. Different businesses can be seasonal, attitudes can change. So I would also recommend just watching it every single month and noting some of the changes. Overall, definitely get in touch through your network with someone who is just strong at digital marketing and SEO, very much worth spending the money on that.
Mimi: And I guess finding the right person, because I do feel like it can get very expensive, very fast, right?
Mimi: So people who are startups don't have the budget of somebody who's more established. Are there any tips for a startup person?
Melanie: One thing that I did was I of course did as much reading as I possibly could, online with all the free resources that are out there. The one that I found really helpful for SEO in general was Neil Patel. So utilizing his website, he does have a free trial for Ubersuggest, which is his SEO program. You can frankly use the free and learn a lot without ever having to pay. I would also suggest, of course, Google Ads does have free webinars and things of that nature.
So if you contact them, there are ways to get some free advice because certainly, they want you to use their product, they want you to feel empowered by it. So there are those free resources out there. And then of course, if you have a network, either through your school, your friends, reach out and say, "Hey, is there someone who can give me even just 15 minutes of their time? I'll buy you a coffee" or "I'll treat you to dinner," whatever it might be.
And, I did do that as well through my network, just picking the brains of a couple of people just for 15 minutes and thanking them for their time. So I think that's a great way to start. And if you do hire someone, if you do have some budget, do it through referrals. The toughest thing is trying to find someone through say LinkedIn or Upwork. It's tough because you don't really know who they are. We don't necessarily know if their testimonials are real or what the story is. So I always try to hire through my network. I get the best results that way.
Using Our Networks Wisely To Command
Mimi: You keep talking about your network, which is great. So I would love to talk about that because I do feel like a lot of women, CEOs or women who are entrepreneurs, don't use their networks enough.
Mimi: I feel like we, as women, try to do it all, right? We don't need, we're unstoppable. It's really important to see that we do need help and we don't know everything and to use our networks. So I would love for you to talk a little bit about that.
Melanie: Absolutely. I completely agree. I see it in the communication styles of my clients, where men are much more readily able to say, "I need help," or "I'm going to reach out to somebody." And with women, we are a little bit more hesitant to do that. And again, this is in general, this tends to be socialized behavior. I would say it doesn't hurt for you to just ask for someone's advice. Even if you just say, "Hey, I'd love your feedback" or "I'd love your advice on something."
The key thing I think with using your network is being specific in what your asks are. The worst thing is when I get, say a LinkedIn request or an email saying, "Hey, I'd love to talk about your background" or "I'd love to chat." Well, about what? What can I actually help you with? Am I even the right person to communicate with you or to help you with your specific need?
So I think overall, just be really specific about your ask and don'T be afraid to ask your friends, "Hey, thank you so much for your help. Do you know anybody else in SEO?" Or "Do you know anybody else that understands analytics?" Or whatever your question might be. I think that's always a great way to end the conversation, is ask for one or two more referrals or introductions to individuals that can help you.
Commanding Your Voice Is The Espeland Method
Mimi: Those are some great tips. Thank you, that's great. So you have, it's called the Espeland method. Can you talk a little bit about that? Just kind of pivoting to your business and what you provide for entrepreneurs. Do you mostly work with women or do you work with men and women?
Melanie: I work with men and women, yes. The client base, it's definitely mixed between male and female. I've seen a lot of individuals are at a director level or above. And I have certainly worked with individuals that are entrepreneurs, but also people that are say vice presidents at major organizations. So it is a bit of a mix. But regardless if you're at a firm of two people or a firm of 200,000 people, you still need those communication skills.
1. Figurative and literal voice
So overall, the Espeland method is really just my thought process, my philosophy about how to think about communication. It is firstly based in both the figurative and the literal voice. So what does that mean? That means I don't just work with you on your speaking voice, but also in regards to the figurative voice. What's going on in your head when you are speaking? How do you feel about yourself and those around you?
2. Executive presence or gravitas with authenticity
Melanie: And then of course, your executive presence or gravitas, which is something that gets thrown around a lot in business. But I think a lot of people don't really know what it means. So that is really the energy that you're bringing to the room when you are speaking. So very important for someone who's more senior. So overall, I like to look at it really holistically, again, the literal and figurative voice.
Next, there's a couple of other components that as an executive voice coach I think about as I'm helping you build that voice – . One is authenticity. I believe that you cannot be a great speaker unless you are authentic. So that is bringing forward some honest, true piece of yourself and emoting that and allowing yourself to have your wall come down. I think that's very important, really just understanding what your personal brand is. The second thing is utilizing interdisciplinary leavers and those three things would be your physical, mental, and emotional tools.
