P2876-12The dictionary defines “rising to the occasion” as showing that “you have the courage and wits to deal with a difficult situation successfully.” In these contentious times, speaking up to express an opinion can become a difficult situation. From congregations to campuses, friends, colleagues, couples, and even whole families have felt deep divisions after the Presidential election. It’s easy to tip-toe around the issues, but for our democracy to work, we need to engage in difficult debates regarding the issues that will cut across party lines and impact everyone: public schools, the economy, healthcare, immigration, climate change and the environment. People with fresh new ideas need to rise to the occasion, speaking effectively in a way that will be heard and remembered.

Speaking up at a meeting, even when the role requires it, is difficult for those people who are already anxious about the role, but speaking up feels especially risky when the issue is controversial or requires taking an unpopular position.

During the March on Washington (January 2017), social critic Michael Moore said “this is not the time for shy people. You have two hours to get over it!” But many use the fact that they are introverts as an excuse to hold back. As a result, the more dominating personalities, perhaps even the bullies, control the conversation. All of us need to encourage one another to not let this happen. And public speaking skills are a great way to develop backbone!

Silence is Golden When Men Do All the Talking

Research confirms that women hold back from speaking up because of a double standard that adds complexity to the speaking occasion. Girls and women are typically socialized to be nice, cooperative, and courteous. Then, too, when women do speak up, audiences are tougher on outspoken women and rather than concentrating on the content of their remarks, they often are distracted by women’s status, appearance, and age.

Elizabeth Warren (800x1000)Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is an example of a women who doesn’t hold back and is willing to pay the price for being outspoken, even if ostracized afterwards. For instance, she rose to the occasion and criticized a legislative rider that would gut the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the one enacted by Congress following the 2008 financial meltdown and resulting large bank bailouts. On a less happy occasion, Warren spoke in opposition to the appointment of Sen. Jeff Sessions for Attorney General and was barred from speaking and even asked to leave the Senate chambers. Her opponents cited inappropriate behavior on the floor of the Senate although her male Senate colleagues were allowed to continue reading after she left. The image of the “Silent Woman” found on 19th century tavern signs – showing a woman without a head – seems suddenly relevant!

How willing are you to challenge the establishment, make biased assumptions transparent, and work toward consensus? Will you take the risk of rising to the occasion, as Senator Warren so often does, even when it’s politically or professional dangerous?

Style is Important When You Rise to the Occasion

Picture a speaker shuffling to the podium. Their posture sends an immediate message: I’d rather be anywhere else and would like to disappear into the ether. The speaker avoids eye contact, focusing only on their notes or PowerPoint slides. I always think of Señor Wenses, the puppeteer, who advised (in 1966), just “talk to the hand.” By contrast, the speaker who strides to the podium energetically, eager to connect by looking at the audience, sends the opposite message, which is, “I’m glad I’m here, I’m glad you’re here, I’m prepared, and I have something important to say.”

Picture yourself rising up to your full height, standing tall, and extending your reach. That’s what a good speaker does. She or he takes the key message points and organizes the content so that the listeners find meaning in the topic and are inspired to a call to action.

6 Strategies Prepare You to Rise to the Occasion

Speak Up! (750x1000)Sometimes you will simply have to rise to the occasion because you’re the obvious spokesperson (i.e., the team leader or expert on the subject) or because nobody else will. Here are 6 strategies that can help you prepare:

    1. Understand the context for your presentation. What’s hot? What’s not? Talk to a few people who will be attending the meeting, ideally by phone, about what they expect from your presentation. What’s on their minds? What concerns them? What’s confusing? Ask them what the ideal outcome of your presentation could or would be. Where are the political minefields? Start from where people agree. Shape your remarks to address all of the above.
    2. Make it real. What anecdotes can you share to make the topic come alive? What are the most accurate and current data points available to shock people from their current assumptions or MIS-information? What are the worries and needs of your listeners? Show how your proposal will positively affect people in ways that can affect their everyday life: their productivity, morale, time management, health, budget, career, and happiness.
    3. Gain confidence through well-timed rehearsals. Practice your remarks in the actual room you’ll be in using and any technology required, such as a microphone, slides, and laser pointer.  Ask two colleagues or friends to sit in on the rehearsal and time your remarks. This is where the rubber meets the road. You will quickly realize that 1) your presentation is too long or needs a better anecdote or example, 2) the stationary microphone tethers you to the podium, and 3) the handouts suddenly appear unwieldy. If you have a day or two to fix these things, you’ll increase your ability to rise to the occasion.
    4. Don’t expect perfection. The most important goal should be to get your ideas out there for people to chew on. Even the best batters strike out six times out of ten. Have modest goals and just a few key points with real facts so that the content doesn’t overwhelm you. These days, fostering dialogue may be more important than a standing ovation.
    5. Polish the stone. Develop 5-7 PowerPoint slides to extrapolate the key points you want to make with examples, visuals, shocking statistics, and great quotes. This will help you polish and hone down your presentation, even if you don’t use the slides in your final presentation. There is no need to make your presentation lengthy. Leave time for questions at the end to better understand what people really want to know.
    6. Don’t take feedback personally. Listeners may not always like what you have to say and even question your facts or knowledge. Remain non-defensive. Thank people for their feedback wherever you can. If you don’t know the answer to a question, offer to get back to people promptly with the answer. The person making an offensive or aggressive remark is his or her own worst enemy. By remaining calm, cool, and collected, you are a powerful presence without having to say a word.

Women tend to personalize criticisms, but we can learn from other speakers who navigated a tough public moment with thick skin. For instance, when Carly Fiorina ran for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, there were many questions about her qualifications to run.  Trump even suggested that she wasn’t pretty enough to be elected President. Regardless of what you thought of her candidacy, she stood her ground and powered on. She wrote:

“When you challenge other people’s ideas of whom or how you should be, they may try to diminish and disgrace you. It can happen in small ways in hidden places, or in big ways on a world stage. You can spend a lifetime resenting the tests, angry about the slights and the injustices. Or, you can rise above it.”

Courage Rock (1000x736)That’s good advice for all of us who worry about what people think and doubt our capacity to take the hits. As a result, we remain silent. When that happens, nobody hears our fresh new ideas. Somebody less qualified might step up to represent your group or company, and then, everyone loses out. Rise to the speaking occasion and everyone will benefit, including you.


  1. Ann Bennett says:

    RIGHT ON Lois, and thanks for such helpful reminders, organized tips, and encouragement. If EVER there were a time when we women ( and men!) need to rise to the occasion, it’s NOW!!

    1. Thanks, Ann! Doesn’t it feel as if history is repeating itself? It’s so easy to be complacent if one’s personal life is harmonious and balanced but we’ve seen how easily our society can get destabilized when leaders aren’t responsive to emerging needs and operate from their egos or imagination. I hope you’ll forward the essay to your friends who might need a little encouragement before they take the risk of speaking up!

  2. Appreciate your excellent advice, Lois! Enjoyed the images too. Keep up the good work!

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