World of Speakers E.105: Cynthia Zhai | The Joyful Sigh


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World of Speakers E.105:  Cynthia Zhai | The Joyful Sigh

Ryan Foland speaks with Cynthia Zhai, a voice coach, TEDx Speaker, CSP, and best-selling author.

In this episode of our podcast series, Ryan and Cynthia talk about how to take the audience on a learning journey with you when you speak.

Tune in for an interview full of ideas and tips on how to stand out and share your own stories authentically.

Listen to the interview on iTunes or Soundcloud.

Subscribe to World of Speakers on iTunes or Soundcloud.


Welcome to the World of Speakers podcast, brought to you by SpeakerHub. In each episode, we interview a professional speaker and reveal their very best tips and tricks you'll learn to improve your presentation skills, keep your audience engaged, and learn how to grow your business to get more gigs and make more money. Here's your host, Ryan Foland.

Ryan Foland: Ahoy everyone, and welcome to another episode of the World of Speakers. And truly we are traveling across the world to meet our guest today Cynthia Zhai. She's a professional speaker, she's a voice coach, and she is an author. Welcome to the show, Cynthia. How are you doing today?

Cynthia Zhai: Sure. Thank you for having me, Ryan. I am doing very well.

Ryan Foland: Well, good. We're far away from each other, but it goes to show in this age that we're all connected. And just beforehand, we're talking about how we have the same friend Eric Sim, and I'm excited to just explore more about your story, understand some of your speaking tips. Especially we'll take on the role play of if we are your client, how you would help us with our voice. And then we'll talk about how you build your speaking business. It sounds like you're not only a professional speaker, but you have a book that you're selling, and you're working with clients. So our audience has a lot to learn. But the first thing we'd like to do is learn a little bit about you. So rather than read your extensive, impressive bio, I'm just going to ask you for a little story. Story time. Can you share a story that has shaped you? Something that's memorable, a moment in time?

Cynthia Zhai: So I think this is also the story that now I share with a lot of other speakers, entrepreneurs or my clients that they always say, "How do I build my business? How do I get clients?" So when I was starting my own business and even before that, so I think there was a time that I wasn't sure what to do. And then I remember I was writing a letter at the time where, the time that we still write physical letters. And so I wrote a letter to my dad sharing my frustration, sharing my kind of confusion. And my dad, he was quoting someone, quoting a quote. So of course later on I found out that quote was from Charlie Tremendous Jones. So the quote said, "You are the same person five years from now except two things. The people you meet, and the book you read." So ever since then, I started to go out to attend different groups, different associations, and different events. And that's where I met people who showed me possibilities.

For example at the time, I never knew that speaking can become a career. But first I met a group of trainers and coaches, and then I realized those are the things I can do as well. So I went into training and coaching field. And then from there, I met a group of speakers, professional speakers. And then when I saw them and I realized, "These are the things I can do as well." So I became a speaker.

And of course, the books I read, I think this is clear. Most people are aware of it. So it was really that quote that changed my past, and it is still helping me today. So I continue to meet different people or to see what kind of possibilities they are.

Ryan Foland: Interesting. I love that. So you know I'm going to have to ask what the most interesting person is that you've met so far past that book. Does one person come to mind that has made a significant impact as a result of this quote?

Cynthia Zhai: Yeah. So some of them are my speaker friends. So for example, in Professional Speakers Association in Singapore. So he used to live in Singapore. Now he is relocating himself temporarily in Europe. So at the time, what's interesting about him, still interesting about him today is that he only does keynote speaking, nothing else.

And then we realized, of course there's another possibility where you can only do keynote speaking and thrive at it. And of course, that's another story during COVID. Because COVID, I think initially he was getting a big hit. So of course.

But before COVID, there was a very interesting about him. And also because of the keynote speaking he was doing, he's also owning in the past. Now I'm not sure how many, but in the past he owns three islands, small islands. Where he does, he call them the idea islands. And he does writing or creative products on these island. Sometimes, he even rent out one island to anyone, no charge, as long as you are working on a creative project for a week. So you can stay on the island for one week.

Ryan Foland: Wow. Okay. Let me pull that thread. So somebody, a person that you met, he helped to change the person that you are by helping you see that you can do one thing, do it really well. And in the speaking world, this idea of just being a keynote speaker. Which if you're listening, that's not an easy thing to do because you get pulled in these different directions. You have gateway stages, you have workshops, you have people that offer you money to do things that are off of your standardized keynotes. There's only certain keynotes available, there's travel involved, there's all these things. So to meet someone who showed you that there was power in that focus, I like that.