Those all push and pull on each other. So they're certainly important to work on all of them. So for instance, the physical lever could be your breathing technique. How are you bringing air into the body and how are you exhaling in order to sustain your voice for your multiple seconds throughout a sentence, but then the emotional lever of course would be, how do you feel about a certain topic, and is that coming through authentically and are you emoting in an appropriate and meaningful way?
3. Blending performance with strategy to command
Beyond that, I would say the third pillar would be basically my mix of performance training and corporate strategy. So bringing the corporate strategy processor that way of thinking, being hypothesis-driven, being structured, but then building into that, the performance training. So also that kind of looseness of understanding how to go with the flow, so to speak. So that's a fun way of thinking about communication in a structured way, but also in kind of this open-minded way.
4. Have Fun
Then lastly, I would say just the fourth pillar would be fun. And I say fun because a lot of people I work with are really amazing individuals. They've been so successful through their careers, but they really get frustrated if they don't get something right away, or if this training is difficult, they immediately self-flagellate or get negative. And I really want people to have fun with this work. If you see it as an opportunity to just make yourself better, then you can have a little bit more fun with it. But I think that if you have fun, you'll have more success with the work. So that's always a goal of mine is I want clients to enjoy the work that we do together. I think overall, that's the Espeland method, in a nutshell.
Tips from an Executive Voice Coach On How To Command with Your Voice
Mimi: That's great. What do you see mostly that executives or entrepreneurs do wrong, voice wise or presence as an executive?
Melanie: I think one major thing people do wrong is they don't emote enough in their voice. Their voice gets super flat and a little robotic and a little cold. It could be for multiple reasons, but usually it's because that individual is hiding some sort of emotion that they don't want to come through, but therefore they're shutting down really everything from coming through. So their authenticity, their personality, their enthusiasm, all of that gets really shut down because they're probably hiding something like fear, anxiety, those types of feelings.
So we want to work against that and have that person be able to emote and have a little bit more of a playful, thoughtful up and down melody so that they sound more pleasant, they can be a little bit more engaging for the other person. So that, I think, is a key issue that I see with a lot of individuals. And I would say the second key thing that I hear a lot are filler words. So the ums, the uhs, the sos, the you knows, the likes, that I do hear very often. And that is something that I work with, I would say, the majority of my clients on.
Mimi: And so do you have any tips to avoid either of those?
Melanie: Absolutely. I would say with the filler words, there's a bunch of different things that I like to do with clients. But one thing I can easily explain to you now, really one problem with filler words is they tend to come out when you are running out of breath. So this does have to do with breath technique. And you are breathing in, but your mouth is slightly open because you're gasping to get in some air to fuel your voice. And because your mouth is open, then you'll have a verbal tick or a filler word come out.
One really helpful way is to work on your breathing technique and actually close your mouth and breathe in through your nose when you have to pause during a or a thought. So instead of saying, "And my next thought is, um, this thing," instead of saying that you say, "My next thought is," I just breathe in through my nose, "This thing." So again, the key thing is really working on your breathing technique, which is a whole other set of conversations, keeping the mouth closed when you have to take that breath in and breathing in through the nose that will really help in the middle of conversation to avoid any awkward filler words or verbal ticks. So that's a breathing technique I typically would work on with clients, one-on-one.
Mimi: Those are great tips. I can see now why you're been very busy with COVID because we all have to be in front of Zoom, for the past 15 months. And if you weren't used to being on a camera and speaking in front of people where it's probably recorded, it gets very intimidating, I would think for a lot of people.
Developing executive voice in the virtual world
Mimi: So is that what has happened during COVID for you?
Melanie: Absolutely. There's been a lot of people coming to me saying, "This is so difficult. How do I have any kind of executive presence over Zoom? I feel awkward. How do I do this? I've never been this anxious." Absolutely. So if someone's feeling that way, that's listening to this, that is very common. So I see that across the board. And in general, it is actually harder for the brain to emote and connect with other people over Zoom than it is in person. That's because there's a bit of a cognitive dissonance happening where I'm looking at your eyes, but I'm not actually looking at your eyes cause I'm looking at a screen of your eyes.
The brain is actually working over time to really make that emotional connection over Zoom and to therefore create this executive presence. So that's what Zoom fatigue is, where people feel super tired after being on Zoom all day, they feel maybe frustrated or irritable. It is because it's emotionally draining and the brain is working extra time.
