Ask Women in Product: How do I show that you don’t need to have a loud voice or shout to be a leader at the table?

Sara Vienna and Nicole Rosendin share their advice for soft-spoken leaders who want to be better heard.

This week’s question: I have been asked to speak louder in meetings and project my voice to lead the room. I have spoken at numerous public events and meetings and this is the first time I am getting this advice. How do I convince my manager and change the norm in tech and show that you don’t need to have a loud reverberating voice or shout to be a leader at the table?


Answer from Sara Vienna, Head of Design at BL3NDlabs

Let’s start with the core problem. There are many misconceptions about soft-spoken people, and you’re facing one of them: the myth that quieter people can’t lead. There’s also the notion that if someone speaks softly, then she must be weak, naive, too sensitive, and a follower. I’ve found this to be untrue in working alongside some of the strongest product-minded people in my career who also happen to be soft-spoken.

Quiet people absolutely can lead and rise above even the loudest voice in the room. Leadership skills like active listening, empathy, focus, strong ethics, and vision don’t require a megaphone-like voice. Whether you manage people or not, continue to practice influencing without authority. (Hey, ladies! 💅)

Just because someone has the loudest voice in the room does not mean they’re a leader. Let’s solve the practical stuff first. For example, to lead the people in the room, they at least need to be able to hear you.

  • How big is the space?
  • Do you need a mic?
  • If a mic seems odd given the meeting size/set up, how else can you project your voice?
  • Are you prepared?
  • If presenting, have you done a trial run of the presentation and A/V considerations?

If your answer is yes to the above, then we’ve tackled the basics. Now let’s look deeper. I’m answering this as a person who has received negative feedback about my speaking presence so I can attest this can be an emotional topic. When someone delivers input like this inelegantly, it can be even more emotionally loaded.

To help you work out a solution, I’ll be asking questions since I don’t have the benefit of situational awareness.

Check in with yourself

Are you feeling offended by this feedback? If you are, I’m truly sorry. There may be dynamics in the room, the workplace, or in your background that make this painful. You may be feeling mad, indignant, sad, or a combination of intense feelings. Just recognize them and sit with them — upset, confused, or otherwise.

Have you admitted what’s happening inside yet? Are these feelings blocking your ability to see this situation? Don’t continue reading until you do. Take yourself back to when your manager gave you this feedback. Write the feelings down. Concentrate on them for a minute or two. (This is what I did, and it helped a ton!)

Are you ready to improve? Until you can answer yes to improvement, you won’t be able to move on to the next stage of solving this problem.

Whatever these feelings are — they don’t define you. What you next do with this situation does.

Consult with trusted allies

Is there anyone in the room who can objectively review this feedback and tell you honestly if they have trouble hearing you? If there is someone you think fulfills this need, consult with them. Remember they may automatically be on your side so press them for honest feedback. Be ready to hear what they have to say even if it is negative.

If you don’t have someone in the room you can consult with, look for allies who have worked with you in similar situations. The same rules apply as above. Press them for honesty. Be ready for input you may not want to hear.

Review the dynamic

Do you feel comfortable speaking up or are there other tensions in the room? What is your relationship with your manager? Do you have issues with your manager in other situations? Are you feeling penalized or is your manager fair?

If you have a manager who you feel supports you, then open yourself up to receive this feedback. Still, heed the notion above — great leaders can be soft-spoken. Consider discussing the points in this post and linked articles with a trusted manager.

If you have a manager who you feel doesn’t support you in other situations, this is an opportunity to define what you need from them and professionally communicate that.

Embrace a growth mindset

Think about how you can calmly approach this situation. First, when someone gives you feedback in the workplace, listen. Don’t interrupt. (I know this is hard.) Once they’ve finished providing the feedback, tell them “thank you.” It doesn’t mean you have to agree. “Thank you” removes negativity and shows your gratitude for the opportunity to grow. Still, “thank you” is not always warranted. As an outside party, it does seem fair in this situation.

If you disagree with the feedback, ask more questions to better understand the situation. Everyone has their perceptions and are entitled to them. Repeat back what you’re hearing and ask the person to validate or help clarify.

Remember that whatever you’re hearing, this is an opportunity for you to learn about yourself and grow in a potentially difficult situation.

Live continuous improvement

Speaking of growing, check out these pieces from Fortune, Forbes, and Harvard Business Review to continue improving.

Just as software is never done, so is our growth as product people and leaders.


Answer from Nicole Rosendin, Head of Product at Better Therapeutics

Unfortunately, many people still think leaders must be loud and outspoken, but this is simply not true. Kudos for recognizing that being soft-spoken is not a disadvantage to being a leader! Both introverts and extroverts have unique strengths to embrace and traits to augment when it comes to leading.

When it comes to leading a room, it is important to have presence and carry conviction in how you speak. To inspire people you need to have trust and empathy. How does an introvert get there?

Identify your strengths and weaknesses

First, identify what your strengths are and embrace them. Introverts are naturally equipped with some the most important skills of a successful leader. Find your strengths and play them up.

Listening

It’s quite a skill to actively listen; most people are just passively listening or pretending to listen and preparing for what they’re going to say next. When you actively listen, you not only gather more information, but your attention also helps to builds trust and respect.

Use that to your advantage and use your voice to repeat back what you are hearing. Simply saying “I hear you, and….” or “let me make sure I understand….” shows that you were actively listening and is a way to engage in the conversation while taking the floor to share your perspective as well.

Thinking deeply

Many introverts often think deeply about all the information they’ve observed and prefer taking the time to connect the dots.

Use that to your advantage and prep before meetings. If you are more likely to share your thoughts once you have had time to think it through, block time out for yourself before a meeting to simply think, and ask yourself ‘what do I want to bring into this meeting?’ The more you practice, the more confident you’ll feel thinking on your feet and sharing your thoughts in real time.

Self-awareness

Leverage your self-awareness to check in with yourself. How often are you actually speaking up in meetings today? What value are you contributing to the meeting? Are you confident in what you’re saying?

If you’re not speaking up as often as you initially assumed, challenge yourself to always contribute something in every meeting. When you feel like you have something valuable to contribute, you’re more confident to share it with presence. If you think you’re lacking here, build confidence in what you’re saying beforehand, because when you’re confident, it comes through in your tone. Practice talking about something you’re passionate about or that you love. Notice how your tone changes? What’s different? How can you apply that in the workplace?

These are examples of traits, so dig in and discover yours. Figure out which area to play up and which area to work on.

Responding to the feedback

Often, the feedback that you least expected is truly the most valuable. Recognize how it makes you feel — Grateful? Defensive? Curious? Simply taking the feedback constructively is the best first step.

As you become more aware of your presence and think about how to apply new techniques, follow up with your manager and solicit more feedback along the way. Leverage your self-awareness to recognize how this piece of feedback challenged you, put you out of your comfort zone and helped you grow.

Sometimes a challenge is exactly what we need to push ourselves further. Good luck!