Confident meetings and presentations

What does it take to succeed in the workplace? Of course, qualifications and intelligence contribute to success. But so too does the extent to which you speak up

A study by researchers Cameron Anderson and Gavin Kilduff from University of California, Berkeley found that people in meetings who behaved more dominantly – by speaking up more – were rated as more competent than people who were less assertive. However, objective tests found that these dominant individuals were actually no more skilled than anyone else.

In other words, people who speak up may not be any more intelligent or have more to offer. However, they are automatically judged to be more capable. So if you wish to be taken seriously at work, you need to speak up. If you don’t speak up, your colleagues may unfortunately assume that you aren’t speaking up because you are actually less skilled or clever.

Making worthwhile contributions

One of the best things you can do to speak up more confidently is to prepare some notes on what you might say during a meeting. Whether you want to prepare a short update to deliver during a meeting or a longer speech for a formal presentation, consider using a three-step framework to communicate compellingly.

The ‘What? So what? Now what’ framework was created in 1970 by Terry Borton, a school teacher. However, the framework has become remarkably popular since then for its simplicity and the fact that it can help people to organise their thoughts in a clear, yet concise, fashion. Whatever your message, think about what you want to say in response to three questions:

  • ‘What?’ Begin by identifying what happened or is happening. Think about a few sentences that will convey the current situation, problem or opportunity – as well as why this seems to have happened. For example, you might want to point out an error, difficulty or opportune moment for taking action.
  • ‘So what?’ Next, focus on the implications of the situation for the people you’re speaking to. Avoid spending too much time laying out the ‘What?’ of the situation. The more important question is: What are the implications for them? Why should they care? Essentially, the ‘What?’ question summarises the situation, while the ‘So what?’ question is you saying ‘This is important because…’. The business may be losing money or there may be opportunities to generate revenue, improve efficiency or boost customer satisfaction, for example.
  • ‘Now what?’ Finally, tell your colleagues what you want them to do next. Here, you are basically communicating ‘I think that we should start doing…’ or ‘I think that we should stop doing…’.

The three-step framework can be used in most situations to create messages that help you to come across as having a valuable contribution, but at the same time avoid taking up too much air time. So think about how you might use it the next time you need to speak up in front of colleagues.

Dispelling the illusion of transparency

Sometimes, people do not speak up because they worry that their nervousness and lack of confidence will be visible to others. For instance, you may notice physical sensations of nervousness such as your palms getting sweaty, your mouth becoming dry or the pounding of your heart. You may also be conscious of worries and doubts running through your mind – concerns such as ‘I’m going to say something stupid’ or ‘People will think that I shouldn’t be talking at all’.

You may be acutely aware of your physical sensations, thoughts and feelings. However, the reality is that other people are far less able to detect nervousness than you think. A Cornell University investigator by the name of Thomas Gilovich has documented what he calls the ‘illusion of transparency’, which is the belief that our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations are more apparent to others than is actually the case.

The illusion of transparency means that many nervous individuals believe that their lack of confidence is easily detectable by onlookers. But the reality is that onlookers are often more interested in themselves than how nervous you may or may not be.

In an experiment, Gilovich and his research collaborator Kenneth Savitsky showed that it was possible to help nervous people who were worried about having to speak in public. They taught people about the illusion of transparency by asking them to read a paragraph as follows:

It may help you to know that research has found that audiences can’t pick up on your anxiety as well as you might expect. Psychologists have documented what is called an ‘illusion of transparency’. Those speaking feel that their nervousness is transparent, but in reality their feelings are not so apparent to observers. This happens because our own emotional experience can be so strong, we are sure our emotions ‘leak out’. In fact, observers aren’t as good at picking up on a speaker’s emotional state as we tend to expect. So, while you might be so nervous you’re convinced that everyone else can tell how nervous you are, in reality that’s very rarely the case.

Amazingly, people who were taught about the illusion of transparency immediately were able to give better presentations. So if you feel nervous in public settings, remind yourself that you may be the only person in the room who actually knows that you’re nervous. Call to mind the research on the illusion of transparency – the fact that your emotions are not typically very visible to onlookers – and you should help yourself to speak up more effectively in front of others.

Taming distressing emotions

Finally, if you ever experience anxiety or other negative emotions either during or in the run-up to a meeting or presentation, you can use a very quick technique that psychologists have called ‘affect labelling’. The technique merely involves naming the emotion – the ‘affect’ – that you are feeling.

If you’re feeling nervous, you would say to yourself ‘I am experiencing the feeling of nervousness’. Or you could similarly tell yourself ‘I am experiencing a sense of fear’ or ‘I am experiencing a feeling of shame’, for example.

The technique only takes a few seconds to put into practice. However, studies have found that it works. Researchers led by UCLA scientist Matthew Lieberman observed that affect labelling measurably reduced activity in the parts of the brain that are associated with distressing emotions.

Naming your emotions won’t make you feel 100% better. However, it has been demonstrated to have a small but quantifiable benefit in terms of helping nervous or otherwise distressed people to feel stronger.