Overall, I would say it does take some practice. It is something I can work with individuals on to remove some of that anxiety and that fear. And I also do tell individuals that you don't necessarily need to be on video all day long. It depends, of course, on the meeting, the context of what you're speaking about, but I do recommend having a mix of both audio as well as video and audio meetings throughout your day just to alleviate some of that pressure on your mental and emotional state.
Potential Futures for the Profession of Executive Voice Coach
Mimi: That's interesting. I didn't realize that. So you brought up a very good point. As you grow your business, have you had to hire anybody or are you still working just for yourself?
Melanie: So I am the one full-time employee and I do have multiple freelancers and contractors. So I do have four fabulous coaches that I have hired and trained to be an executive voice coach. They are fantastic and they remain contractors. And then I do have some individuals helping me, as we talked about earlier, with the marketing, SEO, things of that nature. That, so far, has been the best process, really for me, really based upon it being still a very early stage company, that's worked well. I would certainly love to get to a point where I had somebody full-time working on, I would say, the marketing SEO piece of the puzzle, just to alleviate some of that work from myself.
Mimi: That's great that you brought that up because I feel like a lot of women who are trying to grow a business don't realize that they can just outsource and it's just as good. And so I'm glad that you brought that up and I would love for you to talk about how you're able to, because they're outsourced, you're able to make sure that they're doing it the way you would like and exuding your brand and keeping it all together.
Melanie: It's hard. Hiring is really difficult. It is more difficult than I ever anticipated for sure. And that's why I brought up the idea of really relying on referrals and your network for hiring, just so you know the quality of the type of person that you're bringing on because it is your brand. I would say with hiring the coaches to work with me, that I was nervous about because I wasn't sure if I would be able to train them, if they would be able to deliver the same type of experience that I do. And I started off with two individuals, I put them through very challenging interview process. We did mock client sessions, mock client consults, really went through every single piece of the puzzle to make sure that these individuals were ready to go.
From there, on their first few clients, we worked together very closely, where I was heavily involved, I was involved in really understanding the client roadmap, where we were going. And even to this day, I always am in the background knowing what's happening with every client. That's very important to me, is to know what's going on with this individual? What are their goals? Are we moving towards them? How are they feeling? So that's something I'll always want to do because it is my brand, but we are at a point now where I feel much more confident in their ability to do an amazing job. And really, at the end of the day, in order to build a business, you do have to put trust in other people. You can't do everything on your own. So I think that's a really good learning. You can be really smart about who you hire and have an extremely high bar, but you still have to put that trust in people.
So now I have grown to four executive voice coaches who work with me. And interestingly, the third and fourth coach were referrals from the first coach that I hired. So that worked out beautifully. So now that I have more established relationships, referrals for individuals that I'm looking for, for freelance work, is becoming a lot more doable. And the one person I've been working with, well I've worked with a few individuals, but the key person I've done a lot of marketing work with has been with me almost from the beginning and also went to Columbia Business School. So again, use that network. That's what business school is all about. They teach us to use your network. So I definitely have been doing that.
Mimi: Now, as you grow, are you concerned about making sure you have a company culture or do you think you're still too small for that, or because it's also outsourced, you don't have to worry about that at this point?
Melanie: Well, I do think about company culture because even though my four executive voice coaches are freelance and still new 1099 contractors, they are 100% a part of the brand and what we're building. So one thing I have thought about is I do want individuals to always feel that they can come to me with any concerns, I really encourage transparency. I love to just have quick phone calls with them just saying, "Hey, how's everything going?", having lunches with them when we can. And just really even having happy hours where we all can connect with each other.
I think just having that openness, that transparency is very important to me and something I would always want to have in the business regardless of our size. And I do think that overall, things will continue to develop, especially as we launch this course online and build even more courses, I imagine that will change things as well, since that's going to be a very different experience than just having a one-on-one coach. I want to make sure that we still create a connection with our clients, even through something where they're not speaking to someone live. So that's going to be really interesting to test and pivot over time.
Mimi: That's great. Now, is there anything that you wish you knew before you got started that you've learned now?
Melanie: I would say find a great accountant and find again, somebody that can help you with your marketing and SEO upfront. If I had known that a little bit earlier, I think I would have saved myself some time, some money and some frustration. Those, I think, are just two really key partners to help.
Mimi: Setting up your systems before. I don't know if you've used them, but I used Bench. Have you used Bench at all?
Melanie: No, I haven't.
Mimi: They're a great company I just found and I started transitioning. I had somebody part time that I was using, just one-on-one, and then she left. And so I started using them in January and it's awesome. It's an online company called bench.c0.
Melanie: I'm looking them up.