Secondly, I'm not only sold on one island. I'm sold three times on an island because I'm a sailor. And a big pie in my sky of my mind's eye is to do something similar, but to bring people out on these sailing adventures to spark creativity and teach what I know about speaking, and share with them my business secrets as a captain of my own captain in leadership. Talk about entrepreneurship, talk about relationships. So I love this because to have islands that are creativity islands, I need to meet this person.

Cynthia Zhai: Yes. I'll connect you with him.

Ryan Foland: There we go. And see, now this is the power of this network. Right? Understanding and asking people, the people who've made an impact on their life is a shortcut to finding those people who can make a lot of impact. All right, Cynthia. We're going to do the same thing with a book. Now what is one book, I know that there are many, but what is one book since this quote that you read that has significantly changed who you are as a person now?

Cynthia Zhai: I think there are at least two.

Ryan Foland: Okay. We'll go for two. I mean if you want to round it out, we might as well go to three.

Cynthia Zhai: So these two, because these two when I read them, I was still in my mid or even early twenties. And they really changed my perspectives. So that's why I still always recommend these two books.

Ryan Foland: All right. What are they?

Cynthia Zhai: Since you're asking, three. So yes, we'll make it three.

Ryan Foland: Well, three is my favorite number. My whole communication methodology is a 3-1-3. There's three little bears, there's three little pigs, there's three things of porridge, three bears, three blind mice. We might as well make it three.

Cynthia Zhai: Yes. So the first two books, I think everyone probably also have heard of it. So they're the classics. So the first one is How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Ryan Foland: Excellent. Classic. Very classic.

Cynthia Zhai: Yes. So the key lesson that I've learned in that book is you have to be genuinely curious about the other person.

Ryan Foland: Yeah. Be interested to have people be interested in you. I also like one of his key points, which is smile more. That's the type of foundational, and sometimes when I'm on a podcast and people ask me, "What's the best piece of advice?" I'll point back Dale Carnegie, and he says smile more. So just some fundamental foundational stuff. Yes. All right. What's book number two?

Cynthia Zhai: The second one is The Seven Habits for Highly Effective People. For that book, I think there are quite a few golden nuggets that really changed my perspective. I think one of them, some things that seek to understand, to be understood. Something is that, which is that you need to understand the other person, where this person comes from first.

Ryan Foland: All right. Now, does the third book have a seven in the title? That's the real question.

Cynthia Zhai: No. The third book has three words.

Ryan Foland: Oh, okay. Is it Ditch the Act? Is it my book? No, I'm just kidding.

Cynthia Zhai: Yes, that's your book. So that book, because most of the time when I finish reading a book, I give it away. So I don't keep books. That's the very few books that I still keep, the third book. Because it is so helpful and has so much wisdom in it. So I think the book was published around 2007 or 2008. So the book is going to be very helpful to speakers. The title is Made to Stick.

Ryan Foland: Ah, yes. I've read that as well. Is that the one with the duct tape on it?

Cynthia Zhai: Yes.

Ryan Foland: Yeah.

Cynthia Zhai: So you see the book is really walking its talk. It made itself stick.

Ryan Foland: Absolutely. Okay, so that's great. It's fascinating how... we're going to talk about professional speaking. And I like to always bring it back to public speaking. And I argue that if you speak in public, then you are a public speaker. And I think that we give many speeches all the time. I think that when we ask questions or little talks, when we tell stories, they're little tiny keynotes. And when we hear things from other people, even including quotes, a quote can be a talk or a mini speech that can change your life. And so your story that impacted you was essentially someone who whether they're close to you or not, you heard them speak in public. So something as powerful as a quote, and if I can rephrase it or quote, I want to make sure I get this right. So it sticks. There are two things that stand between or are the difference between who you are now and five years from now. And it's the people you meet and the books you read.

Cynthia Zhai: Yes.

Ryan Foland: I like it. So there's a little mini-talk right there. But I just want to remind us all that life and world, it's all a stage. And so it's fun to help people associate themselves with public speaking. And you can be a professional "public speaker," not even take a stage. Just share with friends. So I appreciate that.

Cynthia Zhai: Yes.

Ryan Foland: Let's dive into the art of the spoken word. Now you are a speaker coach, voice coach? What is the title? How do you frame that?

Cynthia Zhai: Okay, so most people call me a voice coach.

Ryan Foland: Voice coach. Okay.

Cynthia Zhai: Yes. So I help people to develop a powerful voice. So some of my clients, they are either professional speakers or aspiring speakers, because they use their voice to influence and inspire the audience. 

Ryan Foland: Well then speak from the gut, right?

Cynthia Zhai: Yes. So that's what we do. We work on a voice mechanism to make the voice stronger, more powerful.

