Find your voice1

Do you find it hard to speak up and be heard?

Anyone who has hesitated to raise their hand or speak up in a meeting knows how strong the urge to conform is. We tend to seek justifications to continue things as they are, without imagining new possibilities or challenging the status quo. But although staying silent may make things easier for others, it might not be doing you any favors. Especially if you’ve got your eye on a better job, or promotion, or speaking engagement. So it takes a kind of bravery to push us beyond our limits, to step up and stick our necks out in order to make a powerful impression — to let people see and hear our authentic personal brand.

When I was in college, a friend of mine and I co-produced a short video about the lifecycle of brands for a course project. That in itself was a little audacious, given the assignment was just a report, and students were typically expected to stick to academic subjects and conventional modes of presentation. Well, in a way, the move backfired, because it got more attention than we anticipated. Since the movie was a ‘first’ for the university, the faculty decided to showcase it at an inter-college seminar. The real test came when it had to be screened in a hall filled with an audience that included the chancellor and senior faculty — introduced by me. I had visions of my head rolling down the center aisle as I approached the podium to talk about the idea behind the film. I had never spoken to that many people before in my life.

So I decided to just muscle through it. And as I read out my part, my voice slowly changed from shaky to strong, and the butterflies in my stomach gave way to giddy joy. The screening was a success – getting laughter and applause in all the right places. But that was just the beginning. Doubly delightful was the rush of congratulatory handshakes and compliments that followed. I realized that by conquering this scary situation, it made me feel like a real achiever. And the benefits lingered on afterwards: we continued to receive recognition on campus, and I began to notice an improvement in my self-esteem and even my class performance – in asking questions or getting involved in assignments.

That was my moment of truth where I understood that in order to get noticed and be heard, you have to raise the bar, even if it means subjecting yourself to some amount of pain. Building a personal brand is about seizing such opportunities to express yourself, doing something beyond the routine, in order to move beyond where you are.

Presentations to a college seminar don’t happen every day, but there are always opportunities that we have to be braver – to speak up and be heard. Here are some ways to rise above the noise and hold others attention:

Be proactive by asking good questions: Don’t let a moment pass by where you have a chance to ask a good question. Sometimes it can make all the difference by just letting people know that you care about something strongly enough to want to know more. Many people tend to think that asking questions is demonstrating ignorance, and there is an art to asking a good question. But you can only get better at probing for information in situations where it matters. And sometimes you may save the day for other people too – several times when I’ve admitted that I didn’t understand a certain speaker, it turned out that other key people in the group were as lost as I was. So this tactic can really pay off.

Stand up for what is right: It takes heart to stand up for what you believe in, to make unpopular choices. But we all know that it’s the right thing to do: to act when you see others being wronged or integrity being squandered. If you encounter a senior manager making an obviously sexist remark, or the quiet person getting talked over yet again, or the herd wanting to jump on to another popular bandwagon, you have to realize that it’s your moment to make your stand clear, and step up to the plate and say the thing that everyone else is probably thinking.

“These moments define your personal brand. It’s easy to go with the flow, or to remain silent. But it’s more powerful to make yourself heard, and to show up mediocrity or injustice where you find it,” Omnicor — ‘Building a Powerful Personal Brand’

Take on new challenges: Try to do some of the things that people shy away from and say can’t be done. This can establish your credibility as the one who goes the extra mile, and is willing to handle additional assignments. Debra Benton’s article, ‘When You Stand Out, You Are Personal Branding’, talks about how initiative and zeal are often recognized quickly within organizations and can open up new opportunities for you.

Realize that it’s what leaders do: Handling only the tasks associated with your job will only take you so far, just up to becoming known as a dependable resource. However, when it comes to promotions, management is looking for leadership. Someone who can take ownership, connect with people, be credible, and carry them along. Meaning, when you have a point to add and a contribution to make, you have to be able to voice it and influence people. Be resolute that you can challenge things that do not make sense, because real leaders don’t remain silent in every meeting. They contribute and help steer the ship.

No, I’m not suggesting that you transform into some kind of annoying gadfly that buzzes around and drives people insane. But think about leaders that you admire. Don’t they strive to think differently? To do something unique? They find ways to come out of the humdrum of the daily routine and ensure that they can get and hold people’s attention. And that takes courage, but it can also take you to the next level in your career.

And I don’t think leadership is limited to only extroverts who _always_ have something to say. Instead, I think all of us can pick the times when it’s important that we offer something. And not let those precious opportunities pass us by.

Sure, there will be times when you doubt yourself, when you are afraid of being judged and being called out. I can still recall how tough it was to stand on that stage and open my mouth in front of all those people. When I first started speaking I was fumbling for words. My throat went dry and the tips of my fingers were numb. But I thought: I’m already out here, I can live through it. My intentions were clear, and I knew had to tell my story. I knew I could be brave.

And the effort was worth the pain to find my voice.

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