It’s one of the most important business lessons I’ve ever learned. And it happened at the third grade spelling bee.

I was painfully shy, but excited to stand and spell with my third grade classmates. After all, I was an excellent speller. Ninety kids were crowded into a single room. One by one, my classmates were eliminated until there were only five of us left. My word was “cupboard” and I absolutely knew how to spell it!

“C-U-P-B-O-A-R-D. Cupboard.”

Ding!

Wait, what?

In my tiny voice I had uttered the correct letters, but the teacher--all the way across the room--didn’t hear me correctly. My raucous, restless classmates had drowned out my voice. I was shocked, confused, and speechless, unable to respond. All I could do was stumble to my seat.

That day I learned that it’s my responsibility to be heard, and to be heard correctly.

Not every entrepreneur is naturally eloquent and ardent like Mark Cuban, Steve Jobs or Richard Branson. While we’re all very passionate about what we do, many of us struggle to speak with confidence--to find our powerful “voice.” (Surprisingly, my husband and children don’t think I have any problem at all expressing what I want.)

Here are five tips for boosting your own voice:

Volume.  In my defining moment, a little more volume would have changed everything. Shouting isn’t the answer, but if the location and circumstances merit more oomph, I lift my chin, take a breath, and focus on projecting my voice. And remember: Sometimes a quiet voice makes an even greater impact. “Godfather” Don Corleone barely raised his voice above a whisper but always got his message across.  

Body language.  I’ve already written about the importance of eye contact and body language in previous articles. It’s all true. You can boost the impact of your words by the way you sit, stand, carry yourself, and whether or not you’re looking your audience in the eye.

Energy If you deliver your message with the right energy and enthusiasm, it’s impossible to ignore. When I’m really sure about what I’m communicating, my conviction comes through loud and clear--whether it’s joy, anger, frustration, or pride. Personal energy converts mere words into electric leadership.

Brevity If you have a clear idea of what you want, you don’t need to say much. Shorter can be sweeter and make more impact. Think carefully, say it succinctly, and then stop talking. Silence is powerful. It’s even more important to listen for the response.

Chutzpah Sometimes we lack conviction in our speech because we don’t feel we have the right to be speaking in front of an audience. Or we don’t feel entitled to be telling the audience what to do. Or we make a request in a halting or self-conscious way. As a leader, there are times you need to fake it until you make it. A little chutzpah goes a long way toward getting you what you need, when you need it.

By the way, the winning word in the spelling bee was watermelon. Gah! If only!