How to speak confidently so people really listen

Communications expert Judith Humphrey offers strategies to speak up and say what you mean with conviction.

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woman, redhead, speech bubble

Photo, Getty Images.

One afternoon, Josephine Esther Mentzer walked into the offices of Stanley Marcus (founder of Neiman Marcus, the most prestigious department stores in North America) and announced, “I’m Estée Lauder and I have the best beauty products in the world — they should be in your store.” Sure enough, her high-end skincare line was soon front and centre on the shops’ cosmetic counters.

But imagine if Estée Lauder had started the conversation with “I won’t take much of your time” or “I don’t want to bother you.” All too often, women feel apologetic about speaking up. But Lauder believed she had something valuable to share and she had no intention of keeping it to herself. That gutsiness is the sign of an “onstage mindset.” It’s a key leadership quality: a way of thinking that transforms you into someone who is heard, who influences others and who can achieve whatever she wants in life, whether it’s a successful career, stronger family ties or simply a higher standing in her community. But for women, an onstage mindset doesn’t always come easy.

Girls are (or, at least, were) generally taught to fit in, while boys learn early on that it pays to stand out. Our fear of speaking up usually stems from the fact that we’ve been socialized to support, encourage and listen to others — all good things, of course, but these qualities won’t get you recognized for your own good ideas. Here are three strategies guaranteed to help you be heard.

1. Stop apologizing

Every time you talk, you have an opportunity to lead, influence and inspire. Just make sure you’re not undermining yourself as soon as you open your mouth. Avoid saying things like “I’m sorry, but…” or “This is probably a stupid idea, but…. ” This kind of minimizing language undermines your ideas and makes people stop listening. Instead of undercutting yourself, strengthen your argument with concrete proof points: “Here are the reasons I say that.” And instead of saying, “I think we could do this,” end with an action and say, “Let’s do this.”

2. Don’t soften your voice

Let your voice be strong, clear and full of conviction. When you speak, don’t whine, plead or sweeten your tone. Instead, connect with your message and think about the importance of delivering it to your audience. Then, focus on speaking from your diaphragm, using those muscles to project your voice. You will be heard if you can convey your ideas confidently and with authority — whether you’re at the office talking to a colleague or at home negotiating with a contractor. And each time you speak up, your voice will get stronger, your body language will grow more confident, and your ideas will come to life more clearly and effectively.

3. Believe in what you’re saying

First, understand your fear for what it is: a product of socialization and not a personal failing. Next, fight it. When that voice in your head says, “You’re not knowledgeable enough, prepared enough or powerful enough to express your views,” argue back: “Who says I’m not? I have great ideas, and I deserve to share them.” Don’t worry if you feel awkward, shaky or like an imposter when you speak up at first; these are signs you’re doing something new and courageous. And feel confident in knowing that what you say has value—and that at any moment there are people around you who can benefit from what you have to say.

For more from Judith, check out her book, Speaking as a Leader, and her Taking the Stage seminar for women.