When I’m asked to spend some time with a startup to help them continue their growth trajectory, by far the most common issues I help to solve are problems relating to leadership. Specifically, I’m usually asked by the investors and/or executive team to work very closely with the technology leadership in order to help them improve their output. The best way to improve output is to improve leadership skills.
Verbal communication is a topic that frequently needs addressing. It encompasses a variety of things including tact, the ability to explain technical topics to a non-technical audience, and language barriers when international teams are involved. However, the one aspect of verbal communication that is likely the easiest to improve is how to speak with confidence. I’ve written about confidence before, but that was in the more general case. In this article, I’ll specifically address speaking with confidence.
If you speak in a way that gives the impression that you are unsure of yourself and meek, then that’s almost always what people will believe. It makes no difference what you say, or how amazing your ideas are. If you cannot communicate those ideas and intentions clearly, with clarity and confidence, then you will always be subjected to additional scrutiny. I can only assume, based on my own observations, that if you don’t seem confident in what you’re saying, you will fail to inspire confidence in others.
With that in mind, I frequently find myself coaching leaders on how to speak more clearly and confidently. This pays off in so many ways, especially for those who have to give regular status updates or participate in weekly or monthly meetings with other executives and leaders. Additionally, the difficulty of being able to project confidence through speech seems to be a particularly prevalent trait among technical people.
The good news is that speaking with confidence is a skill that can be learned. It requires practice, but there are a few things you can do in order to dramatically improve the confidence you project when speaking.
First, know what you’re talking about! Be very precise in your speech, and do not equivocate when you are explaining something or answering questions.
How confidently do you respond to the question “What is your name?” or “What is your date of birth?” Probably very confidently, because you are 100% sure of the factual answer. While you’re not always able to be 100% sure of the facts, and often discussions may involve only opinions, the confidence derived from precise and careful speech is beneficial to apply to speech in general.
Be precise in how you answer technical questions, especially when they are posed by non-technical people. Non-technical people are already often suspicious of technical answers to questions, since they have no real way to judge the veracity of the response. Therefore, speak slowly, deliberately, and honestly. If you don’t know something, say that you do not know, but that you can find out.
The same idea can apply to having technical discussions with teams. If you don’t understand something someone is talking about, stop them and say so, and ask them to please explain further. Counterintuitively, an admission of not knowing and requesting further explanation is, in itself, an act of confidence and will generally be perceived as such.
Be precise. Know what you’re talking about, ask about what you don’t understand, and don’t talk about what you don’t know.
Breathing is one of the major problems often had by people who struggle with confident speaking. Take very deep breaths when you speak. Ensure that you inhale enough air using your diaphragm in order to project your voice throughout the entire room.
Speak slowly enough so that you can speak calmly. If you’re unable to take full and deep breaths at a leisurely pace, you’re probably speaking too quickly.
If you need some additional practice on breathing with your diaphragm, here’s an exercise I’ve suggested to technical people I’ve mentored in the past.
- Lie down on your back, and place an object with some heft on your stomach (a heavy book will do).
- Breathe in such a way that your stomach pushes the object up.
- Breathe in as deeply as you can, raising the object as much as you can with your stomach.
Practicing in this way for 5 minutes every few days will likely improve your ability to take deep and calm breaths with your diaphragm.
Once you are careful about only authoritatively discussing things you really know about, and you have developed your breathing such that you can be consciously aware of taking full and controlled breaths with your diaphragm, the next step is to be able to project your voice into rooms of varying sizes.
This may not seem terribly important, but if people in a spacious conference room can’t hear you, they will assume that you simply do not have the capability to speak up and be heard. In a sense, they’re right, since you never trained yourself to do exactly that. Note that the goal isn’t to speak loudly just for the sake of it, or to speak over others, but rather to ensure that you are speaking at a volume that allows everyone in the room to easily hear what you are saying.
An easy fix for improving how well you project your voice is to have conversations with someone in a comically large space. You’ll need a partner to help you practice this one. I’ve used this technique to help people numerous times, and it works almost instantly. An ideal space is a conference room with collapsable dividing walls that allow the space to be used as larger room. The exercise is straightforward: you and your practice partner stand on opposite sides of the space, much further apart than you would normally be, and have a conversation. Get into the practice of taking deep breaths with your diaphragm, and using those full breaths to project your voice to your practice partner.
Most people become comfortable speaking a larger space very quickly with this approach, assuming they don’t take themselves too seriously and are actually willing to try it. If you don’t have a large conference room, a long hallway or other big and empty space works just as well. Just be careful not to disturb anyone with your new and amazingly-powerful voice!
This one sounds obvious, but it’s actually rarely done!
If you are being mindful of the topics you’re speaking about, and you’ve got the breath work down, and you’ve learned to project your voice into larger spaces, then you can probably talk about a variety of things in all sorts of settings, and speak with confidence.
However, for those who have to give regular updates to more senior executives and board members, or represent their organization at public events, the added nervousness can often make speaking with confidence more difficult. In that case, rehearse!
The critical thing about rehearsing is that you can’t just run through a lecture or status report in your head. You have to actually use your voice, and move your mouth, and hear yourself speak. You have to use all the muscles you’d normally use for breathing and speaking. While visualization is important and useful for other reasons, you can’t only imagine giving your lecture in your mind.
You don’t need a partner to do this one, although one can be helpful to ensure you’re not speaking too quickly and that the points you want to make are clear.
When I’m doing this exercise with a leader I’m supporting, not only do I have them do it in large room so that they can project, but I also interrupt them, ask questions (sometimes the same ones repeatedly), and do other things that would expose them to the added stress that is typical in a meeting situation. In other words, I act like a belligerent executive or board member. The goal is to provide a rehearsal that is more stressful than the actual thing, so that when they present their information in the meeting they can do so very confidently. This stress inoculation is extremely useful in all contexts, not just for improving speaking, but perhaps that’s a topic for another article.
When you are in a leadership role and are the authority on a variety of topics, having the knowledge is only part of the role. You also must communicate that knowledge, and interact with people in a way that does not give them the impression that you are unsure of yourself and your direction. If you are unsure of something, say so, confidently! Then people will know that even if you don’t know what to do, you know you don’t know what to do.
I’ve helped many leaders, especially technology leaders, speak more confidently and it has always improved their leadership presence and ability. If you have difficulties speaking with confidence, it is almost certainly hampering your abilities to take on a larger leadership role. So be honest with yourself, take responsibility for your future development, and work on the things you need to improve in order to become a better leader.