Ryan Foland: Okay. One thing that people often ask me that I'm excited to ask you is a warmup regimen or routine. Now I have my own that I've developed over the years. I'm a classically trained actor with a degree in theater from the University of California, Santa Barbara, as well as a business economics degree. And I've had a lot of stage time, and I've done a lot of directing and producing. And you pick up these little things. So I've packaged them together in my own little warmup.

A lot of times when they hear that I warm up, they go, "You do what?" Absolutely. Every time before I speak, I warm up. I get the money maker warm. So I'm curious. I'm fascinated with that as a process. Do you have a go-to warmup?

Cynthia Zhai: Yes. So some of the things I ask my clients to do, especially if they're nervous, it's very simple. So simple, that people don't believe it will work.

Ryan Foland: That's my favorite type of advice right there. It's so simple and powerful. But simple doesn't mean easy.

Cynthia Zhai: That's right, yes. People always feel that, "Really. Will it work?" So it is to do a joyful sigh.

Ryan Foland: (Sigh) Like that?

Cynthia Zhai: Yes. Yes.

Ryan Foland: Now, does it have to be over-exaggerated?

Cynthia Zhai: Not necessary, but of course, if you exaggerate it, it can help you lift up the mood.

Ryan Foland: Okay.

Cynthia Zhai: So it can be as simple as yes. Yes. Perfect. Yes. And when we do that-

Ryan Foland: It does make you feel a little better.

Cynthia Zhai: Yes. When we do that, it helps you. One is to release the held breath, release the held tension. Two is some of my clients, they start to notice their voice especially when they're nervous, their voice will be trembling. And when they do the joyful sigh, the voice actually goes down a little bit.

Ryan Foland: So do you do it a certain number of times? Is it a one every few minutes? Is it enough? What is the mechanism and frequency? And is it right before stage? What timing works for this?

Cynthia Zhai: So it can be just three to five times before the speech. Yes. Perfect.

Ryan Foland: You can feel the tension in the throat. It almost feels like a Ujjayi breath that you have that tension. And I can imagine after a few times, it loosens up a little bit.

Cynthia Zhai: Yes, yes. So that's one. The other one, if they're really nervous and they feel that their voice is going to be out of control, they can do humming.

Ryan Foland: Like humming a song?

Cynthia Zhai: Yes, yes. Could be humming a song, humming any tunes.

Ryan Foland: (humming) That is thr Rocky theme. I was humming it.

Cynthia Zhai:. So I know that some speakers before a speech, they'll be listening to a certain song. So then instead of just listening to that song, you can also hum that song. So a friend of mine, his favorite song before speeches is Tina Turner's I think is Simply the Best. Yes.

Ryan Foland: All right. Okay, so we have joyful size and some hum alongs. What else? Let's round it out. At least with the three. I like we're sticking with three here at least.

Cynthia Zhai: Okay. Then the third one would be doing some breathing. So you can do some long, deep breaths to slow down your body rhythm.

Ryan Foland: Now are these diaphragmic breathing to where you're puffing your stomach out and you're-

Cynthia Zhai: That's right.

Ryan Foland: That's when a lot of people breathe incorrectly. This classic exercise, it's not like it's mine. But if I'm in front of a group and we're working on voice work, I'll say, "Everybody take a deep breath. Put your hand on your stomach and see what happens. And then afterwards, big deep breath, how many people's hand went inward?" And then most people are like, "Yeah," because you take this deep breath and you suck inward. But it's counterintuitive. The idea is when you take this deep breath, your hand should be pushed out. Your belly should get a big beer belly.

Cynthia Zhai: That's right. Yes. Yeah. So that would be the proper breathing. Of course, the best is that you make the proper breathing a habit. Then when you're nervous, you can just do it slowly to slow down the body rhythm. But if it's not a habit when you're nervous, most of times it's very hard to correct it.

Ryan Foland: I think we need to go back in time and make the how to win friends and influence people, we need to add breathing in there. And then the seven habits of highly effective people, we should make at eight. And we should throw in breathing too.

Cynthia Zhai: Yes, that's right.

Ryan Foland: Breathing is the single physiological element that you have most control over that you can reduce your stress in the quickest. We forget how quickly just a few deep, calming breaths can do. When you add the diaphragmic, it does remind you. But it's very hard habit to have to breathe correctly. We get so used to all this nasally just from the top up. We don't engage that. But we also have microphones and so we don't tend to have to ever project our voice. And if we do have to project our voice, then we actually have to take it from our gut. Otherwise, we'll totally get raspy out. So microphones do us a disservice because we just talk all raspy.

