Judith Quin on how to improve vocal confidence to build a stronger, more productive, and happier workforce
While WFH has its advantages, new working practices ushered in because of the pandemic may have damaged the confidence of many employees – and their managers.
Communicating only through Zoom or hybrid working has made it harder for some people to get their point across effectively in meetings, particularly those who might normally sit quietly in the meeting, reflect on things and then seek to share an idea with their manager or a colleague later. There are now, therefore, fewer opportunities for some people to make an impact through traditional communication channels, and this can affect careers, as seen in a 2013 study by researchers from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
This means that some employees (and managers) may be worried about their promotion prospects, pay rises and in some cases, keeping their job. These fears can negatively impact not only confidence and performance, but also mental health.
Confidence is not loudness − it’s certainty and clarity that provides gravitas
A 2021 study shows that distance created by WFH impacts working relationships as more communication is done remotely (by email or instant messaging) rather than face to face. When people are working from home, casual positive feedback is less likely to be forthcoming when, as leadership writer and motivational speaker Ken Blanchard says, you are not “catching people doing things right” − because you are not seeing it happen.
Why is WFH and reduced vocal confidence a problem? On a practical level, people may feel their communications skills have got a bit ‘rusty’ and they are now less confident about making presentations, speaking up in meetings or generally talking to a room full of people. Managers and directors may feel that, after a prolonged period of WFH, they are also less confident about the connection with their team or presenting to the board.
Lack of confidence creates less interaction. When people speak less they are seen less, which increases uncertainty about value; and increased uncertainty negatively impacts mental health. However, one of the outcomes of lockdown is that more people are seeking help, even men, who traditionally have been less likely to do so. A survey by LionHeart shows that there has been a huge increase in men seeking support.
How to build vocal confidence in the workplace
So, what can be done, to help managers and their teams feel more comfortable about communicating in the ‘new normal’ of WFH and hybrid working?
For any team members and managers feeling at a disadvantage due to new working practices, improving vocal confidence is crucial. It doesn’t just mean being assertive, it also means understanding how you are perceived by others; having the ability to adapt your style to communicate clearly to those who differ from you; and knowing when, how and where to speak up − and when not to.
Here are a few tips on how you can both improve your own communication and encourage and support your team in regaining any confidence lost due to pandemic-related changes. The key points are: be present and be clear.
Being present doesn’t mean just showing up in person; it means having a strong and visible presence. One way to do this is to always turn your video to ‘on’ in online meetings (and strongly encourage your team to do the same) – because when we are not seen we tend to fade into the background.
To enhance your presence, ‘own’ the space when you speak, by standing or sitting up straight. If you are running the meeting, make sure you hold the space for others by not permitting interruptions. Improving your posture helps you take up space in the room (or on your video screen − make sure your head and shoulders are filling that square). Hold eye contact and/or ask direct questions. This means that you will both look and feel engaged and engaging. You will also look more present and that encourages others to be more present too.
Confidence is not loudness − it’s certainty and clarity that provides gravitas. However, if you’re softly spoken it may be useful to increase volume. The simplest way to do this is to open your mouth wider when you speak. On the other hand, if you’re naturally loud, be aware that you may be overwhelming people, so you might benefit from toning or slowing things down a bit. You will appear more in control, and this will also put others at ease.
The other key point is clarity. Confidence is increased by clarity, and appearing confident, in turn, gives others confidence in you.
How to achieve this? Firstly, don’t focus on ‘you’, but on your audience. The number one fear people have in any speaking situation is that they will be judged negatively. However, the audience is not focused on you personally. What they are concentrating on is how what you’re going to say will help or benefit them. So, always start by talking about benefits or if it’s a challenging situation, focus on empathy.
It’s also important to be clear about why you’re speaking. Clarity of thought creates clarity of words − when your thoughts are clear, your brain isn’t rushing to find the words, so you are calmer and able to pace yourself effectively, and people hear you better.
Clarity of intention creates clarity of tone. Bear in mind that your voice reflects your feelings, so be clear on your intention and you will be more likely to sound like you are communicating appropriately and well, rather than telling with force or rushing with fear.
Finally, avoid over-explaining. In some situations, reasons start to sound like excuses. So, keep things relevant to the knowledge level of the person or people you’re speaking to and last but not least, remember to KISS – Keep It Short and Simple.
To sum up, improved vocal confidence and clear communication can better equip people to deal with workplace challenges of all kinds.