I recently gave a keynote at The Stretch Leadership Conference on how to be more assertive in work and life.
As always, my perspective is born from years of experience as a stage actress. I had to speak many powerful lines in a myriad of difficult scenes in front of fee-paying audiences hungry for entertainment. The pressure was on. And I did all that whilst suffering from intense stage fright and Imposter Syndrome.
I also come to my keynotes with years of experience of NOT speaking up. Throughout my teens and 20s, I felt too crippled to express my mind and spent my time wishing I would simply disappear in meetings, in scenes, in life.
I’ve come an enormously long way.
Now, I travel the world giving speeches and training C-suite executives on how to pitch, story-tell, negotiate and speak anything that matters with impact.
As a creative at heart, I’ve no time for saccharine, annoying corporate gobbledygook. I reel when I hear people repeat the same tired scripts and sloppy clichés with no trace of what they themselves truly think. Voices drone, pitches take forever and there’s as much dynamism in the room as a dying gnat.
To be assertive, we have to be a little more dangerous. We’ve got to give up the chase for approval and instead stand up for our ideas no matter how weird, outrageous or stupid we judge them to be. We have to dare to be different.
Contrary to popular opinion, assertiveness is not about being extroverted or bullying others into submission — though being assertive may feel aggressive to those used to being passive. But sometimes our truth requires a little punch.
Being assertive is more about summoning the strength of character to back your self when the doubts kick in. It’s the determination to lift yourself up when others may be hell-bent on keeping you down.
If you want to be a leader of memorable substance, and not a generic yes-man, then assertiveness is your friend. It will drive you to take risks, speak up truthfully and commit to your ideas in spite of the naysayers, doubters and worrywarts.
Not everyone has to agree with you. And some people will actively dislike you. Great. It means you’re finally doing your job. You’ll be that rare courageous person asserting what you think and feel. And you’ll be putting yourself out there.
There is no greater excitement than that.
When my talk was over, I had ten minutes left for an audience Q&A. But I didn’t have time to answer every question.
In the spirit of sharing value, I’ve listed the remaining answers below. I hope these insights will give you the practical wisdom to speak up with more power in your work and life.
1. I’m wondering, isn’t acting more about not being yourself? Could you share your perspective.
Many people believe acting is pretending. This is a misconception. Some actors even believe this — and ultimately deliver a gimmicky performance.
Great acting is not about faking anything. You have to feel what your character is feeling and go through what your character is going through. If your character is scared or angry, then you must feel the same. If an actor fakes any feeling, then he is definitely not doing his job.
The closest definition of acting I found was coined by the legendary acting coach Sanford Meisner. He puts it thus:
“Acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances”
As actors, we have to be truthful above all else. The scene may not be real, but the behaviour of the actor absolutely is.
How does this relate to business??
Just like the craft of acting, the tough role of leadership is about convincing others of your credibility. And you can only do this if you are being authentic. No amount of pretending to be a leader will cut it. People eventually see through the bullshit. You have to own your voice and speak your unique truth. You must become a leader — not fake being one.
Too many people fake it to make it. And I get it. Many thought leaders espouse this approach. But, in my extensive experience, faking anything only fuels a sense of inner fraudulence. We know deep down we’re not being true to ourselves. We’re just giving our audiences what we think they want.
Any actor worth their salt will bravely put their true self out there. They will commit to every single feeling, word and action as fearlessly as they can. They’ll be putting themselves on the line.
And so too must a leader. No apologies, no excuses, no bluffing or trying too hard to please anyone. Simply say what you think, mean what you say and put your words into action. Be genuine.
Sounds easy. But being genuine is the hardest thing to do. We have to willingly become uncomfortable by choosing bravery over fitting in; a terrifying prospect for those enslaved to the opinions of others. Many people are not leaders, even if assigned the title. They are yes-men afraid of rejection.
Leadership is synonymous with bravery and discomfort. We cannot lead anyone until we can lead ourselves daringly into the arena. With all eyes on us, we must take a risk and allow ourselves to be seen. We must think for ourselves, search for our truth and assert that truth in the face of convention and potential objection.
Because nothing new or exciting can be created without this level of courage. And courage can never be faked.
2. An effective pause in your speech can raise attention. Should you do it on purpose though? Will it be still effective?
Yes, you can plan a pause. If you’re not used to pausing in speech and often string your sentences together, a planned pause will help you break this habit.
At first, it’ll feel awkward. But don’t worry — you’re meant to feel weird when trying something new. But, if you practice pausing enough, it will start to feel more “you”.
Why bother pausing at all in our fast-paced world?
Exactly because of that suffocating pace. Most people think that rushing is to be prized. We can say and do more right? And no one can interrupt us if we’re speeding ahead at break-neck pace.
But mostly what we do is ramble, waffle and lack specificity. Meetings meander with plenty of words flying around — but no one is saying anything much. Someone needs to slice through the fuzz.
