How to speak with confidence and get your point across

Three tips to help you boost your career and self-esteem by learning to deliver your ideas effectively.

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I had lunch with a woman who is worried about her job, because she just can’t get her great ideas across. She told me that whenever she speaks up in meetings, her words always seem to get lost in translation. Worse, someone else will propose the same thing a few minutes later — and everyone loves it. As Madonna says, “You’ve got to express yourself… so you can respect yourself,” and that applies to work as much as it does to romance.

The hurdle
When trying to share our opinions, many of us have trouble getting to the point. This is compounded by the fact that we women tend to be good listeners, but when it comes to bringing forward an idea, we feel awkward. Sometimes it’s because we’re worried about being criticized, in which case we tend to spew out a lot of supporting material to show we’ve done our homework. Other times we’re so nervous we rush and wind up blurting out our argument before we’ve completely thought through the concept. Or we’re just so eager to make our point that we simply don’t know when to stop talking. Either way, our audience ends up thinking, “Where is this going?” or “When will she finish?” We sound scattered, disorganized, even flaky — not the way we want to come across.

The solution in three steps:

1. Get to the point, fast

The first step is to form a tightly focused message in your mind before you start to speak. Begin by asking yourself, “What is my point?” to help hone your thinking. Your main argument should always be something you can state in one sentence. It’s okay to set it up (for instance, if you need to link it to the discussion at hand, you can say something like, “I’ve been listening, and I think that…”), but no matter what, your central point should be the second or third sentence you say. And you should focus on a single subject if you are going to have a single, powerful message.

2. Back up your argument with power words

Leading into your subject is an art. To ensure everybody hears your message, highlight it with phrases like “My view is…,” “My point is…,””I believe that…” or for more formal situations, “The message I want to leave you with today is…” Having that verbal cue makes you sound authoritative and keeps your audience from having to guess what you’re getting at. Then, once you’ve stated your message, prove it. Use the reasons why you think as you do (no more than three). For example: If you’re arguing for a new kitchen, you might say to your partner, “First: If we enlarge the kitchen, we’ll spend more time there as a family. Second: Kitchens add greatly to the resale value of homes. And third: We’ll be able to whip up more gourmet meals.” Now you’re talking. Or you can define the ways to accomplish something. Or if you want to hire a new staff member at work, you might argue that the benefits will outweigh the cost in two ways. One: It will free up the time of higher-paid employees. And two: This individual will be able to book more business. Another tool is to recap the situation and describe your response to it. For example: If your point is that a 40-storey condo should not be built on your block, you should outline the situation as you see it, and then discuss the appropriate response. Organizing your structure in one of these ways makes a stronger case for your message.

3. Hit the pause button

Don’t wait for everyone’s eyes to glaze over. Once you’ve made your point, stop speaking. It sounds easy, but it isn’t — everyone hates dead air. But let others fill it instead of rambling on. Pausing after you’ve delivered your message is powerful. It gives others time to think about what you’ve said and give your idea a chance to sink in: plus, it buys you time to organize your thoughts. This way you can prepare for the next thing you want to say, so you can express yourself well every time—and your ideas will get the respect they deserve. Remember, having a clear and concise point turns you into a leader in your audience’s eyes, making it easier for them to understand what you believe in and feel confident that you know what you’re doing.

For more leadership advice, check out Judith’s book, Speaking as a Leader, and her Taking the Stage seminar, The Humphrey Group.