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How to Own the Room

book review eloquence public speaking Nov 12, 2020

Book Review!

“How to Own the Room”

By Viv Groskop


Why public speaking books should be approached with caution

There are a lot - and I mean a LOT - of “public speaking” books on the market.  

And most are trash.  (and just a heads-up - this month’s book is NOT in that group!!)

Yup.  I said it.  And I stand behind that statement, no matter how many people (and authors) disagree.  

There’re a couple of reasons why that is the case. 


One size does NOT fit all - and most books ARE “one size” manuals

First, it’s actually pretty tough to capture something like “public speaking” on paper.  Sure, you can put a lot of “how-to’s” on the page - but there are so many variables at play, that any technical list almost immediately falls short.

For instance, let’s take the inevitable chapter on “Your Audience”: you’ll be told you need to know your demographic - who are you speaking to (age, gender identity, sociopolitical affiliation, education level, income, geography, etc.), what their reasons are for attending your “talk”, what they know about your subject, and so forth.

This isn’t “bad” advice.  Far from it: there’s a world of difference in presenting to kindergartners versus retirees, low-income parents versus investors, native English speakers versus new English get the idea.  As a speaker, being sensitive to those differences, and governing yourself accordingly, is critical to your credibility and effectiveness.  Obviously, I would hope.

So, alerting you to those facts is super-important.  But no book can hold your hand through all of those variants.  Again, obviously, I would think.

Anyone writing a book on public speaking is therefore limited in what she or he can give you - and many (if not most) people buying books on public speaking are not looking for general reading material.  They are either: a) desperately looking for answers for an upcoming situation/event/crisis or b) trying to really refine their ‘A-game’.  

An author is caught in that cross-hairs.  

Perspective is everything - and one primary perspective is being heard

Second, the VAST majority of public speaking books are written by guys.  White guys.  White, English-speaking guys.  White, English-speaking, North American guys.  White, English-speaking, North American guys who fancy themselves really good at public speaking, to be precise - but often their only claim to competency is the feedback they’ve received from others, in a culture that values public speaking but doesn’t actually put its money where it’s proverbial mouth is, vis-a-vis investing in everyone having those skills.  It’s elite and elitist.  

And they have lots of good stuff to say, don’t get me wrong.  But there is something to be said about perspectives coming from different places other than the dominant narrative.  (Yup - I use the big words).  

This is precisely what Londoner Viv Groskop, in her fabulous book “How to Own the Room: Women and the Art of Brilliant Speaking” is gunning for. Published in 2018, this highly readable (and very entertaining) book takes a straight shot at how women can - and do - succeed as speakers, no matter their jam.

My favourite quote appears on page 66:

What matters for you as an individual is what is useful for you.

Why is this my favourite?  Simple: As you comb through the tangles of all of the advice and ‘how-to’ information that is available (and believe me, it’s A LOT - thanks internet!), you are going to have one of three reactions:

  1. You are going to be overwhelmed and shut down
  2. You are going to go crazy trying to be everything to everyone
  3. You are going to become a devotee of one approach, at the expense of yourself and other perspectives that might aid you (depending on your varying situations)

But by embracing the notion that you have the agency to choose what works and is useful to you (and, obviously, also useful to your goals), then you give yourself immense freedom.  

Why this book works for women and for public speaking (brilliantly!)

The most powerful thing that struck me is that Viv (can I call you that, Viv?) is real.  And her advice and guidance is all couched in those terms: being the real you isn’t easy, but it IS necessary if you want to “own the room”.  Viv and I are on the same page on this one, believe me.  

Between personal examples, “case studies” (Michelle Obama, Joan Rivers, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are among them), and tools to really dig into your thoughts and perceptions around speaking, this book does a fabulous job of bringing you, the reader, into the conversation.  Whether you’re a complete newbie (and picking up this book is an act of faith) or a pro (who wants to keep levelling up), I’d venture you’ll find this book valuable.

Groskop (now I sound like I’m in a locker room!) has a fantastic rhetorical trick she uses to name her chapters: “Be More….” (fill in the name of a fabulous woman speaker).  What’s really interesting to me is the diversity she uses: she doesn’t pick one “exemplar” and then hang all of her theory, advice, strategies, on that one model.  In fact, the diversity of examples she uses to illustrate her points to one key (and critical) element:

There is no one “right” way to speak

At its surface, this no doubt seems obvious.  But think about that for a moment:  the massive anxiety that women (and men, of course) suffer relating to speaking (and I’m being broad in the terminology - it could be a conversation, or it could be a TEDTalk) is real.  And why do we feel anxiety?  Because we are worried that expectations won’t match reality.  This mismatch leads to judgement: it “should have” been like XYZ, and because it wasn’t, the speaker is somehow “less”.  

But what happens if you’re able to let go of that notion, even for a moment?  What becomes possible?

This is what “How to Own the Room” invites you to consider (even if that’s never actually spelled out).

This book is for you if:

  1. You want to think about how you think about what “brilliant speaking” is to you
  2. You want to explore how you feel about yourself as a “speaker”
  3. You are willing to consider how different strategies will change you as a person and speaker (visualizations, reflections, physical tricks, modelling behaviours, etc.)
  4. You are ready to believe you are capable of being a brilliant speaker.

Let me know what you got out of the book in the comments section below!

If you’re ready to go further, faster:

If you love the ideas in “How to Own the Room”, but want to work with a “real, live person” who can help you discover your own way of brilliant speaking, get in touch!

If you want to join a group of like-minded women who are ready to “Own the Room” on their own terms, then TEEwithD will be the place to be! - the launch of the digital, global platform will allow you to learn, laugh, lead and leverage your greatest strengths as a speaker, in pursuit of your biggest dreams (oh, and we’re out to help each other change the world, too!).  Sign up here to be part of the “in crowd”!

Next month’s book

Next month we’ll have a boo at a book that gets into the nuts and bolts of how words, language, sounds, and voices work: and don’t worry, I PROMISE it’s not a boring textbook!

With love,

Xo donna

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