Dedication: Ruth Bader Ginsburg
I think she (Ginsburg) taught me how important it is to not be scared to speak publicly …and to be fearless…. I’ve found public speaking difficult in the past, despite being an actor. That’s something I’ve had to work incredibly hard at. And it was playing Ruth when I finally thought, “Right, you’ve just gotta’ get on with this and embrace it and don’t be scared of it. This is an opportunity to be out there and stand up for what you believe in.
Felicity Jones, actress commenting on playing Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in “On the Basis of Sex.” LA Times Calendar, December 27, 2018. E4
As a public speaking coach, I’ve heard from women clients who have a big idea, so big that it thrills and perhaps even scares them. However, they don’t know where to start planning their strategy to present their idea to key decision-makers or even to their team. Also, many women are known to suffer from the “modesty ethos” and are loathe to be seen as bragging. Does this describe you? Your meta-message has to be “I know what I’m talking about!” With the #METOO movement conveying the power of “sisterhood,” we women have learned strategically that when one courageous person stands up “speaking truth to power”, others will follow. The same holds true in the workplace when it comes to presenting an innovative idea that will change the way things have always been done. If you don’t stand up and speak up to share your wisdom about a nagging problem or a perceived opportunity, who will?
If you have a bright idea but are reticent to stick your neck out, I have 7 suggestions for you:
- Evaluate your group’s readiness for change. First, and before you say one single word, look around your group (or team, agency, company, institution, church, temple, or neighborhood). Who will be attending the group discussion or meeting? Are there open-minded people in the mix? Even though a bright idea can ultimately save money, create customer loyalty, and help retain talent in the long run, changing how things are done can be expensive. That’s why executives are typically resistant. A dynamic presentation can shift attitudes from resistance to acceptance of a new idea.
- Question your assumptions about the group who will be listening to your presentation. Are you assuming that the listeners have the technical capacity or appropriate background to understand and appreciate your big idea? Are the listeners dynamic decision makers who will need hard data before they can be convinced? Are the listeners people who need to be oriented to the problem or addressed in a more personal way? Our high-tech, fast paced world and changing norms makes it hard to keep up with changes on every level. Find ways to convey the benefits of the change you are presenting in a personal way with dramatic visuals, anecdotes, and examples. Engage your listeners’ imagination so they remember your big idea and will spread the word.
- Evaluate the risks you may be taking by suggesting a change in policy, procedure, product, or customer service. Might there be a backlash in your group’s culture? Might those in charge feel embarrassed by what they perceive as a critique? If you will be speaking up at work, do you need this job to support your family? Might your beloved group or community ostracize you for what they perceive as a critique? On the other hand, might you be rewarded for having a big idea that will benefit everyone? How can your big idea support the success of people already in leadership roles?
- Run your big idea past your trusted co-workers or close friends in the field and solicit their feedback. Identify those listeners who are open-minded and/or those who will agree with you and will support your idea in a public way. Make sure that there is someone who will watch your back and ideally support your idea. If there isn’t, be able to find and quote a well-respected expert in the field who would agree with your point of view.
- Don’t be modest. Convey why YOU are the perfect person to have this big idea. Briefly state your experience and unique knowledge of the content and subject matter. Did you lead a research team or ad hoc committee? Have you travel extensively and learned-by-doing? Were you on a “special assignment” that led to a fresh insight? Did you return from a conference where you heard an industry leader raise the bar? These kinds of experiences give you credibility as “the voice of authority.”
- Be prepared to repeat your big idea every chance you get. You need to be ready to talk about your idea over lunch, in the break room, and in informal conversations. Several clients have told me they felt deflated when their big idea fell flat after their first presentation. That’s because they had unrealistic expectations. It takes people time to warm up to a change of any sort. People need a reason to choose change over complacency. As feedback trickles in after your presentation, you’ll realize where people want more information. Above all, remain tenacious!
- Explain how your idea will work in real time. People need to understand your logic. That’s why I provide you with a foolproof Cheat Sheet below. Before you make your pitch, use this method to outline your thoughts in a rough draft. Be ready to explain:
- What the present situation is and why it worked before but isn’t working now
- The risks and dangers of going along with the present plan
- The big idea you have for improving the situation including who is involved, a timeline, and resources needed
- What opportunities might be lost if action isn’t taken
- The immediate and long-term benefits of making a change
After you’ve finished your presentation, ask people to weigh in, ask questions, and present alternative points of view.
You will likely never have to address the Supreme Court as RBG did and does, but in playing the role of Justice Ginsberg, actress Felicity Jones found the inspiration to stand up and speak up about what she believes in. Even when people have a brilliant idea they deeply believe in, speaker preparation is the key to success. A dynamic speaker knows how to ignite her listeners’ excitement about her idea, and when that happens, sparks fly.