What Good Is Freedom of Speech If You Won’t Use It?

April 22nd, 2014

We tend to get a bit smug about our civil liberties in the U.S., especially our freedom of speech. But if you censor yourself because of a fear of public speaking, what good is that freedom? If you let others enjoy influence out of proportion to the quality of their ideas, what good is that freedom?

This article is a public version of a challenge that I issued to an audience last week. I urged the least confident ones among them to be the first to volunteer to make the presentations for their teams in their business plan competition. The same goes for everyone reading this who would like to become a better public speaker but shies away out of fear or lack of confidence: speak up!

I’m qualified to issue the challenge because I faced the same fear early in my career. I was extremely introverted and would get dry-mouthed and knock-kneed in anticipation of merely having to introduce myself to a classroom. A friend urged me to join a Toastmasters Club, and I kept finding excuses to miss the meetings. Finally, he called me a coward (using a different word that is not appropriate for this blog), and said if I did not attend that week I never would. Since I respond to that type of challenge like Marty McFly in Back to the Future, I did attend, and that first meeting changed my life.

I faced my fears and survived. Actually, I thrived. Fear was quickly replaced by confidence and even eagerness to take to the podium, and that got me more recognition within the bank where I worked than anything else I could have done. So, just do it.

And do it some more.

Besides recognition, I found that the even bigger payoff was vastly more confidence in other venues, including individual meetings, selling, negotiations, and social occasions.

If you’re a woman, you need to heed the challenge even more. According to The Confidence Code, women speak 75% less than men do in meetings where both are present. This leads to an unfair disparity in recognition and compensation, because the squeaky wheel gets a lot more than grease. If you’re hesitant to seek the limelight for yourself, speak on behalf of your team.

You can join a local Toastmasters Club; it’s cheap, low-risk and highly effective. If you prefer to apply your skills in a more immediately practical manner, find opportunities to speak within your organization, or facilitate a class. What is your special field or topic that you are expert in and that others might benefit from knowing more about? Follow your passion, because it will be easier to speak about confidently, but make sure it’s something that your listeners can also care about.

And do it some more.

Don’t expect that you will be magically transformed overnight, and don’t get discouraged if you slip up a little now and then. Keep in mind that every great speaker began as a bad speaker.

Will you take full advantage of your freedom of speech?

Book Review: The Confidence Code

April 21st, 2014

ConfidenceCode3DCoverThe Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know, by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, carries an important message – one that is directed toward women but can also resonate with many men. Unfortunately, the message is often oversold and supported by questionable research.

The book’s key message is that women in general have and exhibit less confidence than men in general, and this holds them back in so many fields because confidence is strongly correlated to achievement and influence. It’s so pervasive that even some the most successful women in the world, such as Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, and Monique Curry of the WNBA, suffer from it. As Curry puts it, while even the lowliest benchwarmer on the men’s team has as an ego as big as the starters, even the women stars can easily get their confidence shaken.

This general lack of confidence is enormously costly, because women in general ask for less in salary negotiations and tend to make failure a self-fulfilling prophecy by not even applying for positions or entering contests unless they are highly certain to succeed.

The book makes a persuasive case that both nature and nurture contribute to womens’ lower confidence levels, and in its sixth chapter details several recommendations for a “cure”. The key recommendation they give, is “When in doubt, act.” Most importantly, women are urged to fail fast, to take action despite their hesitation, and if they fail, learn from it and move on. They are taught to reframe negative thoughts with positive alternative explanations, and to focus on acting and speaking up not for themselves, but on behalf of others.

One technique readers are explicitly told not to us is “fake it “til you make it”, because supposedly that quickly becomes obvious to others. That’s rather ironic, because the authors seem to have ignored that advice in some of their statements. Here’s one example. They relate experiments with 15,000 sets of twins in Britain that found that student’s self-perceived ability rating was an even more important predictor of achievement than IQ, and draw the conclusion this conclusion: “Put simply, confidence trumps IQ in predicting success.”

In reading books of this type, I’ve developed the habit of taking sweeping statements like that with a grain of salt, so I turned to their footnotes to read the original citation. The paper had nothing to do with the assertions made in the book (and I read through it twice because of my own lack of confidence).

That said, should you read this book? If you are a woman who finds it distasteful that less-qualified men are getting promotions because they speak up more in meetings and tend towards overconfidence in their conclusions, this book will help you by letting you see it’s OK to be more like them, and that you are not alone. In fact, if you’re a man who feels the same way, you can also profit from this book, because the prescriptions will probably work for anyone. If you’re a man who doesn’t lack confidence, but you have a daughter, you definitely should read it, and buy her a copy also.

On the other hand, I am quite confident that you could also get almost as much out of reading this article in The Atlantic, which summarizes the book quite nicely

You Have Earned the Right to Speak

April 17th, 2014
Throw them out and get to work

Throw them out and get to work

I had to answer a question yesterday about tricks to overcome being nervous before a presentation, and it sparked the thought that one of the main reasons people get nervous is that they often are presenting to an audience that has far more experience and knowledge than they do. My answer to that is not a “trick”, it is a simple but deep truth: you have earned the right.

I have a friend who is the head chef of one of the excellent seafood restaurants here in town. Every Christmas, we host his family for dinner, and I cook the main course, which is tenderloin with my own secret marinade. Other friends have asked me if I’m ever intimidated by the fact that I have to cook for a chef, and I always answer no. The reason is that I’m not trying to show I’m a better cook than he is. That would be ridiculous. In fact, if he wanted to he could probably cook a steak way better than mine. But on that particular day, I am serving my own specialty, I know it’s wonderful, and I know it’s exactly what everyone wants.

You should think of that presentation you’re about to deliver in the same way. Maybe others have more experience or technical knowledge than you do, but you know more about that specific topic, on that given day, than anyone else in the room – otherwise, someone else would be speaking about it. And even if that were not true, you have your own opinion or perspective on the topic, and you have earned the right to voice that point of view through your deep and thorough preparation. You have earned the right to be the top expert in the room for the time you have the floor.

As the saying goes, too many cooks spoil the broth. Throw all the other cooks out of the kitchen – at least mentally – and get to work!

Will You Make a Difference Today?

April 16th, 2014

A friend’s young daughter had an accident last weekend and doctors had to reattach the tip of her index finger. Fortunately, it looks like it will turn out well.

I was reflecting that the doctor must have gone home with a sense of satisfaction. He had done something that day that made a big difference in one little girl’s life. In his line of work, he probably has a lot of days like that.

Do you ever have days like that? Can you go home at the end of the day with that sense of fulfillment that comes from knowing you have made a real impact on someone’s life?

I do get a call or an email occasionally in which someone tells me that my coaching or my class made a big difference to them, and I treasure every single one. Last year, I taught a presentations class in Shanghai and at the end of it urged the participants to join a Toastmasters club if they were interested in continuing to work on their skills. One of the students went even further – he started a club, and judging from the occasional notes I get from him, it is making a huge impact on him personally.

Later today I will deliver a speech on presentation principles to a group of aspiring entrepreneurs. Maybe one or two will pick up an idea that gives them just that slight edge in their pitch to a venture capitalist. I hope I make a difference.

Will you make a difference today?