I was 30 years old and had only been a speaking coach for a year when my mentor set me up with a few meetings with senior execs in New York. At one of them, a public relations VP pulled me aside to say, “Our CEO is going on TV later today. While you’re here, could you coach him?”
I was nervous. I had never coached a CEO before, let alone the head of a Fortune 100 company who was about to go on the air. But this was a big opportunity—I couldn’t say no. So I went into the studio with the CEO (in his 50s) and two VPs (in their 40s). I focused on what I knew and trusted in my skills.
Long story short, it turned out fine—the CEO nailed it and said afterward that I’d been a big help. When you’re just starting your career, you’ll find yourself in lots of situations where you’re the youngest person in the room and you’re asked to share your expertise. These are a few indispensable speaking tips that can help.
1. DON’T ACT LIKE A SUIT
When you walk into a meeting with seasoned execs, you might feel a little intimidated. So to compensate, you might think, “Okay, I’ve got this—I’m going to show them I take myself seriously.” So you stiffen up and square your shoulders. You put on a blank face, and you don’t move. You become flat and inauthentic—a “suit”—and it doesn’t do you any favors.
Loosen up. No matter how old you are, or how deep your experience is (or isn’t), most work environments today are pretty casual. At a minimum, they require a more dimensional self-presentation. That means you need to hold your body at ease. You need to relax your face, allowing your natural expressions to come through. You need to gesture to help your thoughts flow; think 3-D, not flat.
2. STEER CLEAR OF HUMOR
You also need to fight the impulse to be funny. Humor can be a great way to release some tension, but your chances of landing a job with a multigenerational and multicultural audience are slim.
Besides, your audience probably isn’t expecting to laugh. When I was a theater director, I learned that you had to get your audience warmed up and ready to laugh before throwing in any humor. There needs to be a build-up before you deliver the punchline. So if you walk into a meeting with a cold, off-the-cuff joke (even a tiny one), you probably aren’t going to get much of a laugh.
You’ll draw attention to your discomfort, not your ideas. Just because you drop the faux seriousness doesn’t mean you should start cracking one-liners.
3. KEEP IT CONVERSATIONAL
The best solution is a happy medium: Keep your speaking simple and straightforward. Ditch the pretentious business jargon and stick with normal, conversational words.
Say “hide” when you mean hide, not “obfuscate.” While you might feel the need to compensate for your lack of experience by making sure people can see how smart you are, that’s a mistake. Keep your sentences short and straightforward, not long and academic. If you try too hard to sound smart, you’ll end up tripping over yourself with overly complex sentences that run on and on. Your listeners will get confused, and soon enough, even you might not know what you’re talking about anymore.
Don’t try to impress anybody. This isn’t a sweeping, formal address. It’s just a conversation.
4. ASK QUESTIONS
You’re the youngest person in the room, and you want to be taken seriously, but don’t let that discourage you from asking questions—even if you think they’re dumb.
Business leaders love to hear from young people because they bring a fresh perspective, without the blinders and assumptions that tend to accrue from years of experience. You might think your relative ignorance is a drawback, but it really isn’t; your “dumb” question may prod everyone in the room to see an issue from a completely new angle.
For example, a new hire at my company recently asked, “Why do we need a CRM [customer relationship management] system?” That wasn’t a dumb remark. It reminded us of the reasons we needed a CRM system in the first place, and how we were using the one we already had in place. That kicked off a conversation about improving our sales and marketing processes that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. So if you’re curious, ask away.
You’re bound to find yourself in situations where you feel out of your depth and surrounded by people with a lot more seniority. But that doesn’t have to be a such a bad thing. Stick with what you know, and remember these four tips, and you’ll say something smart or valuable every time.