Speak so that people listen

Despite my introverted nature, not to mention fear and loathing of public speaking, I’ve always enjoyed joining the discussion in classes or meetings. In my writing workshops in college, I first learned how to speak so that people listen by deconstructing novels and critiquing my fellow writers’ works. My passion for writing allowed me to speak confidently in a way I never could at a party or in my speech classes.

In one creative writing workshop, you could feel the sexual tension crackling between me and another writer, Drew. We sat side by side at a long table, our arms not quite touching as we each swigged from our cans of Diet Dr. Pepper (more proof that we were soul mates) and hotly debated each other on the nuances of motifs and subplots – surely a writer’s idea of foreplay.

That dream, however, was dashed when I made an especially brilliant point, grabbed my Diet Dr. Pepper and raised it to my lips before realizing I’d been a quarter short when I tried to buy a drink that day. So the can in my hand belonged to Drew, not to me. I corrected my mistake by dumping half of it all over myself.

Drew didn’t seem impressed by my one-woman wet T-shirt contest. In fact, his disgusted, “You keep it,” when I tried to return what was left of his soda was my first clue that maybe our attraction wasn’t quite as mutual as I thought. My second was when he read his beautifully written essay about coming out to his parents in high school.

So, while I could teach a master class in building successful relationships that exist solely in your own mind, today’s topic is how to speak so that people listen in classes or meetings. I have some advice on that too.

Come prepared.

Whenever you can, find out what’s on the agenda and come with at least one thing you know ahead of time you can contribute to the discussion. In class this might mean some additional reading on the subject. At work it might mean something relevant that was in the news recently or what a competitor is doing. Either way, coming armed with a little advanced intel is especially key if you don’t like speaking off the cuff.

Sit at the table.

This is Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s advice and I love it. I didn’t realize how casually I physically took a back seat in meetings, just by choosing the chair in the corner or the low couch in one of our conference rooms. But sitting in the back of the class or on the sidelines in a meeting makes it harder to claim the floor when it’s time to talk. You can’t exactly speak so that people listen if they can’t even see you.



Don’t wait to be called on.

In informal meetings or classes, it’s fine to just speak up when you have something to contribute. Don’t wait for your boss or teacher to specifically ask your opinion. Being proactive will show her you’ve got one.

Stay engaged.

It’s so easy to tune out in meetings or class, but you can’t speak so that people listen if you’re not actively listening yourself. When I feel myself tuning out, I take notes. Putting pen to paper reactivates your brain so you’re focused and ready to participate.

Don’t be afraid to listen more than you speak.

This is good life advice, not just work advice. So many people try to look smart by talking every chance they get. But listening is how you learn. When you’re thoughtful and speak with purpose, you show you’re less about word count and more about making your words count.

Speak in sound bites.

Long, rambling monologues make people restless and your point harder to find. Say what you have to say simply and concisely, then, for god’s sakes, stop talking.

Make no apologies.

Kurt Cobain might have been “All Apologies” but you shouldn’t be. Don’t undercut what you’re saying with an apologetic preface like “I’m sorry, but I just think … ” Or “This may be stupid but… ” Or “Can I ask a dumb question …” or “Maybe it’s just me but …” Just chop those timid expressions right off the front of your sentence and speak your mind.

Use your big girl voice.

My voice is naturally high pitched and I never try to lower it to sound like a man. However, knowing that squeaking and whispering can weaken my message, I make an extra effort to speak strongly and with conviction. Something else to watch out for: “uptalking.” You know, ending every sentence with an upward inflection? As you would a question? I hear men do this too and would tell them the same thing: uptalking makes you sound uncertain and less confident. Here’s a good article about uptalking and vocal fry. (A.k.a. Kardashian-speak). And an even better video of Margaret Thatcher before and after voice coaching.

Don’t let yourself be interrupted … or interrupt.

One of the proudest moments in my career was when I politely but firmly told someone, “Please don’t interrupt me.” I was 24 and the culprit was a thirty-something man whose mouth snapped shut in surprise. I finished my thought and gestured for him to continue. Yes! Of course I wouldn’t try that with my boss or a client, but I don’t hesitate to call people out when they talk over me or try to cut me off. And I try to NEVER interrupt anyone else. (Gotta play by my own rules.) You might also speak up on someone else’s behalf when they get cut off: “Amy, what were you about to say?” or “Just a sec, let Maddy finish …”

State. Don’t just reiterate.

I used to work with a gentleman we all called The Elder Statesman. He wanted to weigh in on every discussion in his rich Southern politician voice. Trouble was, he only reiterated what the previous speaker said, using bigger words and more drawl. It drove people crazy. Don’t be The Elder Statesman. If you agree, nod or say so. Expound on the topic. Or just stay quiet.

What about you? Do you speak so that people listen or fly under the radar? Got any tips for joining the discussion?


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