Have you ever been in a big meeting and felt afraid to chime in? Maybe you didn’t feel comfortable in front of a new boss or weren’t sure if your suggestion was up to snuff — only to feel regret about not saying anything after a coworker earns praise for sharing the same idea. Before you beat yourself up for missing an opportunity to shine, Allison Shapira, public speaking pro and the author of Speak With Impact, suggests doing something that’s actually pretty simple: Learning how to speak up.
“In many organizations, our leadership skills are measured in part by our willingness to talk in a meeting,” Shapira shares. “I learned early on about the importance of speaking up. … I remember a time in graduate school when I was sitting in a microeconomics class. The professor had written a number on the board, and I just couldn’t figure out where that number came from.
“A little voice inside me said I must have zoned out while the professor explained it, so everyone else in the class must have known what it meant. But still, I shakily raised my hand and nervously asked the professor to explain the number. A voice in the back of the room called out, ‘Thank you, Allison!’ The professor had skipped a step in his reasoning, and no one had any idea what he was talking about.”
Though it’s not always easy to speak up in a meeting, Shapira remembers the eye-opening experience as a defining moment and told us it’s stayed with her throughout her career.
“Now, I don’t speak up for me so much as the voice in the back of the room,” she explains. “Ask yourself who is in the room, what your goal is in sharing and, finally, why you care about the issue. That will help build your confidence.”
4 times you should speak up in a big meeting
According to Shapira, there aren’t any “hard and fast” rules for when to speak up; however, she says that paying attention to who’s talking, what the company’s dynamics are, and what the meeting is about can help. “Don’t forget that your ability to share your thoughts in a meeting has the potential to change the course of the conversation and build your leadership skills.” Here are four scenarios when you can be confident that chiming in is a good idea.
1. When You Have a Question: Shapira’s experience is a perfect example here — someone else may have the same question! “Sometimes the presenter uses an acronym you don’t understand or a chart that isn’t marked clearly,” she offers. “So speak up. Who knows, your boss might have had the same question and be impressed with your courage.” To strike it right, she suggests phrasing your question like, “Could you explain that?” or “I think there may be a few people in the room who have questions about this.”
2. When Someone Asks for Feedback: “When the person speaking specifically asks, ‘What do others think?’, this is a great opportunity to contribute,” Shapira reminds. “If you feel hesitant, try language like, ‘In my experience, I’ve found…’ or, ‘From where I’m sitting, it seems like…’” Have both positive and constructive feedback to share? Start with the positive. “Then, try something like, ‘One area you might consider is X.’”
3. To Further the Discussion: “If you have an important perspective or specific experience that others in the room need to hear in order to make a decision, speak up!” encourages Shapira. “Maybe you’ve dealt with this issue in a previous role. In all cases, make sure what you share is relevant to what the group is talking about.”
4. When You’re Willing to Act as a Lightning Rod: Feeling extra-bold? Consider acting as something Shapira calls a “lightning rod”: the person who’s willing to address the elephant in the room. To do this effectively, she suggests saying something along the lines of, “I can sense some questions in the room about this; what are the pitfalls we should be aware of?” While this one definitely takes courage, it’ll earn you respect too. “Your heart might start racing as you prepare to speak. Pay attention to the dynamics in the room, like people’s body language and how they respond to other speakers — and let that guide you on whether or not to contribute.”
5 talking tips to help you chime in like a champ
1. Sit where people can see you. “Make eye contact with everyone when you speak,” Shapira reminds. “Eye contact demonstrates your confidence in yourself — and in the value of what you have to say.”
2. Speak so everyone can hear you. This one is especially important if people are listening remotely. “Slow down and project your voice instead of rushing to get it over with.”
3. Jot down a few thoughts. “Do this before you talk to avoid losing your train of thought halfway through your comment,” Shapira advises.
4. Pause (and breathe) before you share. Shapira promises this will help center you and strengthen your voice at the same time.
5. Avoid using fillers. You’ve probably heard this before, but using “um” or “ah” will make you sound unsure of yourself. “It’s absolutely fine to introduce doubt when you speak, such as, ‘We may want to consider a few things before making a decision,’ but say it with confidence,” Shapira instructs. “Using uptalk or other vocal tics will make you sound uncertain.”