How to Project Leadership Qualities (Even When You're Scared Stiff): Speak Out and Speak Strong

Dec. 12, 2006
Is your career advancing as quickly as you'd like? If not, take a good, honest look at the way that you communicate. Are you projecting "leadership" qualities? This article presents tips that will make you appear self-assured and confident, even if you aren't. Wallflowers, take heart. Play the part of the confident leader often enough, the author suggests, and you'll become a leader, whatever your sphere of influence.

“Believe in yourself. You gain strength,
courage, and confidence by every
experience in which you stop to look fear in
the face … You must do that which you think you cannot do.”

- Eleanor Roosevelt

It’s a sad fact of life that many top players in business reach that
level not because of proven business acumen, but because they have
a combination of elusive qualities that add to up what’s called “executive
presence.” They sound like leaders and look like leaders. Many
company boards put far too much stock in this trait when recruiting a
new CEO, overlooking smart, skilled, capable individuals who don’t
exude as much confidence.

Time and again, when I role-play with clients, I see women speaking
more tentatively than their male peers. They allow themselves to be
interrupted. They defer more to others. In short, they lack executive

If you want to get ahead in today’s workplace you need to find your
voice. Your voice is your identity, your sense of self, your relationship
to others, your sense of purpose. Your voice is the power to
express your ideas clearly and concisely, making certain you are
recognized for your contributions. Regardless of what you do or where
you work, it will play a large role in determining how people relate
to you.

An executive’s style of communicating significantly influences how
she is perceived by others in the organization. How we sound—our
pitch, tone, and volume—will affect how well our audience listens.
How can you use your voice to its best advantage?

When you must speak to a group of people, don’t underestimate the
importance of preparation. Research your subject and put together a
presentation complete with appropriate audio-visual aids.

Practice,practice, practice. Try to anticipate what kinds of questions you
might get and compose some answers in advance. Don’t read from
your notes.

Before you begin your oration, be aware of any obstacles that might
hinder your audience’s ability to hear you clearly.
• Does the air conditioning unit make noise?
• Will the sound from the projector compete\with your voice?
• Will there be other conversations going on at the same time?

Knowing beforehand what you will be up against can
greatly enhance your confidence when you are speaking.
As you begin your talk, make eye contact with those around you and
project your voice to the group. Even if it’s a tough room because
the topic is unpleasant, use nonverbal cues to help get people on
your side.

Smile warmly, but don’t overdo it. Make your voice more
animated by raising and lowering volume, or adding some inflections.
Phrase your statements in a manner that engages as opposed to driving
people to daydream. Don’t be afraid to look at anyone, and don’t give
the appearance of being shy or frightened—even if you are! Try to
appear relaxed and self-assured.

If you don’t feel confident about your public speaking skills, sign
up for a course. As a senior executive, you’ll find you are speaking
in front of groups, either formally or informally, on a regular basis.
Don’t let poor skills hinder your career advancement.

How about those weekly department or team meetings? First, choose
your seat wisely. You want to be visible to the person running things,
not out of sight.

If you are a new participant, or you have been promoted, or you want to be seen as a mover and shaker, it’s a good idea to take a place of importance at the table. That way, when you have something to say, everyone can see and hear you.

Speaking of being seen and heard, women tend not to interrupt or
even speak up as frequently as their male counterparts. When they
do, it is often with less conviction. This trait may stem from how they
were taught to participate in conversations. In many situations, girls
and young women learn that being polite (not interrupting others)
and reserved (ladylike) is more acceptable.

Go into your meeting well prepared, with perhaps a few speaking
points written down. Rehearse some polite ways to interrupt the flow
if you expect one or two individuals to dominate the meeting. Say
something like, “On that topic, I have a point I would like to make,”
and then articulate it clearly, making eye contact with those around
the table. Sit up straight. Look powerful. If you’re interrupted, calmly
remind the other speaker that you have not finished making your point
and then go on speaking.

In my last role in corporate America, I was with DIRECTV. We held
weekly meetings, and as the company grew, the number of people
attending grew. Soon there was no longer room for everyone at the
table. Although about 40 percent of the attendees were women, only
a few sat at the table. Many of the wallflowers were powerful, smart
women who acted with great confidence in other environments.

But because of their lack of presence in these meetings, many of the
senior executives had no idea how talented they were.

The consequences of not speaking up are dire. Over time, you risk
being left out, taken advantage of, and regarded by some as less
worthy. In many cases, the guy in the seat across the table will get the
credit for a great idea instead of you, while you seem invisible, apologetic.

Clearly it hurts your chances for advancement if you are not
regarded as good leadership material. And self-confidence is the key
for any leader.

Speaking up is not hostile, threatening, or demanding. You are not trespassing
on the rights of others. Begin to really believe that speaking up is
a positive trait—an honest and appropriate expression of your ideas and
needs. And consider the flip side of this. If you don’t speak up and get
your ideas and convictions across to others, how will they know what
you are thinking? How will they understand what you feel or believe if
you don’t share that with them in a meaningful and powerful way?
If what you have to say is important then it is your responsibility to
say it—clearly and with conviction. Wait too long to speak your mind
and someone else in the room might communicate your idea before
you do, winning the glory.

For the introverts of the world, both male and female, it can be difficult
to be heard in a room full of extroverts. Many successful business
leaders think quickly on their feet, and those who need more time
can be perceived as less bright or less committed to the task. If you’re
an introvert you’ll need to take extra steps to ensure your message
isn’t getting lost. Preparation for meetings both large and small is
essential. If there is no set agenda, try to anticipate potential topics of
discussion. And make sure you reward yourself with a little quiet time
or a solitary walk after the meeting.

Learning to speak up takes time and practice. When you’ve done
it well, give yourself a good pat on the back. When you’ve had a
setback, just think about how you can better handle the situation next
time and move on. Over time, better habits will form and speaking up
will become second nature to you. You’ll even come to enjoy it.
Tips for Finding Your Voice
• Don’t be a wallflower and wait to be asked. If you have an
opinion, voice it. If an opportunity to work on an interesting
project or committee arises, don’t wait for an invitation; let
your supervisor know you’d like to work on it.
• Prepare for meetings in advance. Review the agenda, minutes,
email correspondence, etc. so you can prepare some notes to
help you feel confident.
• Walk into a meeting knowing where you’d like to sit and take
that seat—and not the seat in the back where the key players
can’t see you.
• Don’t weaken your argument by overexplaining. When you
try to soften your message by explaining it, you lose your
audience and undermine your point.
• If you have the floor, don’t waste time giving credit to
everyone who helped you come up with the point you’re
making. Again, your audience’s attention will wander if you
get off message.
• Work with your mentor to improve your confidence in your
speaking ability. Set goals.

About the Author

John M. McKee | John M. McKee