On February 16, a large group of just under a hundred SAIS alumni and students convened in the Kenney auditorium for the “Finding Your Voice” leadership skills workshop. The event was hosted by the SAIS Women’s Alumni Network (SWAN) and the SAIS Global Women in Leadership (GWL).
“Calm Your Nerves, Strengthen Your Voice,” Workshop with Allison Shapira, Global Public Speaking LLC, Harvard Kennedy School
Allison Shapira opened the event by sharing best practices on public speaking based principally on breathing techniques from her professional training as a former opera singer. The techniques worked to both enhance onstage presence and moderate our internal jitters. Our voices sounded stronger and more confident when we altered the way we breathed, and it was remarkable to notice the change in postures throughout the room over the course of the training.
Shapira encouraged us to overcome a common inclination to fill in lulls in conversations and to embrace the courage to allow for silence. She showed us how much more compelling we can become just from exercising a pause strategically for emphasis during a negotiation. The Power of the Pause can also be applied to tempering verbal ticks or troubleshooting a bad start to a presentation (1. Pause, 2. Take a drink of water, 3. Take as much time as needed to pause and breathe, 4. Say - “Let’s keep going.”).
We were asked to reconfigure how we think about public speaking. In matters ranging from managing internal insecurities and conserving our identities to taking on verbal ticks, we learned to be conscientious of how we absorb habits and preconceived notions of ourselves from our environment that do not represent our true capabilities or who we are as leaders and advocates. If we focus on the essential elements that make up who we are and why we care, we can shed those pesky verbal ticks that can cloud our message. This conscientiousness can positively impact our potential to reach our goals and put forth a more dynamic presence on stage or in the board room.
This was no ordinary workshop on public speaking. The room as a whole engaged in dynamic discussions over an inclusive set of shared concerns. We got real. We debated the considerations for culture, experience, and work environments. We dug deeply into why we accept, or don’t accept the universal application of some techniques for our diverse group of women and men from different backgrounds and industries at varying stages of our careers.
Shapira closed her presentation by clarifying what became the dominant theme of the evening- authentic leadership. Applying our newly-learned techniques (or any public speaking training) isn’t about putting on a tough act or pretending we’re someone we’re not. It’s about allowing our authentic voice to cut through the noise. And our journey to finding that authentic voice, or what makes for any achievement of effective influence and persuasion, comes down to the decisions we make to pursue vocations that leverage our strengths and celebrate our unique contributions. Shapira had opened her presentation by showcasing her professionally-trained opera voice, and closed with a touching folk performance that represented her own authentic voice.
Next, a panel of SAIS alumni shared their own paths and approaches to embracing ‘authentic leadership’ in their roles as female leaders. Current students found it refreshing to hear how qualities such as warmth and vulnerability, which many women from some cultures are socialized to repress, can and are sources of strength in the office and within professional relationships.
Leadership Panel: Kelle Bevine (’90), Sampriti Ganguli (’99), Lisa Kopp (’07), and Celine Realuyo (’90), moderated by Daniela Kaisth (’89)
So – what did we learn?
First, what the heck is “voice” in the first place? The panelists said it well. Voice is your toolbox of authentic strengths, the essence of what you know and believe as a leader. Voice is an evolution, in which a woman leader moves from knowing her facts and figures and being authoritative to listening and trying to understand and adapt, moving from work that is less for herself and more for others. Voice is preparing and over-preparing so that you can speak truth to power and truth to yourself. Voice is personal to who you are and comes down to the most essential question of all: what is our purpose?
How can voice make a positive difference? Here the panelists treated us to a variety of interesting, real-life examples. During a tumultuous re-organization, a calm voice can rally and reassure the troops. During a reduction in force, a strong voice can help let staff go in the most compassionate way possible. During complex negotiations between states in a multilateral setting or colleagues in the office, a nuanced voice can build allies. In our day-to-day lives, a passionate voice speaks to why we are working so hard to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves and our organization.
What are some mistakes women make with regard to voice? Women say sorry unnecessarily and too frequently. We don’t negotiate our salary and raise. We don’t use silence to our advantage. Very often, we just don’t come across as confident as men. One panelist shared an example of an employee beginning a salary negotiation by saying she was only asking at the behest of her husband. No!
Of the wealth of eye-opening advice shared by the panelists, here are their top tips:
Own your position. Take your seat at the table, be prepared, know your audience, and shine!
Practice your passion. Get in front of your I-phone and record yourself speaking. First, speak about something you are very passionate about. Next, speak about something average. Note the difference.
Be prepared. Because of gender and background, women will be under-estimated. So – over-deliver and be seen as an expert.
Don’t apologize. Do not undermine your voice by saying sorry or stating your view in a questioning way.
And last, we couldn’t close the event without addressing one source of grievance widely shared by both alumni and students: What if during a meeting someone takes credit for my idea?
First of all, technique and preparation matter. When attending an important meeting, write up your notes ahead of time and pass them out, with your name at the top. Sit at the center of the table, not around the edges, and speak up mid-way through the meeting.
Then, at just the right moment, this is how a woman may choose to reclaim her intellectual property:
Option A: “I’m so glad you agree with my idea. Sounds like there is consensus in the room.”
Option B: “I’m so glad you agree with my idea when I mentioned this twenty minutes ago. Let’s go back to that.”
Option C: “Tell me how that’s different from what I just mentioned twenty minutes ago.”
Above all, be authentic, be prepared, and just speak up!
This is advice that works, whether you are the SAIS class of 1989, the SAIS class of 2018, or anything before, after, or in between.