Cynthia Zhai: That's right. Yes. So one of my clients, he had a very weak voice. But because he's very techy and so he said, "I have the best microphone here. Whenever I'm on Zoom or video conference, no one could ever tell I couldn't project my voice."

Ryan Foland: He just got that [inaudible] way cranked up. Interesting. Okay. So those are great warmup exercises. Just to add a few to that, I tell people to clasp their hands, open and loosen their jaw, and make some noise. I really feel that that loosens up the jaw.

And then also, to basically eat your face, to pinch it as much as you can put your face inward. And then you open your face as much as possible. And then I feel like that gets all these muscles that have been dormant ready to go. And now if you're listening to this, I'm getting more red and ginger the moment because all the blood is rushing in my face.

But it is really a musical instrument. So just like you'd warm up your instrument, or your car, or anything that you're going to work with. I like that. All right. Let's go to somebody who understands a warmup. Let's maybe talk about some sort of middle range advice. Somebody who's still on their way up. And I guess I'll take that back because I think the fun thing about speaking, you can always learn more. So I don't mean to say a medium type advice, but what's another pivotal piece of voice coaching that you see always comes up that can be super high value, maybe super simple, maybe overlooked, but one that you find brings a lot to someone's voice in their stage presence?

Cynthia Zhai: Yes. So it's surprising. A lot of people, they seldom or never think about this question. Because this question will help you determine the way you are going to use your voice. So besides for example, we know our speech what kind of key message you want the audience to take away with at the end. What kind of action you want them to take. But the other question is how do you want them to feel? So that's something that's overlooked by a lot of people because how do you want them to feel will determine how you're going to use your voice. And interestingly-

Ryan Foland: Let's dive into that a little bit because I have heard that before and it's great to have this audience perspective in mind. But I would think that as a baseline, we can assume people want to inspire the audience, or we can assume that people want to educate the audience, or lift them up. Are there things outside of that what we just think standard that really change it? This is the first question. And then what do you do with your voice to make that connection happen?

Cynthia Zhai: Yes. So inspire the audience. You want the audience to feel inspired. That's the ultimate goal. But in order to make them feel inspired, they have to go on an emotional journey. So we cannot just all of a sudden feel inspired. It could be for example in the beginning, you want them to let's just say feel sad about something. And then after feeling sad, then they need to feel enlightened in some way. And then after that, they need to feel certain way. So they need to go on an emotional journey before they reach being inspired.

Ryan Foland: Interesting. Now something that I've done, which seems to be connected to this concept, I'll literally draw a graph. So on the y-axis is mood of the audience, and I just do a big happy face up on the top and a sad face at the origin. Then the x-axis is time or the time of the speech. And so as I develop a speech in these different cornerstones, I can kind of plot these points and then actually sort of put the through line through it. I've always visually played with that sort of graphical line. So this is what you're talking about, not just the feeling that they want to have or how they're going to feel, but the actual tactics, the storytelling, the facts, the emotions, the stories, the different elements that you're bringing them on that journey consciously. Which then not only just dictates it's not really your voice, it's really the content, and the stories, and the timing, and things behind that.

Cynthia Zhai: Yes. That's what I would say that you need to take the audience on a journey with you. So in terms of the emotion, they also need to go on a journey. For example, the other feeling some of my clients, they want the audience to have is they want them to feel hopeful. So in order to make them feel hopeful, they have to go on a journey as well. So first it might be for example, these few days that some clients they said, "In the beginning I'll be sharing. For the past whole year, it's not easy. So just by that sentence, it conveys different emotion as well." So when you say that sentence, it's not just saying, "Okay. For the past few months, it's not easy." That sentence actually shows empathy, which is that you understand what they are going through. So that's why when you say that sentence, you need to feel the empathy. So that's also where the connection is. The connection between the feeling and the voice.

Ryan Foland: And when you're saying voice, it's not just the physical voice. It's the theoretical voice in which you are bringing people along with the journey? The sentences that you're saying, the way that you're framing it, the cadence, the tone, the mood, the structure, all that?

Cynthia Zhai: Yes, yes. So we wouldn't say something as, "For the past few months it's been challenging." If you say it in that way, they don't feel that you are empathetic. They don't feel you understand them. Then whatever you're going to say next, they won't listen.

Ryan Foland: Right. So having the tone, match the feeling, to match the timing, to match the cadence, to match all that. And the volume and the melody. All the interesting elements.

Cynthia Zhai: That's right. So then in the end, so they need to feel it. And then you become... "For the past few months, it was challenging." Then you convey the empathy. So after the empathy, then you tell them, "However, we have them working on some plan," blah, blah, blah. Give them the hope. So that's what we mean by you need to take them on a journey before you want them to feel hopeful, inspired.

