New research shows that speaking can enhance your career

speak-upPeople perceive someone who speaks up as a competent leader – regardless of whether they actually are competent. That’s the finding of a fascinating research study that has just been reported online at Time.

The research study

68 students were divided into teams of four. Each group was tasked with organizing an imaginary nonprofit environmental organization. The level of influence and competence of each group member was then rated by:

  1. the other members of their group
  2. independent observers who watched videotapes of the group sessions
  3. the researchers.

All three groups came to the same conclusion:

Consistently, the group members who spoke up the most were rated the highest for such qualities as “general intelligence” and “dependable and self-disciplined.” The ones who didn’t speak as much tended to score higher for less desirable traits, including “conventional and uncreative.”

The researchers then ran a similar experiment to test whether people who spoke up more, were in fact more competent. This time the subject was maths and the researchers knew the students’ ability in maths before the start of the experiment. Once again students who spoke up were seen as leaders. But here’s the surprise – they were also rated as good at maths – regardless of their actual competence:

What’s more, any speaking up at all seemed to do. Participants earned recognition for being the first to call out an answer, but also for being the second or third — even if all they did was agree with what someone else had said. Merely providing some scrap of information relevant to solving the problem counted too, as long as they did so often enough and confidently enough.

The take-home message of this research

The message from this research is that if you want to be perceived as a leader in your organization you need to speak up.

So what holds you back from contributing to meetings? If you’re anything like me, you might have the following thoughts:

  1. I’ll speak up, but only when I have something useful to offer
  2. I want to make sure that what I say makes sense, so I’ll just think about it a bit more before I speak up
  3. It’ll look like I’m dominating the meeting if I speak up too much
  4. There’s never a silence for me to speak in, and it’s rude to interrupt.

If you have these thoughts, you may find that you often miss opportunities to speak. By the time you’ve worked out what you want to say, the agenda has moved on.

These thoughts are all based on being concerned about what other people think of you. You’re concerned about being perceived as stupid, dominant or rude.

Sounds reasonable, but the research shows the opposite. People who speak up are seen as competent, intelligent leaders.

Tips for increasing your “speak-up” rate

1. Let go of perfection

Often we don’t speak up because we want to be perfect. But perfect is not realistic in the fast-moving flow of a discussion. A perfect thought that never gets expressed is useless. An imperfectly-formed but spoken thought will elevate you in the eyes of your colleagues.

2. Have a goal for the number of times you speak up at a meeting

It’s useful to have a goal to motivate yourself. If you currently don’t speak up often, commit to speaking up at least once at every meeting you attend.

3. Experiment with speaking first

Once you’ve mastered speaking at least once at every meeting, make it a point to speak first or as early as possible in the discussion.

4. Voice your support for what other people say

The research shows this is useful and it’s a relatively easy and low-risk way to express yourself.

5. Get used to interrupting people if you have to

In some aggressive corporate cultures this is the only way to get heard. I find it very difficult – but when I have to, I will. Here’s how I do it. I say “Can I just interrupt you there?” Then as soon as they’ve stopped speaking, I make my point.

5. Use a formula to help you structure your thoughts

A formula will help you think on your feet and you’ll come across as credible, organized and persuasive. An easy formula to use is PREP. PREP stands for Point, Reason, Example, Point. Here’s an example of how to use it:

Point – Speaking up can enhance your career

Reason – People who speak up are perceived as being competent and intelligent leaders

Example – Richard Backstrap has just been promoted for the second time this year. He speaks up a lot – but he’s no more competent than the rest of us (note: fictional example)

Point – Speaking up can enhance your career.

So speak up and enhance your career. Do you have any other tips to help people who find this hard?

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  1. The number one skill anyone can learn is public speaking and presenting. I was fortunate to have started my career in high school. If any of your readers have young children, do them a big favour (and you since they will support you in your old age)and encourage them to participate in public speaking events.

    It is not the smartest people who have their careers advanced, it is not the best idea that gets adopted and implemented, it is not the best product that gets sold nor the most efficient service that is bought. Why is that? It is due to poor skills on behalf of the presenter.

    As always Oliva, great post!!

  2. My apologies for the typos. I am suffering from a very bad cold.

  3. As a formerly shy-guy scared to death of public speaking and having done literally thousands of presentations, fear of public speaking and stage fright seem like huge scary monsters, but it’s really so easily overcome that no one should let that hold them back from reaping the rewards of simply getting up and talking.

    Studies like this prove that perception is reality, and if you get up and speak, you get what I call “the halo effect” – you are seen as an expert. For business people, this is pure gold because public speaking and seminars as lead generation and lead conversions tools can’t be beat by networking, advertising, cold calling, or any other methods.

    David Portney

  4. Hi Olivia,

    As usual, excellent post. The point “5. Use a formula to help you structure your thoughts” is brilliant.

  5. Honestly, I’m among those who prefered not to speak-up, based on the perfectionist ego of mine. However, I’m truly not perfect in anything…!
    I love to present and I’m trying to develop my personal characteristics in order to become a succesful speaker and I loved this article so.

    (Probabely this could be considered as my first try on speaking up!)

    • Thanks Ali for your comment. And thanks for pointing out that it’s that same perfectionist streak and fear of getting it wrong that can stop us from speaking up in digital spaces too – commenting on blogs, posting on forums, tweeting on twitter. Yes, it’s safer to be a lurker. The digital space is a good place to practice speaking up. If you’re reading this, and have never commented on a blog post before, try it now…Look forward to hearing from you. Olivia

  6. I have a former boss who almost always dominated meeting conversations.

    She frequently spoke up before anyone else could get a word in and she was hard to interrupt.

    Everyone acknowledged her passion, but some of us felt she asked banal questions or made superfluous comments — as if she’d rather speak up with something as profound as, “I like toast” than to go through a meeting without saying something.

    Her non-stop blathering irked me. But then 3 of 4 people from our department were laid off. Guess who survived?

    Hint: It wasn’t me with all my precious thoughts in my head, never shared at the conference table.

    • Thanks Kevin for that anecdote. I’m also one who by nature keeps quiet and only speaks up when I’m sure that I know what I’m talking about. But the research and your anecdote show that it’s useful to speak up even when we might be on shaky ground.


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