by Sue Weston

4 steps to find your voice

May 14, 20185 mins
IT Leadership

What holds you back from speaking in public? Here are four strategies for silencing the voice of doubt and empowering you to speak up.

Conceptual images of a woman speaking in a stream of abstract letters.
Credit: sonercdem / Getty Images

Recently the ‘Me Too’ movement showed the power of speech in bringing social change.

My fear of what others will think often prevents me from speaking up in a meeting or at a conference. I become anxious, afraid that my qualifications are insufficient, and that people will think less of me.

This has been dubbed ‘impostor syndrome’ which even effects celebrities including Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz causing them to question their competencies. 70% of people suffer in silence, afraid that they won’t measure up.

While I know my insecurity does not show to others. I find myself trying to silence the voice inside my head that questions my credentials. Surprisingly, I discovered that the more I speak-up the easier it becomes. And the faster I act, the easier it is.  By acting quickly you prevent yourself from overthinking. Once I found my voice, I was amazed by my power to help others.  

 My self-discovery

I have always been an over achiever, with a burning desire to ‘win.’

I recently discovered that this need to succeed was fueled by my insecurity. I spent a lifetime of comparing myself against colleagues and falling short of my expectations. (Surprisingly, years later I learned that they remembered and admired my accomplishments).  I push myself harder because I feel ‘I should know more’ and to show value I need to do more.

Part of the problem is that I constantly need to prove my worth.  I attribute my success to chance (rather than skill) and see my peers as possessing skills. I am a classic case study for impostor syndrome, fearing failure, wanting to be perfect or procrastinating. I look for external validation.

I am learning to recalibrate, appreciate what I can realistically accomplish and recognize my abilities. Instead of fearing mistakes, I try to see them as opportunities to learn, and fail fast.

The impostor syndrome effects men and women equally, but because women are more verbal than men they discuss it more.

Four common ways this may affect you and some suggestions for how to address them:

1. Eliminate doubt

Once you plant internal doubt it can grow in proportion. I suggest silencing the ‘little voice’ inside your head, reframe challenges into opportunities, and convert the negative energy into excitement.

2. Embrace opportunities

Lack of confidence can prevent women from career advancement. Women don’t apply for jobs unless they have 100% of the qualifications while men apply when they only have 60% of the qualifications. When asked why they did not apply for a position 78% of women responded that they did not want to fail because they did not have all the qualifications. Take a chance and apply, you might be missing an amazing opportunity. Think of the expression nothing ventured, nothing gained.

3. Don’t be a super-woman…

…taking on too much which is the recipe for failure. Set realistic expectations about what you can accomplish, ask for help, and adjust priorities. Don’t try to juggle work, family and community and be exceptional at everything. (Remember to find time for yourself).

4. Look at failure as an opportunity to learn and grow

By trying to avoid mistakes, you add stress, and this can lead to becoming a micromanager.  Taking too much control may cause people around you to disengage or be reluctant to offer suggestions. Instead ask for advice, be open to different approaches, share responsibility and encourage collaboration. And if you make a mistake, learn from it.

Overcoming impostor syndrome allows you to recognize your expertise, embrace what you do well and remember that no one is perfect. This is the first step in forming a positive self-image and realizing your potential. It is license to speak up and be heard.

Expressing yourself publicly can be a stressor. Speaking up may get you noticed, which can be advantageous at work, while being silent implies agreement. Men speak 75% of the time at meetings because women may not find their voice right away. But after one woman speaks-up more women will follow. At conferences men are 2 1/2 times more likely to speak up.  Women hesitate to speak because they do not have ‘the nerve’ or feel they lack the knowledge.

Surprisingly, men ask questions to be noticed (they try to sound loud and confident). Speaking up is a skill, and it becomes easier the more you do it. If you don’t speak up, you will remain in the shadows and be overlooked.  Here are four ways to help find your voice:

  1. Women find it is easier to speak up to advocate for others, especially on behalf of children (this is referred to as being a Mama Bear). Find a friend and each become an advocate for the other.  This has been proven effective and can open doors or share strengths which might otherwise be overlooked.
  2. To avoid feeling like an impostor begin by asking a clarifying question.  This confirms understanding and is a safe way to enter a conversation. Women who ask hard questions can be seen negatively, but this approach is self-assured and respectful.
  3. Don’t underestimate the value of your contribution (thinking that someone must have already considered this) or spending so much time thinking about the consequences that you miss the opportunity. Don’t sell yourself short.  Likely there are others also pondering similar thoughts.
  4. Find your passion. Your manner changes when you speak about a topic you are passionate about. You lean-in, your eyes sparkle and you smile more, and you speak with authority. This makes people sit back and take notice. And the more you speak, the greater your confidence. Use this as a strategy to begin conversations.

Discover the power of your voice. Test it out in a safe environment and keep pushing the limits.  You may surprise yourself with the reception you receive. I get butterflies in my stomach before speaking in public, but I have learned to enjoy the excitement and the nervous energy. Push yourself and the results may amaze you, and you will become a role model for other women, giving them the power to find their voice and be recognized.