Ryan Foland: Yeah. If only it was that easy to walk out and be like, "Feel hopeful. I want you to be inspired right now."

Cynthia Zhai: Yeah, yeah.

Ryan Foland: Okay. Let's dive into something that you might consider advanced. What is something that when... and I truly don't think you can ever master speaking. It's the type of thing like skateboarding, there's always a level up. For me with sailing, there's so much more to learn. And half of that if not more comes from the experience that you get. And experience is only what you get after you need it. So it's this constant journey. What would three advanced moves be that somebody could learn from a speech coach.

Cynthia Zhai: Sure. I'm not sure whether we can categorize it or make it into three, but let's see. The very first thing that comes to my mind, which is also something that I've worked on over the years, and it also comes with a quote. So the quote goes-

Ryan Foland: Here we go full circle.

Cynthia Zhai: Yes, yes. People hear you from the level you speak. People hear you from the level or level of consciousness that you speak. Which means that we have to constantly upgrade ourselves. Not only just the skills, but also our own mindset, our own emotions, our own consciousness. When you are improving and when you are reaching the next level, that's where people would hear. One audience member, he said, "Cynthia, I heard you a couple of years ago. Now it looks like that you are giving the similar speech. But I can hear a lot of difference."

Ryan Foland: How does one as a speaker tap into that higher level or levels of consciousness? How would you dissect that?

Cynthia Zhai: Yes. It's constantly working on ourselves. For example, we know one of the key things for speakers is authenticity. But some speakers, they are not ready to share their own vulnerable stories. They're not ready to share a lot of things about themselves. They're not ready-

Ryan Foland: But when they share, it's just surface level and it's not really what happened?

Cynthia Zhai: Yes. So then you have to constantly work yourself to let go of certain things. Let go of the fear. Then, you'll be able to share your vulnerability in a very open, relaxed way. And people will hear and sense that.

Ryan Foland: Interesting.

Cynthia Zhai: I was working with a client, I said, "Go back and think about your own personal stories." Every time she came back saying that, "I don't have stories. I can't remember any." But as we started talking in the sessions, I realized, I said, "Can't you notice? You have so many stories?" And then she realized, she said, "I'm not ready to share those stories." Even those stories, there's no failure or no vulnerabilities. She's just not ready to share her own personal stories. She's not ready to let people know more about her.

So at the end of the day, as a professional speaker, people don't just hear the lessons you are sharing. They hear you as the speaker. That's why that makes everyone stands out if you're sharing your own stories authentically. Your own authentic stories, your own struggles, your vulnerability. That's so called your niche. That's what separates you apart. But if you're not sharing it, then people can just read all the lessons from a book. They don't need you anymore. If that speaker is not needed, then there's no more point.

Ryan Foland: So at that level, that's when you truly are simply your best?

Cynthia Zhai: Yes.

Ryan Foland: Better than all the rest?

Cynthia Zhai: Yes.

Ryan Foland: But you're you. Not about being better. It's about being the best that you can be. And I love how you brought it back to the book. You got the quote in the book here, because there's a lot of things you can read in the book. There's a lot of things that you can have in your head about the stories that you'll tell. But there is that moment on stage when you hear yourself through the microphone and you're looking in front of hundreds, if not thousands of people. And if you're truly not in that flow and comfortable with your own story, what I call to ditch the act at the highest level, then I do believe people pick up on that. And if there isn't that genuine authenticity, big buzzword that we're thrown around. But yeah, let's bring this back to conversation. If you're off stage, but you're still speaking.

You can tell when people are being straight up. You can tell when people are being really real. You can tell when people are hiding back and you're like, "Well no really what's wrong?" "Nothing." It's that moment where in the conversation you know when people are holding back. And I love this analogy to the stage. You totally know when somebody's holding back up on stage.

Cynthia Zhai: Yeah, that's right. Yes.

Ryan Foland: All right. So that was a good, we'll give you one and a half, maybe 1.2 on that. Because that was more than one. We'll get to three. But what's something else advanced that you can think of here? And then we'll add it all up to three. That was a good one. I don't know if you can go much higher than higher consciousness, but I'm challenging you to be your best here.

Cynthia Zhai: Sure. So last month, I gave a speech. And after the speech, there were at least two other colleagues where they're also professional speakers. So they came to me, they said, "Cynthia, I like the way you use pause." And then I said, "Really? I never thought about where to use pause."

