No matter where you are on your career path, cowering in staff meetings or failing to get a word in edgeways when up against your more forceful colleagues is never conducive to presenting yourself well or giving yourself the best opportunity to reach the next stage in your career.
Speaking up in meetings, or group situations like networking, gives you greater visibility, makes you more memorable and builds deeper relationships with the people who can help you progress your career. Even in situations where the link between more exposure and increased career success isn’t an obvious one, making your voice heard and letting people know who you are, what you know and what you can offer will always be beneficial in the long run.
In the shorter term, learning to speak up in meetings will bring immediate benefits by providing you with information you can work with. Although it may feel daunting to voice your opinions, especially when they might differ from those of other people present, the feedback and discussion on your ideas that you will generate as a result will give you valuable information to work with.
If you’re hesitating in meetings, remind yourself how frustrated you’ll feel if you leave the meeting still thinking ‘I wonder what they would have thought of my idea’ or ‘I wonder if I could have talked them round.’
So, what holds us back and stops us from speaking up in meetings and how can we overcome those obstacles? There are both psychological and physical things we can do to make the experience easier. Here are my top tips:
1. Work out what’s stopping you
As with most behavioral issues, understanding why we do the things we do can usually diffuse the power they have over us and speaking up in group situations is no exception.
Your reluctance to put yourself in the spotlight may stem from a lack of experience in similar situations, fear of confrontation or even plain old perfectionism – wanting everything to be worked out neatly before you voice it. Understanding more about your reasons for keeping quiet can help you either make a decision to over-ride the cause or learn more about how to tackle it.
2. Be the first to speak up
The longer you sit in a meeting worrying about whether or not to speak up, the more opportunity there is for your self-doubt to build to crippling levels and prevent you from opening your mouth at all. Like ripping off a plaster, the quicker you do it, the less it will hurt in the long run.
If one of the things that makes you feel uncomfortable is trying to speak when others are speaking, making sure you talk first also removes the problem of having to speak over people or interrupt to make your own point.
3. Make yourself known…even if you’re just agreeing
Sometimes quietness in meetings can simply stem from not having anything new to add or not wanting to rub other participants up the wrong way. While there is certainly an argument for voicing your views even if they aren’t universally accepted, there is also a strong case for appeasing clients or potential clients and there’s no point in ruffling feathers if it serves no useful purpose.
Instead of sitting mute – and therefore invisible – in the meeting though, one way to make your presence felt is to agree with the person who is speaking or add your support to an idea that has already been voiced.
Learning to speak up in these circumstances can also be good practice for those times when you do need to disagree with what has been said so see it as good training for the more difficult conversations that will surely arise in business.
4. Practice speaking up outside of meetings
In the era of social media, prolific texting and constant emailing, the fact is that some of us are simply not particularly familiar with the sound of our own voice. Especially if you sometimes work remotely, you may find hours can go by without you having used your voice at all.
As rudimentary as it sounds, make sure you are taking every opportunity to speak in everyday life – avoid the self-service checkout and instead have a chat with the cashier, for example. Or phone a friend for a chat instead of opening up WhatsApp to send your message. They sound like very basic things to try, but getting used to speaking more in every situation will make it less daunting to be vocal in a business meeting.
1. Get to know what to expect from your nerves
One of the hardest things about speaking up in meetings is that the anxiety you experience can be quite distressing if you’re not used to it. Practice putting yourself in situations that push you out of your comfort zone on a regular basis until you get familiar with how your body reacts in stressful situations.
Some people find that nerves never completely go away, but being able to think ‘Oh, that’s just my nerves – I know that feeling and I know it’s not going to harm me’ is enough to help you get past them and speak up.
2. Pay attention to delivery
Simply because of the biology of a woman’s voice – women tend to be higher pitched and more softly spoken than men – you may find you get over-ridden by your male colleagues who naturally speak more loudly and forcefully.
The trick is to pay attention to your own delivery so your voice carries the same level of depth and authority. Keep both feet on the floor when you speak as this will ground you and will allow for more authority from your voice. Before you speak up breathe into your stomach which will stop any voice wobble. If you can, it’s a good idea to do a vocal warm up before you go in to the meeting – this only needs to take a minute or two but it will help you get out of your head and into your body.
3. Make your point as succinctly as possible
To as large an extent as possible, go into the meeting knowing what you want to say and prepare your points in advance but do not be rigid that these are the only points you will make.
Concentrate on making your point as succinctly as possible. This will help alleviate nerves, give you confidence that you know what you’re talking about and promote an image of you as somebody who doesn’t waffle, but knows her own mind, is efficient and professional.
4. Have a clear intention before you go into the meeting
Setting an intention before you enter a meeting will make you less of a passive observer and more of an active participant even if you don’t even end up saying a word, simply because you have taken control over what you will get from the experience. Your intention might be curiosity, for instance, which would focus your attention on listening and may even help you forget your nerves and ask questions where appropriate.
Just as every business has a clear mission statement, having a clear intent in meetings will help you handle your fears and stay focused. Your intent is about ‘why’ you are there. In order to speak up, what intent would serve you well?