A version of this article was originally published by Forbes.
The communication skills men and women need to succeed in the workplace are exactly the same. That’s according to Allison Shapira, CEO/Founder of Global Public Speaking LLC, who says that when women lack these skills, it holds them back in the workplace disproportionally. The advantages of having these skills are the same, but the costs of not having them are greater for women.
Shapira references one of her female investment banking clients to demonstrate her point. A managing director in her firm, the client said, “There are plenty of male leaders who lack communication skills. There’s not a single woman leader in this firm who lack these skills. You cannot make it to the top if you’re a woman without these skills.”
Released today, Shapira’s new book, Speak With Impact, beautifully strikes the balance between a strategic how-to guide and an enjoyable read full of engaging anecdotes from Shapira and her clients.
While the book is written for speakers of any gender, I sat down with Shapira to get her best advice for women to advance in their careers through speaking.
1. Take advantage of daily opportunities to speak.
The term “public speaking” often brings to mind a podium, microphone and an audience in the hundreds. Shapira is on a mission to change this perception.
“I want people to recognize that every day we have an opportunity to speak up – the opportunity to use our voice to impact others,” Shapira says, “It doesn’t have to be a formal speech or presentation.”
Informal opportunities to speak abound; the key is to recognize them. When you call someone for a phone interview, choose to speak up on conference call, or have that difficult conversation about a raise, Shapira stresses that these are all opportunities to practice public speaking.
In more structured settings where you’re not a presenter, there are still opportunities to make an impact. “One courageous question that you ask a panelist at a 500 person conference can steer the conversation in a new direction and have more impact than everyone on the stage,” Shapira says.
She encourages people to come to every work meeting prepared to contribute at least one point. If someone else takes your point because you didn’t speak up fast enough, she says to reinforce their point. In doing so you’re practicing your public speaking skills.
2. Speak to one person at a time.
When speakers are nervous, “they start scanning the room like a rotating fan”, Shapira says.
To avoid the fan scan, Shapira recommends speakers make eye contact and let that eye contact linger for a full phrase or sentence. In doing so, she says, you’re simply having a series of one-on-one conversations, which makes the experience less stressful.
For those new to speaking, she suggests practicing it in informal settings like brunch with your friends. Once you become more comfortable with it, then you can practice it in a meeting.
“When people are first trying out this skill, they’re uncomfortable,” but Shapira says that once they’ve gotten used to it, they tell her it calms them down. “It enables them to focus on others instead of on themselves.”
If you’re presenting to a large group and someone’s not making eye contact, turn to someone else who is more engaged. If it’s a smaller setting, Shapira suggests you pause and ask an open-ended question such as, “How does that align with what you were thinking?”, “How have you dealt with that in the past?” or my personal favorite, “Let me pause here. What questions do you have?”
Shapira says these substantive questions invite the listener to connect and ensure the content is relevant to them. The more relevant the content is to them, the more engaged they’ll be. This is a key way of building trust with your audience, and building trust makes you more effective whether you are trying to win business, build partnerships, or make a persuasive argument.”
3. Pause and breathe.
This approach is two-fold. First, it’s a mindfulness technique. “Before you walk in a room,” Shapira recommends, “Pause and breathe to center yourself and be more present.” Second, in a speaking setting, it slows you down and allows you to calm yourself.
Shapira relates how she saw the impact of this strategy in a presentation just the day prior to our conversation when she was in New York City leading a workshop for investment bankers.
A female participant explained, “When I get nervous, I don’t breathe. I rush my words, then my voice loses its strength, and then I freak out.” Shapira coached her to pause and breathe between each sentence.
As the participant practiced, she told Shapira she felt less nervous and more confident. The participant was also more focused because she was taking in the nourishing air to keep speaking.
Other workshop participants noticed – because she slowed down, the typically rushed speaker was able to convey much more confidence and authority.
This approach was personally relevant for me. Years ago, after rewatching my first TV appearance, I cringed when I realized that I answered each of the anchor’s questions by starting with the word, “Absolutely.” My father, who used to own an advertising agency, suggested that I wait and take a breath before replying in the future.
When I shared this anecdote, Shapira told me “Pause and breathe” is the antidote to fillers – those “absolutely” or “um” words that sneak in when we’re nervous. “When you physically close your mouth and breathe through your nose, your fillers can’t escape,” Shapira says.
Finally, Shapira shared a piece of advice, which she describes as more of a mindset than a technique.
“Audiences don’t want perfection,” Shapira says, “Perfection comes from a professional actor or a politician we don’t quite connect with. Authenticity is what we relate to in others.”
This is particularly relevant for women who, Shapira explains, were socialized growing up to make everything nice and neat. In speaking, she says, it’s different. “Being authentic liberates us when we speak up.”
As you strive to communicate in a way that is effective and authentic to you, these strategies can serve you: recognize and take daily opportunities to speak, talk to one person at a time, and don’t forget to “pause and breathe.”