A woman with a loud speaker

How to Own the Room, by Viv Groskop

How to Own the Room is the book every woman NOT thinking about public speaking should read.

I didn’t mean to read this book. I spotted it on a shelf in the public library, took it down and skimmed the first page. It describes* a scene from The Post, a film in which Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham (the first female publisher of a major American newspaper) learns to speak up and take charge of the old boy’s club.

It’s a potent moment of triumph reminiscent of Working Girl … a film in which Melanie Griffith learns to speak up and take on the old boy’s club. That similarity may explain the psychological workings of my interest, because it certainly wasn’t to learn ‘the art of brilliant speaking’. In fact, like many people, I’d rather swallow nails than “just say a few words” in front of a crowd. This is ironic, given I don’t think I’ve ever limited myself to a few words in my life.

But what’s stranger is that Groskop’s book is believable and convincing. I hadn’t previously planned to ever give a thank-you speech, never mind a Ted talk and – while I’m not saying I’m planning to now either … I kinda think I could.

The book is constructed around a set of notable (yet not flawless) speeches by women. Michelle Obama is there, along with Virginia Woolf, JK Rowling, Joan Rivers, Ellen DeGeneres, Emma Watson and Susan Cain. For each one, Groskop analyses examples of their public speaking, using it to flesh out tactics and explain how speeches work. It’s a practical book: each chapter ends with exercises that encourage the confidence and skills needed to open your mouth in public.

This makes it a useful book for sure. What makes it powerful is how rare Groskop’s approach is: she likes these women. She talks about why they’re amazing, rather than why they’re not. There are no put-downs or scathing judgements or reductive discussions about what they were wearing or carrying (unless it explains something about the skills these women demonstrate).

You can, for instance, read about the mechanics of Michelle Obama’s speaking style, and then go watch her speech on YouTube and feel genuinely moved by the words, rather than dismissing it as political theatrics (which, of course, it may also be). It’s as if you can see for the first time – once stripped of the usual put-downs and distractions – why in this moment, Michelle Obama might really be brilliant. This is something patently missing from how women typically talk about and to each other, how we’re talked about – even how we talk about ourselves.

This not a gushing book. It’s clear-headed, analytical and plain-speaking. Groskop uses that to explain how these women make it work, and why – contrary to what you’ve probably been told – any woman can gain the same skills. They’re not in short supply. There aren’t a limited number of places, and you don’t have to push down another woman (or man) to take a seat at the table or, indeed, to own the room.

“[Joan Rivers] opens up her whole face, her eyes, her mouth. She uses extreme gestures: hands on hips, shoulders shrugging, arms held wide in a ‘What fresh hell is this?’ expression. Maybe not how you’d like to address your postman if you were saying good morning. And maybe not how you’d like to present a six-month forward-planning strategy if you’d just joined a new team. But effective nonetheless. And worth $150 million by the time of her death in 2014.”

* This is me describing a description.

Viv Groskop, How to Own the Room: Women and the Art of Brilliant Speaking. Bantam Press, 2018

Similar to: Happy (Derren Brown)


Words: my own except where quoted.
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo via Unsplash.