Get Your Voice on the Table

Have you ever been at a meeting where you propose an idea and no one seems to notice you?  Then ten minutes later, someone else offers the same notion, and it’s picked up by the whole group.  I hear this scenario often in the work that I do with professional women, followed by the question, “How do I get my voice on the table?”

Body language is a critical part of getting your message heard.  Women have been socialized to take up as little space as possible: crossed legs, collapsed spine, small gestures.  If you take up more space, both in your body language and your gestures, you will have more presence at the table.  Just as an actor experiments with the way a character stands, moves, and gestures, you can create the shape of confidence in your body.  If you do, the inner feeling of confidence will flow into that shape, and the people at the meeting will respond positively to your physical being.

To find your most useful seated posture, push your chair back from the table and bring your sitz-bones to its edge.  Uncross your legs and plant your feet firmly on the floor.  This will bring a sense of energy into and through the soles of your feet.  Lengthen your spine from the tailbone to the base of the skull.  Let your shoulders drop and widen and your chest be open and free.  Place your forearms on the table in a position wider than your shoulders.  Rest your open hands, palms down, on the table. Breathe deeply into your rib cage, and open your face with a smile.  Let your eyes sparkle with positive connective energy.

If you are seated in this way, you will have more breath for your voice.  You can then find more resonance and ease in your speaking.  But vocal clarity is more than how your voice sounds.  It’s important to articulate your words, so that you are easily understood.  When your lips, jaw and tongue move freely and precisely, your speaking will become dynamic. Your colleagues will listen to what you have to say.

Several other language habits keep women from being heard. (I have written about the traps of uptalk in earlier posts.)  We must shorten our sentences, so that our points are concise, and then land them with a strong downward inflection.  In addition, when we use qualifying words to soften a message, it only serves to weaken our interventions.  “I think maybe perhaps it might be a good idea if we might possibly…” are typically gendered word choices.  See what happens if you change that to, “Here’s a new way of approaching this…,” or “Let’s try this…,” or “I observe that we are….”

Whether you in a small meeting or at a large conference, the ability to land your personal energy on each individual in the room will automatically make your speaking more engaging. The individuals in the room will feel that you are actually talking to them.  Your contribution to the meeting will become about your active connection to your listeners.

Remember this simple maxim: there is no meeting at the meeting.  Have you ever watched the U.S. government at work on C-SPAN?  No one is in attendance.  Every decision has made before, or will be made after, the official meeting.  When you have an important concept to present at a meeting, take this to heart.

Find out what the agenda is for every meeting you attend.  How many times do we go to a meeting only to discover that an important issue is to be discussed that day?  We haven’t had any time to prepare, so the best we can do is influence decisions on the fly.  With time, you can do the following three things.

First, assess your alliances.  Who will be with you on your issue?  Our allies aren’t necessarily our close friends, or even people we like, but the ones who agree with us on a particular point.  You must make no assumptions about their participation in the meeting.  Instead, prior to a big meeting, get together individually with each person who might support you.  Elicit an agreement about how and when they will contribute to the issue, so you know they will back you up.  If the topic shifts, your ally can be the one who draws attention back to you and your idea.

Second, when you get to the meeting, sit right next to the person who might give you the most trouble.  This isn’t an easy thing to do, but when you sit across from someone who disagrees with you, your differences are exacerbated by the physical barrier between you.  When you are literally on the same side of the table, you can connect personally in a new way.  You might even have a conversation.

Third, triangulate your allies.  Typically, we sit next to the people who agree with us.  We create a phalanx of like-mindedness, thinking that it will give us more power.  Usually, our group is across the table from the other group.  Break this up by asking your allies to sit in various places around the table, which also splits up the opposition group.  You can then include both allies and opponents in a discussion across lines.

With your allies in place to support you, your voice clear and strong, and your body language open and powerful, you should be heard the first time you present an idea.  But sometimes, your timing might be too soon.  Your proposal may need to percolate in the group before it’s picked up again.  Sometimes the issue is gender.  Sadly, in some organizations, the idea might need to come from a man to be heard.   Or it could be the problem of rank.  Someone higher up in the hierarchy might need to state your idea for it to gain traction.

If any one of these is the case, or you have no ally to back you up, you might need to claim credit for originating the thought.  Don’t remain silent, stewing the in the injustice of it all.  Your mind may be thinking, “Hey, wait a minute.  Didn’t I just say that half an hour ago? What am I? Invisible?”  Instead, take a big breath and use language like the following:

It’s great that the group (or individual) has picked up my idea again.  I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make this work.  Here is my plan for….

Thanks, (name the person), for reiterating my point.  I hope we can make a decision on this soon.

I notice that we’ve been avoiding this issue for the past twenty minutes.  My interpretation is that it’s a hot topic. Here’s more about what I originally suggested….

Do whatever it takes to get your voice on the table.  Practice your new physical presence.  Rehearse your language.  Create a strategic network of support.  Don’t let your fear, louder voices in the room, or debilitating cultural norms silence you.  Your ideas are important.  Your contributions are necessary.  Your voice must be heard.