So then I realized that the key is not to think about the skills. "Here I need to use pause. Here, I need to use an inspiring voice." So something I always tell my clients as well, which is that you embody what you are speaking. Embody what you're speaking. So when you are speaking on stage, you are going through the stories. You are going through the learning curves, learning journey with the audience. So you are in the story. I think from your acting experience, then you know the actors, they have to be acting in the scene that they are in.

Ryan Foland: And when you're truly acting, you're not acting. You're in that moment. You're in that flow. The way that I share with some of my clients is the difference between retelling and reliving.

Cynthia Zhai: Yes.

Ryan Foland: It's so easy default to I did this, and then this happened, this person said this and this. But it's completely different when you bring yourself as you said, to be in that moment. And in that moment, you may feel the urge to pause because that's naturally what is happening in your mind. As opposed to being like, "I should pause right here."

I love the concept and the power of the pause. Actually, my fourth TEDx talk is about the power of the pause. And there's so much fascinating research behind it, and so much power behind your cadence.

Cynthia Zhai: Yes.

Ryan Foland: Now we'll round that out to two. And I'm going to share one that I've observed just listening to you, which I think you probably understand, but I'm going to recognize you for it. There's this suspension that you have when you're talking. I ask you about the book. And you start to talk about the book, but you don't tell me what it is. And I'm like, "Well what's the name of it?" And then you go on and you explain, then you wait till the end and then you tell me the title. I ask you about this person, and you talk about him, and you tell me he has three islands before... I don't even know what this person's name is and I want to be connected with him.

So you bring this suspense. You know what I want, and you sort of dance around it to help me feel like I want it. So if you're listening to this, I hope this isn't just me. But you have this way of taking the question that I ask, and then you sort of back up a little bit, and then set it up, and then talk about it. And then you don't fully answer it until you've got me leaning in. And I think that's also very advanced.

Cynthia Zhai: Okay. Thank you.

Ryan Foland: Okay, well let's transition out of this coaching session. I feel like this is a good coaching and therapy session.

Cynthia Zhai: Yes.

Ryan Foland: Transitioning with a joyful sigh. Can you tell us three things that you've done to help build your business? Now, your speaking business is probably pretty tied with your coaching business. And that's often the case, so you can pick and choose. But what are three things that could apply to speakers trying to get on more stages, or speakers who have programs that they sell into that they're trying to get more clients? What would you say your three top pieces of advice are?

Cynthia Zhai: Yes. So the very first one, most people probably have heard of it over and over again. And it is to speak pro bono. So even today, after 12 years of running my own business, I still do pro bono. Because you never know what we'll get out of it.

Like for example, I think it was in 2014 that I gave a speech pro bono. And then actually after that speech, it keep on coming back with different people requesting different speeches or coaching. So that's the very first one. Give pro bono speeches. And then the second one of course is to build up your own presence. So what I call the omnipresence. So you want to be omnipresent everywhere. Online, offline.

Ryan Foland: Building your personal brand, right?

Cynthia Zhai: Yes. That of course requires you to get over your own fear of being visible, being judged, all kinds of things.

Ryan Foland: But people forget that you're getting judged, whether you're out there or not. Everybody's judging everybody. It's part of our nature. So the quicker you get okay with it... and I'll stitch this back to that higher level consciousness of yourself. People can smell it. They can sniff you out. And the mistake that I made was I was trying to build my speaking career. I was playing into the perception that I thought people wanted. So I was dressing a certain way. I was acting a certain way, topics were a certain way. I was really trying to play into that professional speaker. I get zero traction. It was only until my experience what I call ditch the act, and actually became a little bit more my quirky self, owned my ginger-ness, dress what made me comfortable in my own little style. And those are the things that helped me connect with people. And it wasn't what I initially thought was wanted to be in this space. So that was a big flash in the pan for me there.

Cynthia Zhai: Yeah.

Ryan Foland: So as you're helping people and as you're growing your own business, when you say omnipresent, I understand because that's everywhere. So are you on LinkedIn, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat? Because at a certain point, so many. So do you have any advice for people today in this new hybrid digital world? What are the top platforms that they need to be on? It's probably country and region-specific too, right?

Cynthia Zhai: Yeah, that's right. So that's why the other thing about that, which is also kind of a caveat. You also need to know where your audience handing around. For example, I'm not on TikTok because my audience is not there. So I am on LinkedIn, YouTube, Facebook. Even Instagram was kind of for the past two or three years that I started, because I started professionally. Initially on Instagram, it's only food and travel,

Ryan Foland: Right.

Cynthia Zhai: But then every time when I gave us speech in different continents, they asked me, "Do you have Instagram?" Then I realize okay. Looks like that I need to turn food and travel with a little bit professional.

