Public speaker with his back turned

Effective public speaking and presentation skills offer us all the means of finding, valuing and expressing our voice; ‘the pathway to greatness’.

“One word expresses the pathway to greatness: voice. Those on this path find their voice and inspire others to find theirs. The rest never do.” – Stephen R. Covey

Whether you are the CEO, a student, call centre agent or clerk; every single one of us is here to express ourselves. Many would argue that the body serves largely as the communication vehicle for the mind which would make our voice our very essence.

The question for me is that if our voice is indeed our lifeblood then just how effectively are most of us using it?

It seems to me that far too many of us struggle to find the courage and grace to speak up for ourselves and others when we need to. Many would have us believe that the reason for our silence or outspokenness is simple; we are either introverts or extroverts. Whilst our character of course plays a significant role in the way we our express ourselves I believe there is a great deal more at stake:

  • So many of us are afraid of not being liked.
  • A great number of us don’t feel important enough to be heard.
  • Many of us were never taught how to find, to value and express our true voice.
  • Far too many of us believe that confidence is something that just the lucky few are born with and don’t realise it’s completely within everyone’s gift.

Hopefully none of the following events will have impacted you but just imagine for a moment being in one of these positions:

  • The extremely busy, tired and overstretched employee whose boss once again appears with another project and even more unreasonable deadline. She asks how you feel about taking it on and as usual you simply smile and say ‘no problem’. As she returns to her office you are seething with anger and disbelief that another human being could be so blind as to not be able to see how overworked and overstressed you are.

Why didn’t you just have the courage to tell her?

That was me a long time ago and my answer was simple. If I said no she would think that I was no good at my job, that I couldn’t cope and she would let me go.

  • The teenager who doesn’t quite seem able to keep up with your fellow students in the math’s class. Each time you underperform in tests your teacher becomes more agitated demanding speedy improvements. You leave for the day in complete despair with a pile of homework that you don’t even understand.

You wish you could tell him that you just ‘don’t get it’, you don’t understand any of it and nothing makes sense to you. Why couldn’t you just tell him.

That was me a very long time ago and my answer was simple then too. I was deeply embarrassed and ashamed and was terrified of looking like the class idiot to both my teacher and my friends.

  • You are terrified of public speaking and your boss insists that you present the management team with a full quarterly update. It isn’t the update that’s the problem; it’s simply the terrifying thought of speaking to them.

If only you could tell my boss how you feel and ask for help.

That was me some 30 years ago. I did tell my boss and I did ask for help.

Guess what he said?

‘You’ll be fine don’t worry’

  • You’re in a meeting which has taken a bit of an emotional charge and you are faced with a barrage of hostile questions from the same person.

If only you could tell them to shut up in the nicest possible way.

Sadly that was also me a long time ago and I couldn’t tell them to shut up in the nicest possible way because I was a junior member of staff and my job was ‘to be walked all over’. I wasn’t paid enough to have thoughts and feelings of my own.

Where do we find the courage to speak up and to know when and how to do so?

Having reached the pinnacle of my career in the corporate world, written my own book and created a revolutionary business helping countless people to find, to value and express their voice I can now tell you the answer.

The courage

It’s not about whether you are an introvert or an extrovert and to be honest no one really cares anyway. The courage comes from knowing and believing that the only reason you are here in the first place is to express yourself.

  • To express who you are and why it matters.
  • To express what you’ve learned on your journey so far and how it can help others.
  • To express what you care about and why others should too.
  • To express why you are have a right to be heard just as much as those who are speaking louder than you are.
  • To express that your opinion or perspective counts and is no less important than anyone elses.
  • To express the fact that you speak to connect not to inflate your own ego.

The when

  • It’s the very moment that you feel uncomfortable because you feel you aren’t important enough and no one will want to listen to you.
  • It’s that moment you absolutely believe that you have something of value to say but you are certain that someone else can express it better than you can.
  • It’s that same moment when you are terrified that you know that you are right but someone will dare to correct you.

The How

  • Remind yourself that what you have to say is important.
  • Ask yourself if not now, when …can you keep doing this?
  • Ask yourself what is the worst thing that can happen and if the answer is not ‘death’ say it anyway.
  • Stand or sit tall and proud, shoulders up, take a deep breath, pause and then speak.
  • Imagine how your favourite superhero would speak.
  • Remind yourself that this is the only reason you are here, to express yourself.
  • Practice, practice, practice and find yourself a good public speaking coach or a brilliant public speaking course.

