The Risks of Speaking Up

How to win a speech competition by going meta
OCT 2018
Anna
I.
Brain and Cognitive Sciences

Ping – a new email in my inbox. It was a reminder that I had signed up for the “MIT Can Talk” Oratory Competition, taking place tomorrow. The email window stayed open for a while, waiting patiently while I was deciding whether I still wanted to participate. I had just submitted a paper for a conference (the deadline was the day before the competition), and I was exhausted. However, I had been so excited to practice my public speaking skills!.. When I saw that this year’s theme was “Taking Risks”, I knew exactly what the topic of my speech should be.  This opportunity was too precious to miss. And so, the morning before the contest, I sat down at my desk to draft a five-minute speech.

Hi, my name is Anna, and I have something to say.

The carpet covering the stage at the MIT Museum is bright red. It reminds me of the TED stage – is that what they were going for? I find myself standing in front of a small audience, consisting of judges, other participants, and a few friends.

Oh, no, now you are all looking at me. Did I really need to speak up? My voice sounds weird. Do I really have anything valuable to say?

This is the toughest part of the speech – my uncertainty is real, but I can’t let it affect my performance. I should reveal my fears for a second, then hide them and move on.

These insecurities follow me around whenever I participate in a conversation. There are just so many things that can go wrong. For me, speaking up is always a risk.

I pace the floor, carefully planning every utterance I’m about to make.

First, there is a risk of failing to deliver your message.

By now you are probably used to my accent, but it likely caught your attention in the beginning. To be fair, it usually doesn’t cause me any trouble at MIT, where so many students are international. But back at the University of Miami, speaking up in class could be really intimidating. I’d raise my hand and ask a question, and the professor would go “What?”. The burning feeling of shame and disappointment made it really hard to try to speak in class ever again.

My accent has certainly gotten better over the years. How do I know? I can order my coffee at Starbucks without having to repeat every word. But some issues are unlikely to ever go away. For instance, when I get excited about something, I tend to start speaking really fast… and lose my audience. It is not something I can really control, so I just have to accept the fact that sometimes people won’t understand what I’m saying – and that’s ok.

How am I doing on time? I should still have plenty – maybe I can slow down a bit. And remember, this is the part where I wanted to play with the audience a little bit.

The second challenge I face as a speaker is making sure that people are actually paying attention. In order to engage my audience, I have to be reassuring and confident - even when I don't feel this way.

I turn to the judges and make eye contact with each of them as I make my way through the next sentence.

I need to be able to look a person in the eye…  establish a personal connection… and make sure we are both on the same page. As an introvert, I find it really hard, but I try my best.

Ok, enough games. Keep going.

The third communication challenge stems from the fact that I’m a woman.

I remember the time when I was preparing my valedictorian speech for high school graduation. I rehearsed it in front of a friend, and his advice was:

“Hmm… maybe you should speak in a lower pitch. You know, Margaret Thatcher took lessons to work on her voice, so that she could deliver speeches from the stage more effectively.”

My friend was right – I looked up videos on YouTube, and the difference in Thatcher’s speaking style at the beginning and at the end of her career is striking. Nevertheless, I still struggle with his advice. Do I really need to compromise my identity and speak in a more man-like fashion if I want to be heard? I don’t think so.

Finally, even if I manage to communicate my ideas clearly and effectively, there is always a fear of retaliation. What if people don’t like what I’m saying? What if my honesty hurts my reputation? Should I say anything at all? The answers to those questions, of course, really depend on the environment I’m in. But you have to admit, staying quiet is often the safest option.

I see a few nods in the audience. Almost there!

Knowing all that, why do I even bother to speak up? Well, because I can’t help it. The need to communicate and share ideas is a powerful force that has been shaping cultures for millennia. Our individual knowledge is limited; our collective knowledge is infinite. We as a society benefit when everybody has a voice - when everybody is willing to contribute. And for me, the first step to making my voice heard is recognizing the risks that prevent me from speaking up – and facing these risks.

I breathed out. I felt that I had barely touched upon the topic: there was so much more I could say about the importance of open communication and the struggles that underlie it. Yet writing that short speech was, without a doubt, a valuable experience.

Identifying my personal limitations seemed to be a crucial step on the way to becoming a good communicator. And hey, the judges thought so too: despite being full of self-criticism, that speech did win me an oratory competition.