As a former opera singer turned entrepreneur, I learned how to find my confidence, command a room, and influence others. I’ve since spent my career helping people overcome their fear of public speaking.
But very early on, I noticed people were coming to me for another type of help: how to speak up in meetings.
The more experience I gained in the business world, the more I realized the skills needed to communicate in small groups during meetings, pitches, or presentations are the same ones needed to speak to a large audience — like having a strong and confident voice, clear and concise messaging, and an authentic sense of conviction.
And, in many cases, it's the daily opportunities to speak up in meetings where we can have the greatest impact, on our business and on our careers.
Recently, I spent a month interviewing the group heads of a Fortune 50 financial services company, in order to understand how their direct reports need to communicate as they move into leadership positions. We were about to implement a four-month leadership communication training program that would prepare these individuals for future careers within the firm.
Again and again, I heard the same comment from these group heads: “If you are in the room for a meeting, we expect you to speak up. Don’t wait for someone to ask you."
In many organizations, our leadership readiness is measured in part by our willingness to speak up in meetings. How we speak off the cuff can have a bigger impact on our career trajectory than formal speeches, because every single day we have an opportunity to make an impact.
Here are three strategies for speaking up effectively, followed by three warnings for when you should hold back.
Strategies for Speaking Up Effectively
1. Prepare a few bullets in advance.
One senior executive I worked with was deathly afraid of public speaking early in her career. In order to overcome that fear, she challenged herself to speak up at every single meeting and prepared comments or questions in advance. That executive is now a role model within her organization and is one of the most powerful leaders in her industry. Don’t wait for inspiration to hit in the meeting; prepare in advance.
2. Ask, “why you?”
This is a question I recommend people ask before they craft a presentation, walk into a meeting, or even prepare for a networking event. It means, why do you care about what you do, about your organization, or about your role? Answering this question helps you connect with a sense of purpose and builds your confidence. It reminds you that you’re speaking up not to show off but because you truly care about the subject. It reminds you that your credibility doesn’t come solely from your title or years of experience; it also comes from your commitment and passion.
3. Pause and breathe to build your confidence.
Speaking up in a meeting takes courage. You have the ability to affect the trajectory of the conversation, potentially guiding your client towards saying yes to a deal when your colleagues have taken the meeting off track. Pausing and breathing helps center you and strengthens your voice so that when you do speak up, you speak with the full weight of your conviction. While you pause, ask yourself, “If one other person in this room has the same question, am I willing to ask on behalf of that person?” The answer should build your confidence. A client recently shared that she had used this technique to ask a question — in public — at a large conference, and her question changed the direction of the entire panel discussion, shedding light on a critical issue that the panel had been avoiding.
Warnings for When to Hold Back
With that being said, sometimes it’s the person who says the least in a meeting who has the most power. Your executive presence comes from being strategic about when you speak up in addition to what you say.
Here are three warnings for when you should hold back.
1. If you’re only trying to show off.
We’ve all had the experience of sitting in a meeting or on a conference call that runs late, where everyone is trying to wrap up, and someone is rambling about a topic the group had already moved on from 30 minutes ago. Right before you speak up, ask yourself why you are speaking. If you are speaking up just to show how much you know, it’s better to let someone else talk or let the meeting run its natural course.
2. If you are trying to empower others on your team.
I had a pivotal moment in graduate school where I received feedback that I spoke up too much in class. Why was that a problem? A classmate said, “You become a crutch for others. We can’t wrestle with the question being asked because you jump in with the answer. Sometimes leadership is about letting others find their own solutions.” Ten years later, that comment has stayed with me and has deeply influenced my leadership style. In the meeting, let members of your team speak up in order to build their own relationships of trust with your clients. Giving others an opportunity to speak in a meeting is one of the most powerful ways we can build their leadership skills, raise their visibility — both internally and externally — and give the client a more comprehensive sense of support from your whole team.
3. If your comment would be better left for a one-on-one conversation.
Senior executives consistently offer feedback on their direct reports in my training programs by saying, “They need to learn when to leave something to a one-on-one conversation.” So many difficult conversations within an organization can be mitigated by talking privately to someone — in person whenever possible — rather than addressing the issue in a group where the person will feel defensive. This applies to email as well as spoken conversation. Before speaking up or hitting “reply all,” ask yourself, “Would this be better said privately?”
Regardless of how frequently you give speeches, every single day you have an opportunity to use your voice.
Speaking up in a meeting can help you build a relationship of trust with your clients and colleagues. Practice it strategically and empower others in the process, and you will have a powerful impact on your career and in your business.
Inspire your audience to speak with impact. Visit Allison Shapira's speaker page here to learn more about her interactive programs.
Allison Shapira is an entrepreneur, author, and speaker. The Founder and CEO of Global Public Speaking LLC, she was trained as an opera singer and teaches public speaking at the Harvard Kennedy School. Her book 'Speak With Impact' teaches readers how to conquer fear, capture attention, motivate action, and take charge of their career.