In a world where so much is happening and changing so fast and so many people are struggling to be heard speaking up is something that can be very hard to do. I know I’m not alone in thinking that as that’s what Adam Galinsky also believes in his recent TED Talk, ‘How to speak up for yourself.

I really like this talk as he even opens up with the statement:

“Speaking up is hard to do”

He beautifully qualifies his statement with two short, relevant and compelling personal stories. The first described when he and his wife became new parents but as he told the story he showed the audience a picture of him holding his baby standing next to his wife.

His second example was about when he shouldn’t have spoken up as he gave some bad advice to his brother who made film documentaries. Once again he didn’t just say it he showed an image of some of his brother’s documentaries.

Stories and images can be a very powerful way to bring your words to life.

I really like the way he explains that when it comes to the challenge of speaking up we have a range of ‘acceptable behaviours’. When we stay within the acceptable range we are rewarded and we step outside we are punished.

Therein of course lays the dilemma we all face.

Our range isn’t fixed for any of us and it’s determined by our power, in my earlier example when you are a student you don’t have very much power.

When we have lots of power our range is very wide and when we lack power our range narrows considerably. When we have a low range and we don’t speak up we go unnoticed and when we do speak up we get punished.

The question is how do you expand your range?

In his 15 minute Ted talk Adam gives us tools to expand our power in a world where speaking up can be so risky.

1. Advocate for others – Be there for them, support their cause and be in their corner. He calls this the ‘Mama Bear Effect’, where we get to focus on looking out for others. Speaking up sounds of course like an action to always put yourself first, but whether we are the student struggling in maths or the employee giving the quarterly update we can also look out for our teacher and our boss.

He does also refer to advocating for ourselves which I would greatly expand on. It’s great to support others but we need to look after ourselves too. The way to do so is to return to ‘The How’ earlier in this article and diligently work on the seven suggestions.

2. Perspective taking – Looking at things from the perspective of your audience is one of the most valuable things you can do in any communication; even if you are a student or facing hostile questions.

Perception can of course present a significant paradox in speaking up. It can be our greatest gift or greatest curse. We need to understand the way we see ourselves and those we are speaking with and if neither perspectives are helpful it is within our gift to change our perception. As one of my favourite speakers the late Wayne Dyer once said ‘When you change the way you look at things the things you look at change’.

In this great TED Talk Adam then gets the audience involved in an exercise by using their fingers to draw an E on each of their foreheads.

Your audience needs to be involved; you need to have a conversation.

Then he tells a short funny story about a bank manager shifting perspective when her bank was about to be robbed. Appropriate humour always works and certainly adds another dimension.

3. Signal flexibility – When you give people a choice it lowers there defences and they are more likely to accept your message.

It’s all well and good making the statement and leaving your audience to work it out for themselves but Adam then told another story involving his niece which adds so much more value to his point.

4. Ask others for advice – gets others involved, complement their judgement and expresses humility.

In our presentation training workshops I often ask our delegates what the most popular radio station in the world is and when they struggle to answer I tell them.

It’s WIIFM, ‘What’s in it for me’?

It’s really cheesy I know but I believe it’s true. Whoever you are speaking with is always on the lookout for what’s in it for them. Whether you are on the receiving end of hostile questions or giving the quarterly update we still have to be mindful about the outcome our listeners are looking for. When you find yourself in either of those situations ask the questioner or someone in the audience for their advice and watch what happens.

I wonder what would have happened if I had asked my maths teacher for advice all of those years ago.

5. Display expertise – gives us credibility. When we lack power we need excellent evidence.

Let’s face it no one really wants to listen to someone who has far less knowledge and experience than they do in the topic. That said, many of us often find ourselves in that uncomfortable position and when that happens we simply have to work even harder to find the evidence that will appeal to our audience.

6. Show passion – showing passion gives us the courage to speak up whilst getting permission from others to do so.

For me this is the icing on the cake as if you speak with passion and conviction it’s highly unlikely that you can go too far wrong.

In our presentation training workshops when we are coaching delegates who are extremely anxious about public speaking something incredible happens when we ask them to speak about something they are very passionate about.

Most of their nerves dissipate within seconds.

Adam closes his TED Talk with a powerful quote from his father which he delivered at his twin brothers wedding. His final image was of him and his brother kissing their father on the cheeks.

It doesn’t get much more powerful than that.

Speaking up is hard that’s true but it’s not only important I believe that it’s critical to our wellbeing, peace of mind and success.

I do hope that this article has challenged and inspired you in some way to find and value your voice and to speak up.

Watch Adam’s TED Talk here to see him in action.

Image: Courtesy of