We live in contentious times. With the advent of fake news, and the proliferation of multiple (often clashing) points of view, we may be tempted to remain silent. That would be a mistake. 

If you’re sheepish about speaking out on topics that are important to you, it can be helpful to learn tools to express yourself effectively. We chatted with Allison Shapira, public speaking expert and author of Speak With Impact: How To Command the Room and Influence Others, about how to find your voice and make sure you are seen and heard, no matter the message or audience. 

SDTC: From your perspective, what are the major mistakes that women make when it comes to public speaking?

AS: In my experience, men and women often make the same mistakes when speaking in public. They either spend too much time preparing, or they don’t spend enough time; they ramble instead of getting to the point and speaking clearly and concisely; and they use distracting vocal ticks like uptalk, vocal fry, or filler words; however, when women make these mistakes, it disproportionately affects us in a negative way, especially when we are one of only a few women in a meeting, a company, or an industry. Simply look at all the articles telling women to stop using “just” or “I’m sorry.”

When we are female, people tend to notice our public speaking mistakes more than those of our male colleagues, and it holds us back in our credibility and our careers. That’s why it’s vitally important for women to build these skills.

Why are we afraid to speak publicly, and what are practical steps we can take to conquer that fear?

So many people are afraid of public speaking! In my experience, the reason most often stems from not wanting to look foolish in front of our friends or colleagues. In my book, I discuss some interesting theories as to why that fear is so debilitating. From an evolutionary perspective, we survived by living in communities. Being rejected from our community meant certain death. That’s why people fear rejection so much and anything that might cause rejection, such as public speaking.

So how do we reduce that fear? I don’t want people to completely conquer nerves before a speech, because your nerves keep you focused and remind you that you care about the opportunity. The solution is to reframe those nerves as excitement and then harness that energy in a positive way. In addition, recognize that public speaking is a skill, not a talent. You don’t have to be born with it. Every single one of us can build these skills through practice and feedback. My book walks you through the steps you can take before every single speech, presentation, or even a difficult conversation to reduce your fear and build your courage to speak up.

Even with well-thought out arguments and a powerful delivery, a controversial message can bring out the haters. How do you advise your clients on how to cope with backlash?

A controversial message, by definition, will encourage comments from people who don’t agree with you. I recommend you first and foremost connect with your authentic motivation to speak up about an issue to find your sense of purpose. Why is this issue important to you or to people you care about? Then put yourself in the shoes of your audience members and consider all the viewpoints on an issue, even the ones you don’t agree with. How are those views valid?

Once you’ve gone through this process, you can include counter-arguments in your speech and potentially neutralize some of the backlash. You won’t convince everyone that your point of view is valid. In fact, numerous studies show that when we hear facts that run contrary to what we believe, we hold even tighter to our beliefs even if they’ve been proven false. Your goal is to get people to understand your point of view even if they don’t accept it.

Allison Shapira. Photo by Stuart Isett

What should we keep in mind before making a presentation at work?

I always recommend people ask three critical questions before presenting at work. First, who is your audience? This helps you understand how much jargon to use, if any. It also helps you prepare for any negative backlash and neutralize it by addressing counter-arguments in your presentation.

Second, what is your goal? Every presentation is an opportunity to influence people’s behaviour. When you understand your goal, you ensure that everything in your presentation reinforces that goal.

The third question is the least obvious but the most important: Why you? By that I mean, why do you care about the work you do, about your audience, or about the subject of your speech? Answering this question builds your confidence to speak and helps you find authentic, genuine language you can use to make a powerful argument when you speak up at work, or anywhere.

Why do you want to help people become better public speakers? 

The more technology affects our lives, the more we crave face-to-face human connection, and I believe speaking in public is one of the most powerful ways through which we connect with others. It brings people together and creates community, which is something we desperately need now more than ever.

Public speaking can be used for good or for evil–to bring people together or to separate them–and my goal is to help people use public speaking to have a positive impact on the world.