A well-timed pause does just that. It puts the power break on.
Firstly, an effective pause gives meaning to your words. A skilled actor is able to create emphasis of important words by pausing either just before or just after that word. And this emphasis helps them better convey the exact meaning they intend. You become specific. And people cannot help but listen when you command your language in this way.
An actor can also dictate their own pace with intentional spaces. Imagine taking back control over your responses in a world that demands an instantaneous response! A pause will give you back the permission to think before you speak. No one gets to dictate your pace but you. And when you give yourself the gift of time and space, you gain so much more clarity of thought. You immediately boost your credibility because your words start to reverberate.
Pausing also helps our listeners actually digest our words. Like a great piece of music, language needs moments of silence to allow others to appreciate every note we intend to hit. No one can understand a stream of endless verbiage masquerading as knowledge. We tune out.
And most important of all, a pause is a powerful move in a world where most people nervously rush to fill the silence. It’s hard for many to tolerate the space in conversation as it makes them feel vulnerable. The best negotiators use this knowledge to their advantage. Staying silent often forces the other side to show their cards.
Don’t be duped. Hold your self. Contain your nerves. Breathe into the silence and do not speak no matter how much you want to chatter on and make things “nice”. It simply drains you of your energy. The person who can hold the silence holds the power.
3. Isn’t preparation a better technique than breathing exercises before a talk?
You need both.
Preparation is imperative. You must absolutely understand your content so that you can talk about it freely and without a script. For this, you must study your arguments and root out as many fallibilities as possible. The aim is to back your proposition with solid evidence.
Too many people come to the business stage and spout a bunch of fancy words and lazy ideas with no idea what they’re really saying. They may seem impassioned, but if rigorously questioned, their whole argument falls apart. Don’t be that person. Research matters!
Breathing then comes in to help you back yourself in those moments you feel unsure and loose confidence. Whenever we doubt ourselves, even for a moment, we either hold onto our breath or breathe shallowly into our chests. This triggers our fight-flight or threat response. And, as we move into high alert, there’s no way we can be creative, open or flexible in our speech. Our voice tends to flatten, sound monotone and sometimes even pushy, and our otherwise brilliant content becomes difficult to hear. If you’ve ever stood before an audience and felt the dreaded tumble weed roll across the stage, be certain you’re in fight-flight. When we stiffen, an audience tunes out.
Breath is your ally in these tricky moments.
Before you speak about anything important to you, take a deep belly breath. Neutralise the pressure on you by calming your body down. And encourage yourself to let go of any tension — you don’t need it.
Sometimes a little sigh out is all you need. It is the letting go of pressure, expectation and restriction that will help you the most when you tense up.
Deep breathing moves us from reactive mode into a calmer responsive mode. We start to have power again. We regain choice. And we can play with our expression instead of sounding robotic.
The key here is to play. Our content is so much more exciting when we become sponatenous with it.
So take a deep breath and leap into the moment. Play play play. And have a little fun. Business need not be so eternally dry.
4. I heard that talent is 1% of success and 99% is about skill/practice. Do you agree? As a non-talented presenter, do I have a chance to become a great speaker?
Yes, you absolutely do!
Every single one of us has the ability to speak well in public and put forward our ideas in a way that spells confidence.
When I was at secondary school, I lost my confidence. I barely raised my hand in class and truly believed I had nothing to offer. I was even encouraged to think that this BS narrative was true; I was written off as talentless.
When I did, on the rare occasion, dare to express my ideas, I would blush, stutter and feel an excruciating shame. My mind would race, I struggled to form a structured sentence and I felt stupid.
Fast-forward to today and I travel the world giving keynotes on leadership and authentic communication. Go figure.
I don’t profess to be the most talented public speaker but I’ve made enormous progress. How? Practice, practice, practice!
I still feel nervous when I get up on stage and sometimes I hide in the toilet moments before just to breathe. I’m by no means 100 per cent confident — and frankly I’m suspicious of anyone who claims to be. It’s human to doubt and be unsure, And the stage before you is never certain. We can’t know what will happen — and that very danger should make even the hardest hearts beat a little faster.
Yet, I still get out there and speak. I breathe through the adrenalin surge and apply a healthy dose of irreverence to the potential failure ahead.
And every time I do it, it gets easier.
I’ve naturally developed techniques to support my voice when I most need it. And I continually research my arguments so I have some depth. I’m not always right and I’ll always be learning. Yet, I know I don’t need to be perfect or even all knowing to start speaking to others. I’m confident enough in myself to tell you that sometimes I do not know. Admitting you don’t know is a supremely powerful move in a world where most pretend to have all the answers. Yawn!
Practice is key. Actors train for years to get their voice, physicality and psyche in a healthy, open and strong place. In order to stand on a stage in front of 100s of people night after night requires a tough physical, mental and emotional instrument. And actors work hard to achieve this in spite of being mostly quite shy.
