Originally posted on Forbes.
When I ask corporate professional women what it is that holds them back from speaking up in meetings, here are the three things I hear most:
"What if I say something that's wrong?"
"I never get a turn."
"I'm always interrupted."
Early in my career, I struggled with visibility in male-dominated meetings. I consistently found myself in rooms with people far more senior than me, which should have been great exposure. But I was silent for most of those meetings. Either I'd wait politely for my turn to speak, which rarely came, or when I did speak, I'd be interrupted and talked over.
I had to learn very quickly how to create space for my opinions and how to get noticed in meetings. And once I did, it fast-tracked my career advancement.
In the work I now do supporting professional women, I've realized that my early experience isn't uncommon. Did you know that in the average business meeting, women's participation is under 75% of that of men? And what's more is that both men and women are more likely to interrupt someone if that someone is a woman.
Research (registration required) also tells us that if someone is confident, they're automatically assumed to be more competent. The problem here is that if you're not confidently sharing your opinions and having your voice heard in meetings, especially male-dominated meetings, it can be detrimental to how you're perceived in terms of confidence and, therefore, competence. This lack of visibility can prevent you from being noticed and valued, which can hold you back from advancing in your career.
Here are my top five tips to speak up in any meeting and get the visibility you deserve.
1. Be prepared.
When I was completing my law degree, I suffered from so much self-doubt that I'd completely over-prepare for every one of my classes. By being the most prepared person in the room, I knew that I couldn't be asked something I wouldn't be able to answer. Also, it meant I could contribute where others needed time to review their notes. This was my personal tactic to boost my confidence enough to get through.
Given that women tend to have lower self-esteem than men and often fear that they may say something wrong, try to walk into the meeting room as prepared as possible. It goes a long way in boosting your confidence.
2. Say something at the beginning and the end.
One of the first concepts I learned in my psychology studies was the primacy and recency effect — where people are more likely to remember things and place more weight on information presented at the beginning and end of a "learning episode." So, using this concept, I tell my clients to be one of the first to share in a meeting and to also speak at the end.
At the beginning of the meeting, you can share a new idea, a relevant fact relating to the meeting topic or a reflection you had since the last meeting. For example, "Before we start, I came across an interesting article that could help us frame up our ideas…"
At the end, you could recap what was discussed or highlight what someone shared (e.g., "I want to highlight Paul's really innovative suggestion — I think we should explore it in our next meeting.").
By speaking at the start and the end (and throughout, of course), you'll start to be remembered more for contributing, even if you don't add anything new.
3. Stop self-censoring what you want to say.
Studies show that women have more of a tendency to wait until they're "perfect" before approaching something new.
Many of the women I coach share that they hold themselves back from sharing their opinion in meetings because they want to wait until they've devised the perfect way to say it. But if you have something you want to share, don't overthink.
When you self-censor, you strip yourself of confidence and second-guess yourself. Simply express your perspectives as though they're as valuable as anyone else's. Because they are.
4. Create space to speak.
Many women I've worked with struggle in male-dominated meetings because they're constantly "waiting their turn" to speak, which stems from common social conditioning.
An easy way to create space rather than politely waiting your turn is to jump in enthusiastically once someone finishes and say, "Great suggestion — that reminds me of something I want to share…" and then you share it. Don't wait for the right moment — when the thought comes, that's your moment to speak up and be heard.
What you've done here is create your space because you've verbalized the intention of sharing your perspective, so others in the room will be primed to listen and won't be inclined to interrupt.
5. Be curious.
One of the easiest ways to speak up in a meeting and get some of that prized visibility is to be curious and ask probing questions to stimulate the conversation.
Try asking things like, "That's a very interesting viewpoint, Trent. How did you come up with that?" or "I'd like to know more about your perspective, Sanchit. How did you make the connection?"
Vocalizing your curiosity is a positive way of having your voice heard even when you have nothing to contribute. You'll feel more engaged as an active participant, and it offers opportunities for others to notice you.
Think of these five tips as training to develop your confidence to speak up during any meeting — the more you practice, the easier it gets.