“Trust your preparation and essence”
Trust your preparation and essence. I know for me when I was younger, I never felt good enough. So I would talk too fast, I would push too hard, I would overgive, and it was just because I wasn’t trusting what I had prepared and I wasn’t trusting my inner power to radiate. It is all about how you prepare in advance and letting go.
As a part of our series about Inspirational Women of the Speaking Circuit, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Cindy Ashton.
At 11 days old, the doctors told Cindy Ashton’s parents that she had a 20% chance of living due to heart failure and damage caused to the left side of her body. But Cindy didn’t let that or anything else since then stop her. Today Cindy is a speaker, performer and singer. She speaks to businesses and individuals about invisible disability and how to Liberate Your Voice!
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Ever since I was a fetus swimming in my mother’s belly, I knew I was destined to be on stages across the world. But when I was born, my body had other plans for me. I was born with a 20% chance of living, heart failure, and structural damage on the left side of my body. Growing up I had my first heart surgery at 11 days old, had multiple surgeries after that, had casts on my legs in hopes my legs would grow out so that I could walk, let alone dance. I had to have speech therapy to learn how to speak, let alone sing. My whole life has been dealing with health problems, chronic illness, and chronic pain. Despite growing up and living that way, I have lived my dream of performing on stages across the world.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
When it comes to speaking, it’s not a career that I ever actually thought that I wanted. I remember when I was in a comedy improv troupe, one of the directors had a corporate training company and he knew that I had a degree in Kinesiology and he said, “Hey, can you come in and speak on Relaxation Therapy?” I said, “Sure.” So my speaking career started with him asking me to share my knowledge and from there it started to grow. When I released my first album when I was 29 years old, I got a lot of media attention because of my amazing story of singing with a damaged lung and all the heart surgeries. Because of that, I was asked a lot to speak on wellness, inspiration, overcoming obstacles, and beating the odds. Through the years, I also started incorporating my singing and my performing into my speaking. So, when I’m with the audience now, it’s such a joy because I can deliver great content and help them to move their life and their business to the next level while being able to weave in comedy, songs, and entertainment.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
The most interesting story in my career was the time that I spoke for an organization that was a hundred percent about empowering women in the specific industry that they were in. What was really fascinating to me is that, although this was all about empowering women to rise up in this specific industry, all the keynotes were male and were paid 10,000 dollars each. All of the breakout speakers were female and were not paid because they said it was an opportunity to market themselves. I was livid, of course. It was shocking and disturbing to me that an organization that was about empowering women was not willing to hire women as their keynotes. They had, over the three-day conference, five compensated male keynotes and 18 uncompensated female breakouts. When I asked them about it, they said, “Well, we had big sponsors who said who we had to hire.” I said, “Did you consider asking them if they had any female recommendations?” They said they were too afraid to ask. Unfortunately, through my 20+ year career in this business, even today, it is still male-dominated because of stuff like this. My greatest hope in the speaking industry is that we see more and more women and women of color rise up and get the equal opportunity that men have had for decades.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This was a mistake I made with my singing career and it’s funny and horrifying at the same time. It was a mistake that I learned not to repeat in my speaking career. When I was in my early 20’s. I was singing at a lot at old age homes. I would go in and I would sing Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli tunes and all the great classics, and everybody would love it.
Then, for that one fateful gig, I, once again, came in with my cute little red dress, perky and having fun singing those all-time crooner songs and show tunes. The audience had stiff faces. They looked unhappy. I got a phone call after the event from the director. She was extremely angry, and she said, “Don’t you understand that these are Orthodox Jews and you walked in here with a cute little red dress and prancing around. It was inappropriate and disrespectful.” On one hand, it was extraordinarily offensive and wrong of me to have not researched their audience and understood their needs, culture, and values. On the other hand, the vision of me prancing around in a little red dress in the most inappropriate environment is funny at the same time. From that experience, I learned the importance of doing a lot of research on who your audience is and how to cater a performance or presentation for them.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Mr. St. Cyr.
Growing up, I got kicked out of the choir. I was always told I couldn’t sing. I couldn’t dance. I couldn’t act. I moved to another high school and Mr. St. Cyr knew that I loved to dance. He said, “Cindy, I want you to audition to do the solo to sing for my stage band.” I said, “I can’t sing. I’ve been told I can’t sing.” He says, “Please just try.” I auditioned and he said, “You’re the only person I had audition because I knew you were right. You have a great voice.” I got the solo. I was singing with the stage band after my previous school had kicked me out of the choir for not being good enough.
The day of the performance came. In school, I was heavily bullied and ostracized. I was hated. I was the weird kid, I was ugly according to them. I got up there in my gold dress and my long white gloves and sang in front of those 800 people who saw me as an outcast. I got a standing ovation. That was the moment when I realized that maybe, what I knew what my life dream, could be a reality one day. Because of him, I gained that 1% belief that it was possible for me to be on stage.
You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging and intimidating. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?