There is no other way to improve. You have to be willing to dare and fall flat on your face. Make a fool of yourself and find the humour in that. The moment you care too much what others think is the moment you loose your spark. Is anyone’s opinion of you worth that? No!
So yes, I believe anyone can speak well with applied practice, determination and humour. And if someone as scrappy, imperfect and sensitive as me can do it, so can you.
5. If someone is dynamic and energetic, why should they slow down? Isn’t it part of their personality?
Being dynamic and having energy is a wonderful thing. Don’t ever loose it or dampen your spirit.
The only time I challenge a person’s faster energy is when it feels uncontrolled and chaotic. A person may be dynamic, but they feel unstable. They’re often trying too hard — or pushing as we say in acting. If their effort is laced with struggle, it tends to push an audience away.
When I speak of slowing down, I’m not referring to pace of speech. I’m referring to a person’s inner chaos. Sometimes a person can seem energetic and confident on the outside, but there is little foundation to it. They’re internally vibrating at a speed that sabotages their power in the moment. In fact, they’re probably missing the moment entirely because they’re too busy lost in their own brand of “energy”.
It makes a massive difference to your credibility whether your energy is born from stability or chaos. People are attracted to stability and those who convey a more solid presence feel powerful and safe.
The aim must then be to cultivate your inner calm. By slowing down the cascade of thoughts and emotions, we start to feel our strength and resilience. We can create some inner space between our recurring anxieties and thought patterns. It is in this very space that we can finally contact the present moment that is beyond all chaos. When we’re tuned into the present moment, we’re still energised, but in a more authentic, radiant and alive way.
You won’t loose your dynamism by internally slowing down; you’ll simply develop a silent power that most do not know how to access. They’re too busy rushing from one anxious thought to the next.
So, be sure to check the quality of your energy. Prioritise solidity over the frenetic, substance over personality, depth over hot air. It’s a delicate balance.
6. During group discussions, if I pause, or not respond soon enough, others start talking over me and hijack. How to handle this?
Unfortunately, this seems to be the norm in business meetings. The person leading the meeting often cannot mediate between the many competing voices in the room. And, in my observations, the loudest voices are given the most airtime leaving the quieter ones ignored.
When a more tentative voice peeks its head over the parapet, the more extroverted can often hijack their moment. It isn’t fair. But then neither is the competitive landscape of business.
This is where boundaries are important.
Firstly, meetings need to be facilitated by a leader with strong boundaries. Someone who will make sure every single voice in the room is heard in equal measure.
They need to kindly restrain those who perpetually interrupt, and at the same time, encourage the quieter types to speak up. That doesn’t mean the leader has to agree with anyone. But they must ensure that everyone present is heard.
This is the true meaning of inclusivity. It has nothing to do with anyone’s identity. It’s common courtesy pure and simple.
Sadly, our meetings rarely get mediated in this healthy way. Some voices win airtime, others stay muted and the leader fails to redress the balance. Resentment brews.
The onus is therefore on us, as self-respecting individuals, to develop the strength to assert our own ideas without permitting constant interruption. If a person interrupts you too soon, you don’t have to passively concede and give away your right to finish your sentence. Demand your space. Don’t let anyone walk over you. Claim your right to complete your spoken idea. Just as you yourself, I’m sure, would allow others the same opportunity.
And we can push back without descending into aggression, attack or reactive emotion. A firm, calm tone is all that’s needed.
I appreciate this is hard for those who fear conflict, and that’s many of us, but it’s the only direction worth heading towards long-term. You must proudly take your seat at the table and then back your own voice in order to build the dignity and self-respect you deserve.
No one can really ever do this for us. We have to find the strength within to champion ourselves.
7. How do you handle an audience’s lack of response? When you feel like talking in a vacuum?!
This is a difficult scenario. The person that’s doing the talking needs to feel that they’re being listened to, right? When faced with a sea of disinterested, or blank faces, even the strongest speakers can be thrown off game.
The solution is not easy, but necessary; we must acknowledge the elephant in the room.
If your audience seems distrusting, you must acknowledge this fact without taking any of it personally. We simply accept our audience’s response. It is what it is. And we can’t control the reactions of other people.
Once we’ve read the mood of the room, we must then courageously talk directly to our audience’s feeling rather than in denial of it. If they seem anxious, you might speak more calmly. If they seem flat, you may employ greater punch in your delivery. If they’re all distracted, you might command them to pay attention!
Do anything — but pretend it isn’t happening.
Most public speakers act as if the audience is not really there. They talk at them — not to them. And the speaker retreats behind an imaginary defensive wall.
But when we shy away from direct conversation with our audience, we become less convincing. We tread on eggshells, lower our status and diminish our credibility. We can look sleepy, anxious — or sometimes desperate.
The moment you address your audience directly, they wake up. They sense your presence. You look them in the eye, connect and show you give a damn.
There’s a huge difference between allowing yourself to talk in a vacuum, whether real or imagined, and looking at your audience directly and silently communicating — I’m here.