According to a study done by the non-profit organization Catalyst, women are far more likely than men to feel overlooked in virtual meetings. Forty-five percent of women business leaders say it’s difficult for women to speak in virtual meetings, and 42% of their male business leaders agree. With the modern workplace transitioning to a fully remote or hybrid environment, concise and assertive communication is more critical than ever, not just for advancing your career but also for bolstering your self-esteem. In the WiT Webinar “Speak up, Be Heard,” Melody Wilding covers the three essential pillars of assertive communication and dissects the bad habits that may be holding you back. Read on to learn tangible techniques for strengthening your written and verbal communication across various professional contexts.
The first pillar of speaking up more powerfully and assertively is being proactive and taking the initiative. The overwhelming majority of people who hesitantly talk in meetings do so because they do not feel comfortable speaking in front of others or are afraid of judgment. To eliminate this fear, try to get to know your colleagues and counterparts outside of meetings through coffee chats. Having a better relationship with your coworkers will ease the burden of sharing your thoughts in meetings and allow you to communicate more effectively.
Another important aspect of being proactive with your communication is making sure that your message is concise and tailored to your audience. Focus on the essentials, and if you have time in advance, create a pre-read document that covers essential background information or context on the topic to avoid rambling or going off-topic. A lousy communication habit to break is using speech qualifiers to diminish yourself or your knowledge on a topic. The biggest culprit is the overuse of the word “just” in our speech patterns. For example, “I’m just checking in” gives off hesitance and a lack of confidence. Instead, say “I’m checking in on this,” or an even more assertive variation would be “I’d like an update by the end of the week.” A common phrase over-exhausted by women is “sorry.” Rather than diminishing yourself by apologizing, turn the apology into a “thank you.” “I’m sorry for the delay” becomes “thank you for waiting,” or “I’m sorry for the typo” becomes “Thanks for catching that mistake, I’ll make that change.” For written communication, emails should not be longer than five lines or five paragraphs; otherwise, it should be a call or a meeting. Ensure the email is easily scannable with plenty of spacing and paragraph breaks to make it more digestible.
The second pillar of solid communication is what you say or the actual content of your message. Draw people’s attention to critical points by flagging statements, such as “it all boils down to” or “the heart of the matter.” Another valuable trick for effective communication is using bridging phrases to transition from topics you are unsure about to territory you are confident in. An example of steering the conversation this way is “I can’t speak to X, but what I can say is Y.”
An unfortunate reality for women in the workplace is the frequency we are interrupted by our male colleagues.However, there are ways you can mitigate these interruptions and still get your message across. One such way is circling back to the topic or idea you presented by requesting feedback so that you can avoid someone else taking credit for your opinion. Another option is employing the “broken record” technique. If you are interrupted, repeat “I’m speaking” or “I was saying” when restarting your train of thought. A final approach to avoiding interruptions is the “pass the baton approach.” Review the meeting agenda in advance and find a place you wish to contribute. Contact the meeting organizer to let them know that’s where you’d like to interject. It allows the speaker to give you the floor and provides greater credibility to what you have to say.
The last pillar of concise communication is delivery, which encompasses presentation, body language and even your speech patterns. Women tend to inflect at the end of sentences, or “uptalk,” which can make you perceived as less competent or knowledgeable on a topic and causes listeners to question your credibility. Recruit a trusted colleague or boss to give feedback on how you present yourself to avoid making this mistake.
Presentation on camera also plays a huge role in succeeding in today’s professional world. Take calls standing, if possible, and take up space, both figuratively and literally, as it shows greater confidence. Position your camera, so your upper chest and head are visible; avoid having the camera cut off your head. Avoid shadows or being backlit on video calls, and ideally, take calls in front of a window, as harsh artificial lighting can distract from your message. While naturally, we look at our colleague’s faces on camera when speaking, practice looking directly into the camera. A way to make this easier is by placing a sticky note with a smiley face above your camera and looking at that instead of your screen. Doing this will help you focus less on people’s reactions and more on your communication points. Turning off self-view mode can also make it easier to project your most confident self.
Whether you’re advocating for your ideas in a meeting or asking for a raise, it is necessary to learn how to be heard and stand your ground with tact to succeed in today’s professional world.