“In meetings, I often hesitate to share my thoughts, even when I know the topic as well as, if not better than many others, because I am afraid of what will they think about me if I disagree with them”. If you too feel that making your voice heard in public forums is something that does not come easily to you, you are not alone. I quite often hear statements similar to this, in my work as a leadership development coach.
This reluctance to speak up is even more pronounced when it comes to many women leaders. During my workshops and coaching sessions, I have heard sentiments ranging from – “I don’t want people to think of me as too bossy” to “I feel uncomfortable being the center of attention after I have said something and others start looking at me” to “some men speak so loudly and continuously, I feel I will have to shout to make my voice heard and I don’t like doing that” and “sometimes there are senior people present and it won’t look nice if I contradict them”.
So while on one hand, these leaders want to state their opinions; on the other hand, such beliefs come in their way of truly expressing their thoughts. But let’s face it, in life and especially in the corporate world; opportunities to speak up are not going to be handed to anyone on a platter. It is unlikely that your colleagues are going to pause in the midst of an energetic conversation and say ‘wait we have not heard from you so would you like to share your thoughts now’. In fact, the more you shy away from expressing your thoughts, the more are people likely to form an impression of you as being either disinterested or lacking confidence or not having original thoughts or not having ‘presence’. It can become a vicious loop. And therefore we need to create our own moments and opportunities.
So what can you do, if public speaking doesn’t come very easily to you?
1. Believe in yourself. The most important element towards speaking with confidence and conviction is self-belief. You truly need to believe that what you have to say is worthwhile and deserves a chance to be heard. If you don’t believe in yourself, but you want others to do so, it is the equivalent of handing them the remote control of your self-esteem. They get to decide which buttons to push. Hence consciously try to avoid self-doubt and over-thinking. One way of doing that could be to consider your perspective the equivalent of the missing secret ingredient of a great recipe OR the key question that unravels the entire mystery. By speaking up you bring diversity of thought and freshness which enriches all good debates.
2. Prepare, prepare, prepare – It is said genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. Star athletes, great public speakers and cinema artistes noted for their acting abilities spend a large percentage of their time preparing beforehand in order to achieve that one moment of perfection. So next time, you have an important meeting, do invest time in advance on things like- knowing more about the other people who are likely to be present in order to find out common areas of interest, researching on the topic that is going to be discussed, examining historic data on the reasons behind past wins or losses, competitor and market information etc.; basically anything that gives you the confidence to back up your own thoughts with relevant data, if questioned.
3. Go for quality, not quantity. Another technique could be to think beforehand how much and what will you speak about. Start small – maybe you could tell yourself I will definitely speak at least once or twice during meetings and then make those instances count. For example, you could decide that in the next meeting my focus will be on stating my own point of view that I have come prepared with OR that I will ask pertinent questions of the speakers to convey my interest along with establishing myself as an equal OR I will spontaneously respond to whatever emerges during the discussion. Whatever path you choose, give yourself small targets initially and then take the leap.
4. Just do it. Further to the point above on responding spontaneously, another way of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone could be to ‘just do it’. In other words, don’t keep over thinking and critiquing your response in your own head but just go right out and say it. Have faith in your own years of experience and expertise that you have built up and believe that you will be able to answer any questions that may get posed to you. The more you practice ‘jumping in’ the easier it will become as time progresses.
5. Feedback works wonders. In order to project confidence (even if you are not feeling confident) it is very helpful to pay attention to non-verbal cues. Amy Cuddy’s famous TED Talk on Body Language draws attention to the importance of nonverbal in displaying executive presence. “Fake it till you become it”. So in order to increase your self-awareness on how you are coming across – you could rehearse your upcoming speech in front of a mirror to see your body language or even better you could record yourself on a video. A great way to make your impact sharper is to ask feedback from trusted colleagues on what you are doing well and what you can get better at. And then sincerely work on what gets highlighted.
To sum up, it is to your advantage and long term career success if you challenge yourself and learn to get comfortable stating your thoughts in public. Speaking up at the right platforms and in front of stakeholders can help position you as a key player and influencer of organizational matters.
“Without self-belief nothing can be accomplished. With it, nothing is impossible”
– Felix Dennis