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Op-Ed: Communication Skills Can Make or Break Your Success in Washington

By Allison Shapira

Imagine a major diplomatic incident has just occurred between your country and the United States. Based on your experience, you know exactly how to handle this while keeping relationships intact. However, your Foreign Ministry sends you talking points written for a global audience and completely inappropriate for your contacts. In fact, you believe these points will have a negative effect on your relationships. What do you do?

I spent five years at the Consulate General of Israel in Boston. As a local American employee, I served as the diplomatic speechwriter and director of public diplomacy, ultimately overseeing the entire public affairs team. As a result, I observed many of the challenges diplomats face when speaking in public. How do you build relationships when representing the position of your country? How can you speak clearly, confidently and persuasively in your second, third or fourth language?

Communication skills are critical to your success. In a crowded space like Washington, you are competing for the attention of policymakers, business leaders and other influencers, all with dozens of issues vying for their attention. Why are your country’s priorities important for them? Why should they take your meeting or attend your event? Communication skills are how you capture hearts and minds.

Allison Shapira
Allison Shapira spent five years at the Consulate General of Israel in Boston and is now an expert in public speaking and presentation skills. Photo: Megan Mineiero

After 15 years teaching public speaking and presentation skills, I’ve realized that public speaking is a skill, not a talent. It’s something each of us can master. And these skills are universal. When I teach at the Harvard’s Kennedy School, out of the 40 graduate and mid-career students in my class, 50 percent are from outside the U.S. and each student is from a different country. While there are different communication styles around the world, the need to connect with an audience is universal.

My new book provides a comprehensive guide to public speaking and presentation skills in any context and any language. I’d like to highlight three critical tips for diplomats.

Allison Shapira book

Rephrase talking points in your own words:
You cannot connect with an audience using bureaucratic language. Rewrite your Foreign Ministry’s talking points in a way that feels natural to you and relevant to your audience. Insert stories and anecdotes from your own experience or based on your audience’s experiences, and they will be more likely to listen to you.

Speak from bullet points, not a full script: The best speakers don’t read from a script. Instead, they have bullet points containing their key messages, which they can refer to when necessary. When you read from a script, your language is more formal and the text pulls your eyes down, breaking the connection with your audience.

Pause and breathe: When you answer challenging questions, remember to pause and breathe before responding. This gives you time to center yourself, gather your thoughts and respond in a measured way. In addition, when we speak multiple languages, we are much more likely to use fillers like “um” and “ah” as we search for the right word. “Pause and Breathe” also helps you minimize filler words so you sound confident and knowledgeable.

No matter what your mandate is here in Washington, you will be more effective because of your communication skills. Using these tips, you will have a powerful impact on your audience and build meaningful relationships on behalf of your country.


Allison Shapira is the CEO and founder of Global Public Speaking LLC.



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