People think being good at public speaking is about not being nervous in front of crowds. As someone whose work reviews tend to use phrases like “team player,” I’m here to tell you that’s a dirty lie. I’ve led meetings, taught seminars, performed theater, managed workshops, done standup comedy, emceed, and speaking up during the morning meeting still makes me nervous sometimes. Thousands of years of evolution is invested in making sure that our hearts pound like crazy when we speak to more than a handful of people. It’s literally a survival instinct and those are not designed to be easily overcome.
However, the instinct to listen quietly in the corner can be dangerous professionally! Verbally oriented learners (people who develop ideas and retain information best by verbalizing them) are often perceived as having more leadership potential, being more engaged, and to be identified as contributors. An inconvenient truth indeed, but one worth remembering! If you tend to “keep your head down” and could stand to speak up more often at work, here are some simple perspective shifts you can make to take some of the sting out of speaking up.
Process over Product!
Part of the reason people don’t speak up during the learning/getting up to speed phase is because they fear they don’t understand it yet and will say something “wrong.” But don’t forget that discussion is a part of learning a new concept. People who “say the wrong things” because they are engaging with unfamiliar ideas can pick up new concepts faster than people who are too intimidated to make public mistakes. Try to think of the discussion phase as an integral part of the process, like the rough draft or brainstorming part of the process. Just finding the words to talk about the project with your team can help you clarify your contribution before even beginning.
Identify YOUR contribution
When you say something that’s incorrect (also known as the “learning process”) you don’t just benefit yourself and contribute to some kind of myth that you know everything. You also empower your team! As the old saying goes, if you have a question about something, it’s very likely that someone else in the group does also. I can’t tell you how many times a freshman’s “stupid question” led to the breakthrough in the discussion that helped a half a dozen other people really grasp a new concept. Thinking about yourself not just as an individual, but a member of a team can help make it easier to speak up and take risks in your work.
Break up the crowd
I’m assuming the old “picture them in their underwear” adage is some kind of attempt at this philosophy, but a significantly less invasive way to make speaking to a crowd easier is to help your mind begin to break the crowd up into individuals. If you can think of “speaking up in a meeting” as a smaller task like “asking Ross a question” or “following up on a previous conversation with Kara,” that makes that moment of tension a little more bearable.
If you feel particularly vulnerable speaking up to a certain group, try to imagine a mentor you are speaking to a mentor who has supported you in the past. Pretend that you’re talking with just that one individual who understands that you’re thinking aloud and wants to see you succeed.
Talk About It
If lending your voice to the group is your goal, speak it! Tell a manager that it’s something you’d like to improve. They can help hold you accountable and reinforce your inevitable success! Write it down. Make a goal to contribute once to the next meeting you’re in, then twice. Sometimes, writing things down ahead of time can help clear your mind so you can bring your A-game to the table. If there’s a topic you’re particularly nervous to address, try doing some freewriting about it. No judgment and you don’t even have to keep it after the fact. It’s just a tool to get your thoughts percolating.
Groups can tell when a leader is tense towards them, even if that tension comes from the very natural pressure that comes up when speaking in front of a crowd of peers. Try to remember that this group wants you to succeed. You all want to succeed together! Practice in low stakes situations and then slowly start amping up how often and for how long you speak to a group. It’s not that a leader feels confident in everything they say. Leaders just know that other goals are more important than potentially looking foolish.
Tell us in the comments about a time you said something silly in a meeting!