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Deborah Sweeney Headshot

How Businesswomen Can Learn to Speak Like Pros

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In 2012, leadership consulting firm Flynn, Heath, Holt collected feedback on 1,100 female executives, examining over 7,000 surveys in total. This research was inspired by a recurring problem that the businesswomen they coached had - an inability to make themselves heard during meetings. 2014-06-12-MicrophoneTheatre.jpgMany of the women they talked to felt like they just couldn't get into the conversation and their study corroborated these stories. The firm found, both in the 2012 study and further surveys, that more than half of the women they talked to designated 'being heard in meetings' as either a serious issue or a work in progress.

Before I went to law school, I too had trouble with public speaking, so I know what it's like to feel uncomfortable speaking to other people. But this isn't a feeling you need to resign yourself to either or consider yourself unable to ever fully raise your voice. With some extra practice and faith in yourself, anyone can feel confident and professional when it comes to public speaking.

Speak with strength

One of my biggest problems with public speaking was the words I would use. I had to learn to change my grammar to exude strength and confidence. That meant avoiding saying "um" and "I think," which hurts the audience's perception of you.

If someone in the boardroom asks your opinion, don't say "I think we should." Say "we should." There is no reason to qualify your opinion. They are asking you what you think, so say what you think. As time goes on, you'll soon notice your natural speech patterns changing, and you'll begin to speak with a natural confidence.

Gather your thoughts

When someone asks you a question or for your thoughts, you don't have to answer immediately. In fact, shooting an answer right out of the gate sounds like you haven't given any thought to the discussion. Don't rush. Stop, breathe, think about what you want to say, and then say it. Don't apologize for, or be afraid of, taking some time to think about what you've been asked. I know plenty of articulate women who wind up going on wild, slightly irrelevant tangents because they lose their train of thought, or aren't sure what they're supposed to say. 20 or 30 seconds is enough time for them to make a list of their main points in their head, and then answer fully and coherently.

Absorb as much information as you can

Surprise is the spice of life. When you run a business, you have to learn to deal with surprises. You won't always have weeks to prepare a riveting speech for the boardroom or a sleek pitch for new investors. In fact, you'll probably have next to no time to prepare when you need to speak to a group of people. Someone will ask you a question, or ask for your input, and then bam -- the spotlight is on you.

One of the best ways to prepare for the surprise talk is to be constantly learning. Learn about developments within the business, who the new hires are, and what changes are affecting the market. The more information you have on hand, the more prepped and confident you'll be if you suddenly find yourself having to discuss the ins and outs of your industry on the spot.

Use stories and examples

People want stories. They want to relate to what you are talking about and where you're coming from. Whenever possible, use stories and examples to back up your opinions. Don't tiptoe around the issue -- prove your idea is viable and can work. Your answer shouldn't be stagnant or pre-rehearsed. It should be varied in the moment, depending on the audience and the circumstances around you. Tell a relevant story about the business, and use it to feed into your conclusion. These examples give your opinion weight, and help your audience understand what you're saying.

75 percent of Americans fear public speaking, so if you're afraid of talking to an audience, you aren't alone. However, if you have a seat on a board, manage a team, or run your own business, you have to become comfortable speaking to a group of people. Nearly anyone can learn to give a speech if they have enough time, but when you're heading a team, you won't be able to practice delivering every speech twenty times to the mirror beforehand. Preparation is key. Learn as much as you can about the company, have stories and examples to defend how you run the business, and practice speaking with authority whenever you can. Trust me, if you know how to look, it isn't very hard to find your voice.