Mimi: I know. It's great. So for anyone who's listening, I actually created an affiliate with them, bench.co/badassceo because they've been amazing and they're really inexpensive. They're almost cheaper than having somebody. But you get assigned to them, so you do have a one-on-one relationship.
Melanie: That's great.
Mimi: It's all streamlined, online. It's been amazing, fabulous experience. But I do agree with you, it's setting up those systems in place that you're talking about and finding the right pieces, right?
Melanie: I think so.
The Luxury of Hindsight
Mimi: Do you now look back and say, okay, because it is a big leap to go to business school and take yourself out of the corporate world that most people in business school keep going on that path and then you've gone to a different path. Do you have any regrets at this point or anything that you could say or advice to anybody who's in your shoes 15 months ago, making that decision?
Melanie: Well, honestly in hindsight, I wish I had started a company at business school. Because if you think about it, you have such a great safety net. You're not giving up a potential corporate job, right? So you're not giving up that salary since you're already in school. And you have so many resources. You have classes on entrepreneurship, you have professors, you have access to potential angel investors, alums. It's just such a great time to explore. So I wish I had been a little bit more exploratory when it came to my interest in entrepreneurship, which I knew I had, but I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do with it. I would highly recommend if someone's in business school, what a wonderful time to do some exploring. So I do wish I had done that. If I could go back, that's something I would have changed.
I think the other piece of advice I would give is if you are already post business school or even if you didn'T go to business school, if you're in a corporate career, if you've been thinking about jumping ship for, I'd say more than a year, then I think that's a really good benchmark to say, "Okay, this is something that is not a fleeting thought, it's something that I am very interested in." And just be honest with yourself. What are you willing to give up to be an entrepreneur? Are you willing to give up certain pieces of your lifestyle in order to potentially make less money or no money for the next year or so? So I think that would be the advice that I would share with someone.
Mimi: I love that. Is there any attribute that you think takes to be an entrepreneur, even if it's an accidental entrepreneur or starting your own, going out on your own, hanging up the shingle? Is there anything that you have found to be a common characteristic?
Melanie: Absolutely. I would say people that I feel are strong entrepreneurs and great CEOs are those who are very willing to accept feedback and pivot. You have to be really careful about getting super emotionally attached to your initial idea or hypothesis. That is really where you're going to get into trouble because you're constantly learning. I'm constantly pivoting. When we were talking about pricing and product, I have made so many small pivots testing, learning here and there and that's allowed me to be successful. So again, I think the key thing is you have to be open, open to feedback, humble and ready to pivot. And if you're not, then that's actually a really good question to ask yourself. Then you may not be ready to be an entrepreneur because that's very important to be successful.
Mimi: I love that. Adaptability, I think is the number one pivoting-
Melanie: Totally, totally.
Mimi: Okay. So to end, is there anything that we haven't covered that you would like to cover?
Melanie: I think just the main thing for me would be, just talking about voice real quickly, it's fascinating to me that literally everybody has a voice and yet it's something that people don't really think about. It's just such a powerful tool. If you think about it, if you can speak and people listen, think about everything that you can accomplish. You can persuade, you can negotiate, you can get the things that you want in life.
Melanie: So to me, I find it very fascinating that not that many people, especially individuals at a more senior level, haven't necessarily had any training or coaching in this area. So in general, I would encourage people to just study a little bit about their communication, about their voice and identify a couple areas of opportunity so that they can allow themselves to just be that much stronger. So overall, I just think it's a huge opportunity. I love teaching people about it, it's super fun. And in general, I'm just a big proponent of self-development. So now we are still in the pandemic. Things are getting better, but you still have some time at home. You still have more time on your hands than pre pandemic. So it's a great time in general for self-development or just checking out that thing you've been curious about for a while. So I would encourage people to do that.
Mimi: That's great. I feel like you need to go back to Columbia Business School and have them have a class just for this because I feel like every MBA students should come away knowing all these tools, right? Because that's going to make you a more successful CEO, entrepreneur, business person, whichever path you pursue.
Melanie: I love it. I am ready if Columbia wants to call me, let's do it.
Mimi: Well, thank you so much, Melanie. I really appreciate your time. This has been amazing. And there were so many great tips and takeaways, so I really appreciate it.
Melanie: You're so welcome. Thanks for having me.
Mimi: Thank you for joining us on The Badass CEO. To get your copy of the Top 10 Tips every entrepreneur should know, go to thebadassCEO.com/tips. Also, please leave a review as it helps others find us. If you have any ideas or suggestions, I would love to hear them. So email me at Mimi@TheBadassCEO.com. See you next week.