Ryan Foland: Right. Show a little slice of life behind the scenes. They want to see that you're a human, right?

Cynthia Zhai: Yes. So they really know where your audience is. And also hear your audience. Hear them, what they're asking.

Ryan Foland: Now for the pro bono, are you selling on stage as part of your pro bono work, a transition to direct ask for you to work with them? Or is it implied? Or is it that you ... Because just going back to that, what's your nuance there?

Cynthia Zhai: It's both. So one is of course I would imply that. I would say for example in my last speech or blah, blah, blah. So you do need to imply. So that's one. And then in the end, I do ask. So I say that if your company is having a conference, having original conference. So I'm happy to discuss that or I'm happy go-

Ryan Foland: A direct ask. Because I find that if you do the pro bono work, yet you're not actually making the ask, sometimes it backfires because no one knows to contact or to go to that next step.

Cynthia Zhai: Yes. That's also something for probably some of our listeners, they need to get over that. Which is that, "I'm asking." They may feel awkward, they may feel all kinds of things. Whenever you are feeling it, the audience can hear it. So why don't you just be open, be frank, because there's nothing wrong. We are running a business, then we have to ask for business. So you have to get over the fear of there's nothing wrong asking for business.

Ryan Foland: Okay. So we pro bono with a specific genuine ask to lead to more leads. You have your omnipresence, which is your brand, with an ear to where your audience is, listening to see where they might be. What's a final third pin here that we should all be looking at?

Cynthia Zhai: So the third one, which is something that you will also hear from my island friend.

Ryan Foland: Okay. Okay. So excited to meet him.

Cynthia Zhai: His name, Fredrik Haren.

Ryan Foland: The suspense. Wait what, did you say his name?

Cynthia Zhai: Fredrik Haren.

Ryan Foland: Fredrik Haren. Oh, I know Fredrik. Wait, does he talk about creativity? I've had him on the show.

Cynthia Zhai: Okay.

Ryan Foland: Yeah. I didn't know that he had three islands. I'm going to hit him up and be like, "Fredrik, you're holding out on me." Okay, awesome.

Cynthia Zhai: So if you go to his LinkedIn profile, you'll actually see I think one of those companies he works for is an island, Creative Island.

Ryan Foland: Awesome, awesome.

Cynthia Zhai: So for someone who only does keynote, you will always hear him say this. And that is give, I'm not sure whether you can say some forbidden words here.

Ryan Foland: Go for it. We're explicit, it doesn't matter.

Cynthia Zhai: Yes, something as you have to give a damn good speech. So you have to work on your speech and work till the way that it's whenever people hear it saying that, "I have a conference. I would love to have you do the same speech for the other audience." So the third one is-

Ryan Foland: No hack, gets you past quality. I work with a lot of startups, and you can't business model your way out of a shitty idea. And you can't talk your way out of a shitty keynote. You can't. At the end of the day, quality is the most important. Now quality is also going to be based on your perspective, based on the audience. You could have this crazy quality show, but then you bring it in front of a bunch of sixth graders and it falls flat, right?

Cynthia Zhai: Yes. Yes.

Ryan Foland: How do you define a damn good talk, if this is kind of a nebulous that we're all going after? If you're a coach and you're watching people, what is it that you're like, "That is a good talk now." Are there certain elements, or pillars, or requirements? What do we look for?

Cynthia Zhai: So one thing we can learn is really a great movie. So I think I'm glad that you noticed that kind of becomes a habit. That's something that we want to make it a habit as well, which is that you want to build suspenses. So a good movie, they're always having suspenses along the way. And then after not only we are being hooked to the movie, but also that along the way we may shed tears, we may laugh. So you are eliciting all kinds of different emotions in people as well. You're taking people on a journey, on an experience.

And in the speech, you can notice that they are either thinking, they're either feeling, or they're shedding tears. But you notice that they are deeply engaged. So that's one kind of criteria that you will know whether it's a good speech.

Ryan Foland: On that note real quick, and I'll let you continue. Josh Linkner, who's been on the show a few times, and a friend and an amazing speaker who totally nails it. He talks about the James Bond start. And you watch any James Bond movie, and right out the gates it's like car chases, and guns, and crazy and blowing... right out the gates like title. And then whoa, you're into it. And he uses that as an example of how to really instead of coming out and being like, "Hi everyone. It's great to be here today in Ohio. I'm really happy." That's an example of a movie James Bond start, which is a fun analogy there. All right. Two other measures to know that you've got a good talk that Fredrik would be like, "Yes." And then we're going to shut this down this year.

Cynthia Zhai: So I think I can make it three.

