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From the Ground Up: Speaking Powerhouse Janaye Ingram on Finding Her Voice 

From winning 2004 Miss New Jersey USA to serving as the National Executive Director of the National Action Network civil rights foundation, then co-founding the Women’s March in 2016 and then becoming the Director of Community Partner Programs and Engagement at Airbnb, Janaye Ingram has held many titles in her life. Despite all this change, one of the constants throughout Ingram’s many endeavors has been public speaking—throughout her education and career, much of Ingram’s path has been about finding her voice. 

In the world of public speaking, where presence and confidence are often key, Ingram is a testament to the power of overcoming personal obstacles and mastering the art of public speaking. Ingram delved into her path to public speaking, highlighting her growth during college speaking engagements, her challenges as an introvert, and her commitment to leveling the playing field for conference speakers globally.

Starting small to achieving big 

While Ingram didn’t start as a master speaker, she did have plenty of opportunities to speak even before starting her career and finding her voice. She used a platform that many overlook: her college campus. As a place where many like-minded students can form clubs and gather in classes, college campuses are well equipped to become a public speaker’s first bigger stage. 

College let Ingram speak in many different situations, including improvisation in class and speaking to a larger group of club members. 

“I was speaking in college,” she said. “I remember being in a Toastmasters class in college and being challenged to speak about any random topic that you drew from the hat for that day and being able to articulate yourself. My speaking goes back to that moment. I was also the president of an on-campus student organization, so I often spoke there as well.” 

In speaking, what’s really important? 

As Ingram’s speaking experiences began to multiply, her audiences only got bigger. But what Ingram values in each speaking opportunity is not the size or setting of her talks, but how satisfied she is with the delivery of her message. 

“In college, I often spoke from the perspective of being a student,” she said. “Then, throughout my career, I’ve been in different capacities where I’ve had the opportunity to speak. It can come in a panel, a keynote, a small group, over Zoom or in person. But for me, effectiveness is less about the venue and more about making sure that I’m connecting with the audience. It’s more so about making sure the messaging is clear and concise, something that people can understand and relate to and connect with.” 

Janaye Ingram

Overcoming performance anxiety on stage 

Seeing the confident presence Ingram exudes today, it’s hard to imagine a time when public speaking filled her with anxiety. Yet the fear of public speaking still plagues Ingram.  

“Someone asked me, ‘Do you still get nervous when you speak?’ And for sure, the answer is yes,” she said. “I think for so many reasons. One, I’m an introvert. So, for me, it’s a little bit of an oxymoron. You’re going to be on stage, but you’re much more comfortable in your shell.” 

Over time, however, Ingram developed a purposeful mindset switch she can make to calm her nerves onstage, which facilitated her in the journey of finding her voice. 

“I get the most nervous when I’m looking out into the room into the sea of people,” Ingram said. “But don’t make it about the sea of people. Figure out if there are one or two people that you can connect with and have a conversation with those people. Make eye contact with them in the same way that you would do at a dinner party or a meeting. And that, for me, has helped tamp down on some of the nerves for sure.” 

Any words of advice for rising speakers in underrepresented fields? 

After building her speaking skills, opportunities and career bit by bit, Ingram hopes to bring equalize the gender gap in the public speaking field. Admittedly, it’s not an easy task. The industry heavily leans towards male speakers, with more than twice the number of male speakers than female ones. The most important part? Taking that first step. 

“I just want to encourage women,” she said. “We all have first leaps of faith, whether it’s fears about public speaking; whether it’s asking for the promotion and feeling like you might not deserve it; whether that is starting a new job; whether that is seeking the funding that will get your company off the ground. 

Every day, each of us has an opportunity to take that first step and I just want to encourage women to take that first step to finding her voice. If need be, find a community of like-minded women who can be your source of support as you’re going through that journey. But it all starts with one step.” 

Want to hear more about Ingram’s activism work? Read Fighting Discrimination Within Airbnb: Janaye Ingram on Project Lighthouse.

About the author

Jessica Zang

Jessica Zang is a student at the University of Chicago studying Economics and English Literature. At school, she writes columns for the newspaper, contributes to the fashion magazine and is part of the Women in Business organization. Outside of school, she loves reading, hiking, making her own lattes, exploring the city and any type of arts and crafts.

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