You know the feeling. You’re in a group of people, and you start to say something, only to realize that nobody around you is paying attention. If you’re anything like me, you let your voice trail off mid-sentence and stand there feeling tiny and invisible. It sucks. Awkward half-conversations happen to everyone, so don’t take them personally. Instead, focus on speaking up with confidence, because you deserve to be heard.
Believe in yourself and your ideas.
Don’t allow feeling intimidated to prevent you from expressing yourself in front of people who are older than you, or who have more education or work experience. If you tend to stay silent in team meetings at work, dare yourself to contribute to the next discussion, even if you’re only sharing a small suggestion or idea. Secret personal challenges like this will remind you how brave you are, and they’ll also show your boss that you’re a valuable part of the team. (If you don’t work in a corporate environment, dare yourself to talk to three strangers the next time you’re at a social event. Even if you just say hi, it totally counts.)
Pay attention to other people.
You know how bad it feels when someone interrupts you mid-sentence or talks over you, so make sure you’re not guilty of doing the same things. At least once or twice, you’ve probably cut someone off because you thought you knew what they were going to say — or you hit reply on an email without reading the whole thing, because you thought you had the general idea. When you rush through a conversation, it’s easy to miss the details, or even the whole point, and come across looking like a fool. Instead, take a minute to breathe before you respond. It’s more respectful, and you’ll probably sound smarter, too.
Be willing to ask questions.
If someone wants your input, and you feel clueless about what to tell them, don’t stress out. Ask for more information, and don’t preface it with, “This is probably a stupid question, but…” Asking questions won’t make you look bad. It’s a way to make sure you have all the info you need to do the best possible job or make the right decision.
Know what you want to say.
Before you open your mouth, have a sense of the idea you want to express and how you might say it. In a casual conversation, this can be as simple as pausing for a moment to form a sentence in your mind. Before a big speech or important meeting, set aside some time to organize your thoughts. Make an outline of your speech, or write down a few points you definitely want to bring up. (Don’t try to memorize the whole thing in advance, because it could end up sounding flat and rehearsed. Bring notes, and refer to them as a guide.)
Be aware of how you sound.
We all tend to hate the sound of our own voice , but if you want to know what other people hear while you’re talking, it’s worth recording a conversation or two. Make an audio or video recording of yourself, and as you play it back, pay attention to your vocal patterns. If you realize you’re saying “um” or “like” every other word, try to cut those meaningless filler words from your vocabulary. I know I say “like” on a regular basis, but I make a real effort to leave it out of important conversations.
You know how some people (often women) let their voices go up at the end of a sentence? This is called “uptalk,” and it can make you sound less sure of yourself. Listen to a recording of your voice to check if you do this. When you state a basic fact — like your name or where you live — does it ever sound like the sentence ends in a question mark? If you catch yourself speaking in uptalk, make another recording and try lowering your voice a bit when you make a point. Can you hear the difference?
Don’t apologize when you haven’t done anything wrong.
Another vocal habit to be aware of: Apologizing too much. There is a time and place for apologies. If you spill a drink on someone, it makes sense to say “I’m sorry.” If you catch yourself apologizing before you express an opinion or speak up in a meeting, ask yourself why. You’re entitled to share your thoughts, and you’re contributing to the discussion. No apology necessary.
Don’t let your nervous habits get all the attention.
Have you ever had a conversation with someone who was constantly twirling their hair, biting their nails, or picking at their cuticles? It’s unbelievably distracting. Random fidgeting not only pulls people’s attention away from what you’re saying, it makes you look bored and uncomfortable. I’m a former hair twirler, but nowadays, I keep my hands busy by taking notes during meetings. I look (and feel!) more focused.
Make sure people can hear you.
When I have to speak in front of a group, I must subconsciously want to get it over with as quickly as possible, because I start talking so fast that nobody can understand a word I say. I’m aware that I do this, so I make an effort to speak slowly and pause once in a while – and I end up sounding normal. Other people get so shy in front of a group that they lower their voice to a whisper. If you know you’re pretty quiet, pretend you’re on stage, and project your voice. If there’s a mic, get so close that it’s practically touching your lips. People want to hear you, but they need your help.
A final tip:
Even if you know you’re making some of the speech mistakes mentioned above, it’s no reason to stay quiet. The best way you can express yourself is by being yourself. Your ideas matter, and by speaking up and sharing them, you might just change the world.
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