Ever have that dream where you’re standing in front of a crowd, nailing a presentation? For the members of BlackRock Speaks, that’s just another Tuesday. This employee-led group offers colleagues a safe space to enhance public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and hone speechwriting and delivery times.
BlackRock Speaks began in March 2012, with just a handful of London-based Women’s Initiative & Allies Network (WIN) members who were inspired to improve their public speaking abilities – and today, it boasts more than 700 members across nine countries.
To achieve their goal, the founders connected with a local Toastmasters chapter and learned how to operate their own chapter within a corporate setting. In just a few months, the inaugural BlackRock Speaks group became a bona fide Toastmasters club.
(ICYDK: Toastmasters International is a nonprofit educational organization that’s helped people around the world strengthen their public speaking and leadership skills for the last 100 years.)
To learn more about the group’s draw, we connected with participants Emese Szocs, Jennifer Kelly and Lorelei Paredes. They also shared how it’s impacted their lives – both professionally and personally.
Emese Szocs, Analyst, Talent Management, Budapest
How did you hear about BlackRock Speaks?
Emese: I heard about it from a colleague who attended a demo session. She shared her experience of being pushed out of her comfort zone through a creative exercise incorporating random funny words into an impromptu speech (“Table Topics”) – but it immediately piqued my interest.
Jennifer: In May 2021, I received an email with the subject: “How can we stay in touch and participate in activities virtually? Here are some ideas!” As I scanned through the email, one item jumped out at me: “The Return of BLK Speaks!”
Lorelei: I was introduced to BlackRock Speaks through colleagues who sit with me on the Mindfulness Network Operating Committee. I try to be a good cheerleader to my friends, so I first attended a session to show my support.
What motivated you to join BlackRock Speaks?
Lorelei: I have been trying to improve my communication for a few years now and how to share ideas in a mindful, easy-to-digest way to avoid miscommunication. This is particularly important in project management, where you work with people with skillsets different from your own. Communication is important on a day-to-day basis. And there’s an extra challenge when you’re an immigrant in a new country with a new culture speaking in a non-native language.
Emese: My curiosity guided me to BlackRock Speaks. Also, English is my second language. So, I was looking for a way to improve my grammar and extend my vocabulary while also building a community. BlackRock Speaks ticked all those boxes.
Jennifer: Professionally, I wanted to challenge myself to write 10 five- to seven-minute speeches within a 12- to 15-week period. I’m happy to say I completed these goals at the end of March 2022, and I am now an effective communicator!
Personally, I am introverted and shy, and have major anxiety. But I cope by putting myself out there – even though sometimes I’d rather crawl into bed under the covers.
I joined BlackRock Speaks to prove to myself that I could write awesome speeches within targeted times, and that a challenge like this could be achieved even with my workload and personal life.
Jennifer Kelly, Associate Engineer, Platform Service’s Group, Wilmington
What was your first meeting like?
Jennifer: I was very nervous because I didn’t know anyone – but I was also excited! I gave a short speech about myself that was not prepared ahead of time.
Emese: I will never forget the first meeting. It was the last in-person event before lockdown. I was sitting there, quietly amazed by the structure of a club meeting and surprised at how much learning could fit into a one-hour agenda. After hearing the prepared speeches, I thought: ‘Okay, now is the time everyone finds out I don’t speak proper English.’ Everyone seemed so professional, and I felt so tiny and intimidated. Then the evaluators and group members started to share their feedback and thoughts in such a friendly manner, which set the stage for a safe environment. Since then, I’ve felt confident in myself to participate with an open mindset.
Lorelei: I wasn’t planning to speak. The subject was mental health, and a lot of key points started popping up – authenticity of the self, vulnerability in communicating – and the impromptu subject was an elevator pitch to the CEO about mental health. At that time, I hadn’t come out as a transgender woman, but I couldn’t just stand by and let things pass. I raised my (virtual) hand to speak, and I turned on my camera and talked about DEI and political attacks in the media that can have impact on vulnerable people. I would like to say that I remember everything, but I don’t. It was adrenaline. It was fire. It was the moment. This was my first time presenting as a woman with colleagues, and a lot of them were people I didn’t know. What I remember is how I started my second sentence: “As a transgender woman…” And things were sealed in that moment. Every pretense I had about presenting just disappeared. At that moment, I knew what I had to do.
What kind of improvements did you see? When did you start noticing these changes? How long did it take?
Emese: The agenda that Toastmasters built is simply amazing. I’ve noticed the takeaways from each session seamlessly slipping into my daily life. I’m paying closer attention to synonyms, being more thoughtful with grammar and being okay with pausing to find a more suitable expression or skipping a filler word.
I enter meetings or conversations with an altered mindset. I cannot recall the exact time when I started to experience that, but I definitely feel the difference. It’s had a positive impact on my communication in my personal life as well – even when I’m not speaking English.
Jennifer: One of the challenges I had was going over the time limit on my speeches. They seemed to always be just a little over 7 minutes, even though I would practice over and over. I love to tell stories, but I tend to get caught up in the moment. Next thing you know, I’ve finished my speech, but it would still be over the allotted time limit. Listening to feedback and continuing to practice, I was able to get under the time limit. Woo-hoo!
How does it feel to have this support system through the BlackRock Speaks network?
Jennifer: In our group, we’ve said many times that the block of time we have at 12:30 pm is something we look forward to every week. We get a break from work challenges and have a chance to just chill out, tell some stories, laugh, smile and leave feeling ready to continue with the rest of our day. I am so glad that I read that email, attended the information session and signed up for the 10 Speech Challenge! I challenge someone else who may be in the same situation to come join a Speaks group meeting and have a listen. It might just be what you’ve been looking for!
Lorelei Paredes, Associate, Latin America Distribution Services Team, Atlanta
Lorelei: This is a FeBe model: For Employees, By Employees. This is something that we as employees do ourselves to help our colleagues, to create connection and to foster our culture. We’ve also been able to carry over this type of support to other parts of BlackRock’s culture. I’m part of the firm’s Mindfulness Network, where we’ve implemented a Habit Book club to discuss techniques to improve ourselves. And just as BlackRock Speaks does, my co-hosts and I have tried to create a safe space where people can be themselves and openly communicate.
Emese: I feel honored and proud to be part of BlackRock Speaks. There is this expectation that, when you step into the corporate world, you should already have exceptional communication skills, be great with presentations, be confident in sharing thoughts, be ready for impromptu debates. We can all agree that most people aren’t born with those skills. However, in terms of support, what you would get from a random shared service center is a digital course sharing hints and tips on presentation skills. Or you could attend a one-time, facilitator-led communication training to learn about ground rules of transparency, authenticity or assertiveness, then go and practice on your own. With BlackRock Speaks, it is entirely different. This feels like a safe playground to practice what we’ve learned in theory. We know that practice makes masters and grows confidence, and that confidence and self-esteem extend beyond the office walls.