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Book review: How to Own the Room: Women and the art of brilliant speaking

Public speaking can be daunting, but Viv Groskop's powerful advice and real-life examples will help boost your courage

Book review how to own

Public speaking can be daunting, but Viv Groskop's powerful advice and real-life examples will help boost your courage

How to Own the Room: Women and the art of brilliant speaking

Author: Viv Groskop 

Publisher: Bantam Press

Details: 240pp, £12.99, hardback

ISBN: 9781787631120

Schools are funny places – every hour of every day, there will be adults speaking in public to groups of about 30 people. But if you told them to lead assemblies, or even worse, to present at staff meetings, most would rather go 10 rounds with Anthony Joshua. Such incidence of public-speaking avoidance is even more prevalent among women, and this is something that Viv Groskop recognises in her self-help book.

It is not hard to understand why women in particular have a mental block about public speaking, especially when you consider a quote from Samuel Johnson that launches the book: “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

With prejudices such as these reaching across the centuries, it’s surprising that any woman would want to expose herself to this kind of judgement or criticism.

Groskop has a long record of accomplishment in public speaking; she is not only a stand-up comedian who has faced her fair share of public-speaking disasters, but she also coaches in the art of communicating to audiences.

One of the strengths of the book is that she uses a wide range of examples of women who speak in public, including Michelle Obama with her famous speech that includes the “when they go low, we go high” quote. Groskop recognises that “happy high status is the single most important thing about being a strong public speaker”. This is a helpful concept for women to understand; as a leadership coach, I know that it is an individual’s self-belief, or lack of it, that is one of the biggest limiting factors for many women. This book helps to tackle emotions such as these head on. 

The “tips and tricks” sections provide useful thoughts and words of wisdom on the mechanics and processes of public speaking, and these enable the novice speaker to move beyond presenting by instinct towards deliberate practice.

Another strength of the book is the selection of public-speaking exercises and lessons that punctuate each chapter; these cover everything from body language, breathing, developing the right mindset, planning the content and personal story, watching experts, recording yourself, delivering challenging information and beating the anxiety that every public speaker experiences at some level or other.

Even stars get stage sick

The worst presentation I ever gave was in a headteacher interview in North Devon. It was the type of presentation that you want to forget, but you simply can’t because it lingers in the psyche every time you get up to speak. So lesson 10 of the book, “Be more you”, resonated with me. This is where Groskop reminds the reader of all of the highly talented people who are challenged by nerves and anxiety, such as Stephen Fry, Adele (who is often physically sick before she performs) and Carly Simon, who took time off from live performance because of such feelings. 

In explaining how to cope under pressure, the best piece of advice she shares is to look at nervous energy as external feelings that can be evaluated and changed rather than something you become. This is a powerful statement for the many people who tend to internalise every experience, damage their presenting self-esteem and make it unlikely to want to do it again.

The book excels at showing that whatever your personality, there is a presenter out there just like you, whether it’s a slow and languid Virginia Woolf considering every word, the more shy, retiring type who brings an “imperfect” presence, like Amy Cuddy in her TED Talk on body language, or a high-energy evangelical-style speaker, such as Oprah Winfrey. This can build anyone’s confidence. However, like all self-help guides, what it can’t do is make you reflect on yourself or give you feedback like a coach could. It also can’t provide the public-speaking opportunities needed to develop these skills, and this in turn can makes some of the exercises seem false.

Groskop gives you all of the tools you need, and by the end I wanted to get out there and speak. It is a book full of talented, able, but ultimately flawed women who felt the fear and did it anyway, despite their negative thoughts, feelings, and ums and ers. It’s a shame we still need such books aimed at women, but the world would be poorer without them.

Will you own the room after reading this? It will depend on how much time and energy you are willing to commit to your personal development. Even if you don’t complete any of the exercises, there is enough advice and practical support for anyone to improve. If you embrace it all, you might still be declining 10 rounds with Anthony Joshua, but instead you will be out there, heading up the next staff meeting with a confident glow. 

Ruth Golding is a head of school at Tor Bridge High, Plymouth. She tweets @LearnerLedLdr

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