Two things: one, develop your craft. This is really important. If you, as a speaker, are able to get on stage and truthfully be who you are, and really connect authentically with an audience and deliver to them, it is going to be satisfying for you. It is going to have the impact you want to make, and it will catapult your career to the next level. You will be seen as the go-to expert. It’s really important to develop your craft, body language, speaking voice, content, story-telling skills, and your presence.
This brings me to the second point. Trust your presence. Trust your power. Unfortunately, I see a lot of people in the speaking world, who put on airs. They are too posed, too canned, too scripted, and too memorized. When you make it all about you being perfect on stage, you’re not connecting with an audience. It’s really about getting the craft down pat so you can let go, trust your presence and connect with the audience.
What drives you to get up every day and give your talks? What is the main empowering message you aim to share with the world?
When I was 13 years old, I was in the hospital waiting for my 3rd heart surgery. The girl in the bed next to me, Stephanie and I bonded instantly. We’d both been born with heart failure. We’d both been fighting for our lives and we’d both been in and out of hospitals. We made a pact that we would both survive. She would go on to be the greatest heart surgeon in the world, and I would go on to be the greatest performer in the world.
A few more months passed. I went back to the hospital and discovered that Stephanie had died. At that moment, the first thing that happened was enormous guilt, shame, and anger. The second thing that happened, that makes me live every day, was thinking about how she died but I’m still alive. As long as I am still alive and breathing, I’m not done on this planet. It’s my mission to get my message out there.
The message that I really want people to get from me is about trusting your own power and trusting your own presence. On a deeper level, it is about doing your inner work. I don’t mean changing your thoughts, because everybody says that. We all have some unresolved trauma to some extent. But, that trauma impacts your physiology and your ability to think positively. It affects your ability to really trust yourself and to let that presence shine. So, in everything, my underlying message is around doing the deeper somatic work, really dropping in and truly trusting your presence. You have the power that you need to change your life and the lives of others.
Can you share with our readers a few of your most important tips about how to be an effective and empowering speaker? Can you please share some examples or stories?
I mentioned earlier about not being canned and scripted. However, I also see too many people just rambling on without being prepared. It’s important to take the time to really map out those talking points and embody them. When you embody the talking points it becomes subconscious. It’s like walking. We don’t think about it, we just do it. One of the biggest things you can do for yourself is to learn those talking points and build the overall structure of your talk. It needs to be second nature so that when you are on stage, you can let go and truly connect with your audience.
As you know, many people are terrified of speaking in public. Can you give some of your advice about how to overcome this fear?
A huge reason why people are terrified of public speaking is that they don’t know their talking points. They haven’t planned them out. It doesn’t have to be just for stage talks. Even if you’re speaking in a sales conversation or networking, it’s important to know what your talking points are. For example, if you’re going to speak in a negotiation, it’s important to understand your objectives for the contract. Establish what those things are that you must have in your contract, will not compromise on, and the types of compromises you are willing to make. Preparing those points and rehearsing them, so they’re not memorized but embodied, makes all the difference. A lot of people are afraid of public speaking because they’re not clear on what they want to say. They get tripped up and lose their power.
The second thing is learning how to activate your relaxation response. From a physical standpoint, one great exercise is exhaling longer than you inhale. Take your breath into your belly and exhale out as long as possible. Repeat that. The reason why is because we have our sympathetic nervous system which is our fight-flight-freeze which is what happens when we are afraid of public speaking. We want to stimulate the opposite which is our parasympathetic nervous system. When you exhale longer than your inhale and you do this for 2–4 minutes, it really helps you to get grounded, it helps to focus your mind so that you can deliver those talking points.
From an emotional standpoint, you need to ask yourself, “What conditions need to be met for me to feel safe in expressing my voice?” If you can get your soul to be in agreement with your needs to help you to be safe, and take action dealing with those emotional triggers, that will also decrease your fear of public speaking.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Number 1: Develop your topics and content to be specific for your audience’s needs and based on their goals. A lot of speakers out there say “I speak on this topic” and they just talk without understanding the audience and what effect they want to make. They also need to understand WHY they are speaking. Are you looking to do paid speaking or are you marketing to the audience? Understanding why you’re speaking will help you to position your topic specifically for them. For example, if you’re speaking topic is sales, how you position your content will be different if you have an audience of Attorneys versus networking marketers.
Number 2: How to position myself to negotiate for pay and value when I speak. A lot of speakers are told the budget and they don’t think they can negotiate for any more. You absolutely can. Even if somebody doesn’t have your full rate, there are often other perks and other ways to get paid. There’s a press interview, or the organization doing an email blast for you. There are all kinds of ways for you to position yourself as the expert who deserves to be paid and get as much value as you give.
For example, I had a Canadian women’s organization reach out to me. They were not paying me and they were expecting me to pay for my own way there. I’m normally a 10,000 dollars – 20,000 dollars speaker. I said to them, “I have a program coming up, if you help me market it and I make 7500 dollars in the next 6 weeks from your promotions, then I will do your gig for no fee.” For the next 6 weeks, they helped me promote it and I made my 7500 dollars. On top of that, I closed more business when I was at the gig. I ended up bringing in well over 40,000 dollars in total. That’s a great example of a situation where I was able to leverage an audience and earn more than what my fee would have been. It all comes down to positioning yourself and knowing how to ask the right questions and negotiate your pay.
Number 3: Don’t give away too much content. I used to be so guilty of this and sometimes I still am. We love our audiences, we want to give them everything. The problem is, if you give too much content, two things happen. The first is you overwhelm the audience. They feel like they can’t achieve anything because they don’t know where to start. Instead of impacting them and moving into action, you’ve actually crippling them. The other piece is if you were doing a speak-to-sell, and if they feel overwhelmed, then they’re not going to want to spend money with you because they won’t believe that you can get the results.
Number 4: Trust your preparation and essence. I know for me when I was younger, I never felt good enough. So I would talk too fast, I would push too hard, I would overgive, and it was just because I wasn’t trusting what I had prepared and I wasn’t trusting my inner power to radiate. It is all about how you prepare in advance and letting go.
Number 5: How to deal with unwanted touching and people rushing you. This has been a really challenging piece because even though I’m very extroverted in some ways, it’s very difficult for me when I have a lot of energy coming at me. Over the years, I’ve talked to a lot of women speakers and about half of them have expressed that they also have felt uncomfortable with people rushing and surrounding them. Also, I wish that somebody had told me how to deal with unwanted touching from predatory men. For those of you reading this, the first thing you want to do is carry a big purse with you. Learn to read body language. If someone is getting too close, literally put your purse between yourself and them. In terms of the overwhelm of people rushing you, hire a handler. This is a person that is watching you from a foot or two away from you. They’re able to watch what’s going on, they’re able to intervene, and they’re able to stop people from getting too close. In those ways, you can keep yourself protected from the overwhelm.
You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?
When it comes to my speaking, I combine my singing with my speaking, so people feel like healing is going through them. Our world is unbelievably stressful right now. Being able to help people to heal and find joy is so important. My most popular keynote is actually a one-woman show called “Liberate Your Voice: How to Trust Your Power in a World That Shuts You Down” It is a comedic, musical journey about what it feels like to be invisible and how to get your voice heard. It’s about overcoming obstacles and really being visible and getting your voice heard in the world. My speaking is really heading much more into that hybrid of singing and speaking. I also offer presentation training. I have a couple of yearly events that I love doing. One is “Get PR Famous” with Christina Daves, where we help established business owners and small companies to land media attention. We also have our “Speak from Your Power” which is for those people who are already established speakers and businesses. They are already confident in what they do, but they need to learn to speak from their power so they can have a bigger impact and influence.
Can you share with our readers any self care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body, mind or heart to thrive? Please share a story for each one if you can.
Yin Yoga. All the surgeries I’ve had, have caused a lifetime of chronic pain, and a few years ago I was officially diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. What I have discovered is that eating healthy food and doing Yin Yoga has been the cure. I have never been medicated for it. I’ve been doing self-care routines every morning, every night for years. Yin Yoga is different than regular yoga because it allows you to be on the floor doing long stretches and different poses. It releases your fascia, your muscles, and your tissues on a deeper level which releases a lot the pain. Even if our readers are not living with chronic pain and illness, any stress that’s held in your body is going to show up in your speaking voice and your body language. Yin Yoga is a great way to get your body in alignment, release that stress, and be able to be free in your body.
In terms of eating the right food, it’s important to understand that too much sugar makes your voice sound shaky and unstable which makes you come across as insecure. Too much dairy products cause you to sound mucousy and muted. Gluten, for some people, causes you to sound muted. Understanding how to relax your body and eat the right foods will get your voice and your body in shape.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This quote is relevant because it’s all about trusting yourself. It goes, “In a world that shuts us down with all that noise, we’re most successful when we are able to truly drop in and listen to our inner wisdom and our inner being and be able to express that to the world and truly trust ourselves and create our own path that’s right of us and not someone else.” — Saint Bartholomew
You are a person of huge influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
It would be understanding how to release trauma and stress from the body. If we look at our world, especially in the US and Canada, where I was born and raised, people are so divided and everybody needs to be right. When we’re able to deal with our inner stuff and let go of the need to be right, then it allows us to truly understand another human being. Even if we don’t agree with them, it allows us to get settled in our own bodies so we are not reacting from flight, fright, or freeze, but we’re reacting from a place of being grounded. It lets us ask deeper questions and try to understand another person’s point of view. We need to realize that every person has been raised in their own way and comes with their own frame of reference and life experiences. If we’re willing to try to understand their point of view and to connect on a human level, we may be able to get closer together and come up with middle-of-the-road solutions that can truly change a life. Until we really deal with issues on a deeper level, our world is going to be challenged with creating sustainable change.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
Liza Minnelli! I grew up adoring, and still adoring today, Liza Minnelli. She’s probably one of my greatest influencers as a performer. She has such a light and love to her and a spirit to her and she is so unbelievably herself. On top of that, she is all about the craft and really crafting her performance, crafting her presentation, crafting how she comes across to the world, and she’s such a beautiful free spirit. It would be such a joy and honor to have lunch with a person who has probably inspired me the most in my performing career.
Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?
This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!