Ryan Foland: I know. We're going to make it three. We got it.

Cynthia Zhai: So one is the entire process, the audience is deeply engaged.

Ryan Foland: Yeah. The audience is watching your talk like it's a compelling movie. Or, it could be a comedy or a romantic comedy. But think of a really good movie, and your talk should have that same type of impact. That's number one.

Cynthia Zhai: Yeah, that's one. And then two is that at the end, you will know that either they come up to you to share with you what kind of things they're getting out of it. Or you're starting to notice that they are taking action. So sometimes, maybe a few months later, someone sent me an email saying that, "I'm doing the thing that you mentioned in the speech." Then you know your speech has made a lasting impact.

Ryan Foland: And we call that your speech shadow. I'm just making this up. The shadow that your speech casts. If it's a big, huge deep shadow, literally you're casting the shadow, and people are lining up in that shadow. Somebody emails you three months later because the shadow. That's it. You've heard it here. You speaker shadow TM.

Cynthia Zhai: I say the shadow effect.

Ryan Foland: The speaker shadow effect. That might be my sixth book.

Cynthia Zhai: Yes. Good. So then the third one. If you really want to get highly paid, you have to work on that, which is humor.

Ryan Foland: Totally. So hard. So difficult. There's nothing more difficult than getting that timing, the humor, the setup, the clothes, the story. Gosh. Good point. Yes.

Cynthia Zhai: So that's something that you want to work on. And that will really make your speech very enjoyable.

Ryan Foland: Yeah. My dad always told me, "If you get them to laugh, you get them to learn." And so I'm always striving to find those moments of humor. People are interested. There is a conference called the Content Marketing Conference put on by a gentleman named Byron White in Boston. I've spoken at it a number of times. And he has a keynote track, which is the comedy keynote. And so he brings in these comedians who give keynotes really with a focus on being funny. So it's this mix between standup and an actual message. And it's fascinating. These are the people who are getting paid the big bucks. They're at the top of their game. But it takes so much work to get there. So if you're interested, tell Byron and I said hi and check out that conference, because every year they bring in new comedic keynotes specifically. Because those are skills to take away.

Well Cynthia, I feel like we have hit the number three on the head quite a few times. And so I'm going to change the initial quote that you gave me and I'm going to share with people. Well, I kind of won't expand it. The three things that will make you a different person in three years. One, the people you meet. Two, the books you read. And three, the podcasts you listen to.

Cynthia Zhai: That's right.

Ryan Foland: Boom. So speaking of podcasts, this is a good one to have to help you become a better, and a more proficient, and a higher paid, and a more impactful, and a funnier keynote speaker. Cynthia has given us all kinds of tips and tricks here today. Everything from the joyful sigh to the fact that you are your own movie up on the stage. And if you're funny, then Fredrik will say, "You deserve to come on the island and hang out."

If you are just a listener, I implore you to become a subscriber and get these episodes as they launch. And if you're not on SpeakerHub, you definitely should be, because it's a place where you can be found. You can showcase your expertise as a speaker. You can answer call for speakers, and you can search for call for speakers. And so a big shout out to them for sponsoring this for so many years. We're past that 100 episode mark. Now Cynthia, if people want to get in touch with you and they want to bring you to their stage, what's the best way that they can find you?

Cynthia Zhai: The best way is they can go to LinkedIn and just search Cynthia voice Coach. They should be able to find me not only on LinkedIn, but also if they can go to Google, search Cynthia voice coach, they'll be able to find and connect with me.

Ryan Foland: Nice. A bonus. Be easy to find online. And let me share with you all how I play into that. If you remember my name, Cynthia do you remember my name?

Cynthia Zhai: Yes. Ryan.

Ryan Foland: Ryan. Right? Now if you are hearing me, you don't see this. But I have this big ginger beard. It's not that big, but think of a mane of a lion. Think Ryan lion. Ryan. So now that I've got that in your brain, if you want to find me online, you just go to It's that simple. I'm the only online. You can also find me and my stick figures at And other than that, check out You got plenty of things to do now that you're empowered with more information to follow up with.

On behalf of the whole World of Speakers Nation, Cynthia, thank you for joining us from so far away. And I'm glad that we're connected through a few degrees. We've got some people to meet, some books to read, and some podcasts to put down. It's been fun talking with you.

Cynthia Zhai: Thank you.

Ryan Foland: All right, adios everybody. Take care. Don't forget, when you get stressed out, have a joyful sigh. Joyful sigh. It'll be all right. Adios.


A bit about World of Speakers

World of Speakers is a bi-weekly podcast that helps people find their own voice and teaches them how to use their voice to develop a speaking business. 

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