What drew you to a career in academia?
Was it the chance for quiet reflection? The opportunity to exchange ideas with a few valued colleagues? The image of a life spent reading and writing, and teaching an occasional course or seminar?
If so, you probably weren’t thrilled to discover that your success in academia—like success in every other arena—isn’t just determined by the quality of your work. It’s also influenced by people’s perceptions of what you contribute to your institution and the academic community at large; impressions that are formed in countless meetings, conversations, and classrooms.
That’s why it’s so important that you speak up—with peers, with university leaders, and with your students—in ways that show your enthusiasm and engagement.
Speak Up in Meetings, Even If You Have “Nothing Much” to Say
There are lots of reasons why people don’t participate during department or committee meetings. They may be bored, or preoccupied. They may resent the time that’s being taken from their writing, research, or other pursuits. They may “have nothing to say,” or not like the tone or level of conversation.
Sadly, though, not speaking up in meetings is the classic example of “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” That’s because, when you don’t participate, the only person who suffers is you. Like it or not, people who speak up more often are seen as being more involved, more leaderly, and more intelligent than people who don’t.
Arguably, this is unfair. But it’s also human nature to be drawn to people who seem more invested in us.
Think about a course you recently taught. Did the students who never raised their hands, never offered a thought or a question, impress you? Probably not. Instead, it’s more likely that you noticed, even gravitated toward, the students who demonstrated involvement by speaking up, whether or not they had exceptional things to say.
And that’s the key to more active participation. To speak up more in meetings, it helps to release yourself from the high standards of “what matters” that you apply to your research, writing, and other academic pursuits.
Often, people don’t share their thoughts out of fear that their comment isn’t relevant or valuable. If you tend toward self-criticism, however, you may not be the best judge of what will be relevant or useful to others. (Have you ever held back an observation and then watched, moments later, as someone else made the same point to general acclaim?)
But even if your remark is not a unique gem—most meeting comments aren’t—that doesn’t mean it’s not worth sharing. The important thing is to be seen as someone who contributes, so consider offering:
- A comment endorsing someone else’s position,
- A question about the topic at hand, or
- An observation about the group’s process (“Should we table this for next time? We seem to be going around in circles…”).
And when you do speak up, be sure that you’re being heard, literally. Speak in a clear, firm tone of voice, and make eye contact with someone; this will help focus everyone’s attention, including yours.
When Dealing with Senior University Leaders, Speak Up by Going Right to the Point
When you’re speaking, rather than writing, it’s helpful to others—and public speaking best practice—to always make your most important point first, and this is doubly true when you’re speaking to senior university leaders.
That’s because senior leaders are generally focused on gathering information that supports a decision. Their time is at a premium, and any discussion that derails that focus, no matter how interesting it might seem to you, can be actively annoying to them.
I call this technique of going right to the point “Answer the Question First,” but it’s just as applicable when you’ve been asked for a comment as it is for questions. The basic idea is that your listener is waiting for you to address their concern. Doing that in a straightforward and prompt way relaxes them, and gives you the comfort of knowing that, even if you’re cut off, you’ve said what you had to say.
You can follow your answer with a pause (to make sure your listener wants to hear more), or continue right into a broader exposition before you end by repeating your main point. In either case, though, watch your listener to be sure that they’re still engaged with what you’re saying.
This technique isn’t just for responding to administrators—everyone appreciates brevity, and knowing that you’re attentive to their concerns—but it’s particularly important when dealing with higher-ups.
In the business world, the best advice I’ve ever heard from talking to senior leaders (“the C-suite”) is Be brief, be bold, be gone.
Don’t Lecture… Share Information
The other group that wants you to speak up in a way that’s relevant and considerate of them is your students—and their reviews will reflect your success in talking to them.
To do this more effectively, think about the way that you give social information to a family member or friend:
- Are you excited by the news (say, that an old friend is moving back to town, or your local pub is closing for renovations)?
- Are you pleased to be in the know, and to share what you’ve learned?
- Do you sound casual or colloquial (“Hey, did you hear that…”)?
You’ve probably answered “yes” to at least one of those questions. Yet many people who sound relaxed, confident, and comfortable when sharing personal news become stiff, formal, and detached when they step behind a lectern or turn on their computers to give a virtual lecture.
If you believe in the value of what you’re teaching, bring your personality to the job:
- Be excited about the information you’re sharing. The sound of your voice and set of your body convey that excitement, but so do words like, “Today we’re going to talk about a really important moment in history,” or “I’ve been grappling with (a particular concept) for years, and today we’re going to make sense of it together.”
- Focus on the pleasure of sharing your hard-won knowledge with people who can benefit from it (or, if that’s too heavy a lift, take pride in meeting your teaching obligation). If you think of your lecture as something to be endured until it’s over, your students will feel the same way.
- Take a casual approach. Speak to your students as if they were friends. Above all, don’t read to them unless you know how to write a talk colloquially. Written notes are a presenter’s best friend, but only if we deliver them in a way that sounds conversational. “It’s reasonable to infer that a preponderance of people are aware that…” means the same thing as “I’m betting a lot of you know that…” Which would you rather listen to? (Here are some tips on how to write speaking notes that will help you sound more relaxed and natural.)
Think You Can’t Follow This Advice? Take This Quiz to Find Out
You’ve probably noticed that many of the tips in this article involve projecting an attitude, or a level of energy, that may not reflect your true state at any given moment. Many people feel that this level of acting (or “acting as if”) is beyond them, but they often change their minds after taking this brief quiz:
Has a young child (perhaps your own child, or a beloved niece, nephew, or neighbor) ever asked you to read them a story that you didn’t want to read? If so, did you…
- Tell them,”The Cat in the Hat is a boring, stupid book, and I’m sick to death of it. Go find someone else to read it to you”?
- Put on your best Dr. Seuss voice and read it for the 5000th time?
Has a friend or loved one ever given you a gift that was, in your opinion, awful? If so, did you say…
- “I can’t imagine what you were thinking when you chose this. Please get it away from me!”?
- “Wow, thank you for thinking of me. I really appreciate that!”
If you answered “B” to either of those questions, you have more than enough acting ability to force a little enthusiasm into a meeting comment, to sound sharp and focused when speaking to administrators, or pretend that you’re speaking to friends instead of to a room full of students.
And one last thought: All of this works best when you approach it like a game instead of a personality transplant. Pick one action and try to incorporate it once (or for a minute) each day; then pick another action and try that one out, etc.
Speaking Up isn’t just an inclination. It’s also a decision that you make about how to interact with your colleagues, your students, and yourself. So have some fun experimenting with small changes, and notice how the impact you have on others changes, too.