Allison Shapira is the author of the new book Speak with Impact: How to Command the Room and Influence Others. She is the founder and CEO of Global Public Speaking LLC. A former opera singer, she is an adjunct lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School. She lives in Washington, D.C.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and how do you define public speaking?
A: I’ve been teaching public speaking presentation skills for over 15 years. I wanted to create a book that collected the stories of people I’ve worked with, and collect my methodology in one place.
I define public speaking very broadly—it’s any time you communicate with one or more people, with some purpose. It can be getting on a conference call, pitching someone in a small group, or speaking up in a meeting. Public speaking is something you do every day.
Q: What advice would you give someone who’s fearful of speaking in public?
A: I’d say public speaking is a skill and not a talent. If you think of it as a talent, you think you’re born with it or without it. If you think of it as a skill, anyone can learn it. You just have to practice and get better.
I tell people public speaking is not about being perfect but being authentic. Audiences connect with people who are real, not those who speak perfectly. If you give up the idea of perfection, you can relax and think about your message.
Public speaking is defined so broadly that you can practice every day, and get more confident every day. The book walks you through the process to write and deliver a speech.
Q: What impact did your training as an opera singer have on your public speaking?
A: My operatic background has had a huge impact on my public speaking. It taught me to connect with an audience and be confident on stage. It also taught me breath support—breathing is one of the techniques to calm yourself as a speaker.
It taught me to use my physical voice. It also helped build my executive presence, the way you stand, the way you walk into a room. Stage presence can become executive presence.
Q: Was it easy for you to transfer those concepts from stage presence to executive presence?
A: With the nonverbal [aspects], absolutely. In terms of content, it was a pretty steep learning curve! An opera singer doesn’t have to write their own words. My first job was in diplomacy—I had to learn about world affairs and write for people who would be quoted in the press.
Q: Overall, what do you hope readers take away from your book?
A: I want them to take away a framework that they can use any time they have a speech or a meeting. As a result of the book, I hope they feel more confident speaking up authentically.
I’d like them to see themselves in the stories—the book has many anecdotes of people I’ve worked with. People can see that they’re not alone, that everyone struggles [with public speaking].
I hope they feel so confident that they want to speak up more on behalf of themselves and their community. I hope to empower people.
Q: Are there any public speakers you especially admire?
A: There are so many great speakers out there. I struggle to come up with one or two. The people who impress me most are not people who are really comfortable with public speaking, but people in my workshops who hate public speaking, are scared of it, and then at the end of the workshop, they give an impassioned speech. They inspire me most.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I run a training company that teaches [public speaking] skills. We’ve tripled in size over the past year, and we’re able to help so many people. My main focus has been helping the trainers and coaches work with more people around the world. And I teach public speaking at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’d like people to know that the book is available, and people can buy it or download it or listen on Audible.
It’s written to help people at all points in their careers, but the sweet spot is people moving into leadership positions. It can help people move from technical expertise to more general fluency speaking in any situation.
And it’s a book that, whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, will help you. We’re not trying to turn an introvert into an extrovert, but to help everyone be impactful when they’re involved with public speaking.
It was written for everyone, but especially for people who have something they want to say, and [the book can help them] feel more confident when they speak up.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb