When I heard Megan Rapinoe speaking on the news shows about her women’s U.S. soccer team’s victory, I noticed how impactful her communication is: she speaks with a matter-of-fact tone, she speaks quickly but in short, clipped, easy-to-follow sentences, employs focused eye contact and confident body language (some hand gestures but nothing distracting, leaning forward but not looming). Taking advantage of the platform of a winner, she advocates passionately for equity in women’s pay (not just for athletes) and for all people (women, people of color and LGBTQ+ community) to step up, be strong, and claim their spot on the leadership stage. I was impressed.
Seeing her speak also reminded me that I often ask my more presentation-shy or introverted leader-clients to be on the lookout for role models they can emulate. Not everyone on today’s leadership stage is an “alpha” — a table-pounding pundit or charismatic politician. In today’s more diverse organizations, what I call the emergent “beta leaders” — quiet, collaborative, consensus-builders — can be amazingly impactful. In fact, with all the “noise” we hear in the media these days, a more measured, cool approach to public speaking is a welcome change.
When Anderson Cooper asked Megan how she feels about the huge platform she gained since winning the soccer championship, she acknowledged her discomfort with public speaking and joked she would rather be on the field with her team. But she also said (I’m paraphrasing here) that she recognizes the impact she can have if she has the courage to speak up, stay humble, not try to be perfect, and simply share from the heart, what she most cares about: equality, equity and justice for all. To my mind, she is not only a star on the soccer field, but a perfect role model for the new-style of communicator emerging on the leadership stage. So if you are more of a “beta” leader, here are five tips gleaned from the science of effective communication — and from Megan’s stellar performance — to help you claim your space on the leadership stage:
In most of the group or team sessions I lead, when I ask for input from the group, the alpha extroverts — men and women –-are quick to raise their hands, and offer their opinion. Betas perhaps because of introversion or simply to be respectful, tend to hold back and listen first, then add their thoughts when there is a break in the action. Being considerate of others is, of course, an admirable trait, but if you really want to generate impact, you should, more often, speak first. The suggestion here is not about quantity but timing: if you get up your courage and speak up early with a thoughtful and succinct offering, you also provide space and permission for other quieter team mates to follow — and that can help set the stage for greater balance in the speaking/listening quotient overall.
Research shows that only about fifteen percent of the impact of communication is verbal. Words are powerful, but even more powerful are the physical gestures and stance emanating from the body. Studies show that the decision to listen to another person’s perspective is made in the brain almost instantaneously — in reaction to the eye contact, facial expression, gestures, and physical posture. Alpha types, whether by being naturally more extroverted or acculturation (family, school, etc.) expect to be heard — they often have, from an early age, an awareness to competition that spurs them to speak up early and often, and to exhibit body language that exudes confidence. Betas need to do the same if they want to be heard: lean in, use confident tone and pace, with gentle but direct eye contact with the receiver. In larger audience situations, I will advise my beta clients to find a few friendly faces in the crowd and gaze at them as they speak — this can feel empowering when the performance anxiety kicks in — because a friendly face beaming back at you (or a hundred of them) reminds you that the audience is on your side. They want you to win; they feel for you, and they value what you have to say.
It may seem counter-intuitive but there is truth to the adage that there is a power in a “pregnant pause”. Knowing when to stay quiet, but attentive, also sends a signal to others of your self-confidence and presence. In contrast to number one above, once you have spoken up early in the interaction, it can be very powerful to step back and intently ponder a question with a longer-than-expected pause, or to hold the attention of the entire group while you reach for a sip of water (not in the way Senator Rubio interrupted his TV interview flow by grabbing at a water bottle). But in the midst of a response to a question, or in the middle of a short speech, a pause indicates that you “own the room”.
Interweave data & story
Studies of impactful communication indicate that although people respect data and want the speaker to be credible with facts and figures, a powerful story — an anecdote or metaphor — has more emotional pull on listeners. The best speakers weave back and forth between data-driven arguments backed with research and a personal narrative that illustrates the “why” behind the facts — the more personal, passionate and purposeful, the better. When Megan makes her plea for greater equity in pay and treatment of women and minorities, she cites statistics to bring credibility to her argument. But she also shares moving stories from her childhood and team’s battles along the way that show vulnerability, perseverance — and grit. Stories move us because they shine a light on our deeper humanity beyond the political or scientific, connecting the dots — from head to heart.
Ask powerful questions
Communication is always best when there is a back-and-forth dance between declaration and inquiry. People will want to listen to you more, ironically, if you demonstrate that you care what they think. The best way to convince an audience of one (or a thousand) is to ask open-ended questions (e.g. not “yes” or “no” questions) that provoke thought, prompt listeners to reflect and empower others to generate their own perspectives. If you insert a “power” question at the end of a declaration, you send the signal that you really want to create a dialogue, not just make a speech. Of course, this speech act opens you up to having to stop speaking and listen — which can be risky if an alpha decides to take the opening and take over — but it is worth the risk because it sets you up as a leader who values the opinions of others, while at the same time having something important to say.
Most alpha, or beta for that matter, leaders will never have the media platform that winning the women’s soccer championship provided for Megan and her team, but by watching closely how she has leveraged her status to eloquently and respectfully get her message out, we get to see, first hand, the huge potential that exists for a more introverted or consensus-style style leader — whose voice is so important — to speak up, be heard, and lead.