3 strategies women can use to make sure their ideas are heard at work

February 11, 2020, 6:35 PM UTC

It happened again: Someone (usually someone male) interrupted you in a meeting and just kept talking, so you didn’t get to make your point. Or piped up with an idea that was yours, until you told him about it, and forgot to give you any credit. Or explained to you, at unnecessary length and in a condescending tone, something you’ve known forever.

Even with all the enormous gains women have made in the workplace, this kind of stuff keeps right on happening. Part of the reason is that so many women keep tolerating it, for fear of being labelled with a b-word—whether the “b” stands for “bitchy” or “bossy.” The trouble is that trying to be liked can hold you back from making your ideas heard and your influence felt.

Lois Frankel, PhD, has been contemplating this dilemma for decades, as founder and chief of Corporate Coaching International, whose clients include executives at Disney, Procter & Gamble, Amgen, and Fidelity. “The key issue is that the rules of engagement, meaning the ways we need to communicate at work, are different for men and women,” she says. “So, in order to compete successfully, women need to keep doing what they’re already doing—but add a few new tools to their toolbox.”

Hence Frankel’s new audiobook, Nice Girls Don’t Speak Up or Stand Out: How to Make Your Voice Heard, Your Point Known, and Your Presence Felt. It’s the latest addition to a popular series of print books, notably Frankel’s 2014 bestseller Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office. Why an audiobook this time? “I wanted to be able to demonstrate tones of voice, and vocal inflections, which can’t be captured on the printed page,” she says. “Most women really need to speak up more—but how you do that can make all the difference.”

Here are three ways to make your voice heard in the office:

1. What’s your headline?

Next time you have a report to deliver, or a plan to propose, get to the most important point quickly. “Women tend to use too many words, in an attempt to soften what they’re saying or avoid coming across as off-puttingly authoritative,” says Frankel. But too long a preamble distracts your audience (even an audience of one) from the main message.

A better structure is similar to a newspaper story. “Put your main point up front, and follow it with more detail,” Frankel suggests. “Then end with a tagline inviting comments.”Asking for others’ thoughts on what you just said, she adds, helps ensure that “no one will see you as ‘bossy’.”

2. Try “contrasting.”

Here’s how to shut down a mansplainer, or anyone else who’s trying to deter you from the goal that you hope a given conversation will achieve. “First, have a clear idea in mind of the result you’re aiming for,” Frankel says.

Then, when the other person tries to bury you in verbiage—particularly the patronizing kind—interrupt politely, and acknowledge his expertise. “Say something like, ‘I know this is a subject that you know a lot about, and I really appreciate your willingness to share it with me’,” she says. “Follow that by stating, or restating, the goal of the discussion. ‘But let’s talk about what we both want, which is [fill in the topic].” Insist, tactfully, on getting back to the point. This technique also works, Frankel notes (speaking from experience), with an auto mechanic who’s trying to snow you.

3. Take back the credit.

Some men’s pesky little habit of publicly claiming other people’s insights as their own is apparently so common it has acquired a nickname: “Bropriating.” As soon as someone does that in a meeting (or anywhere else if other people are around), “speak up and thank him,” says Frankel. “Then say you’d like to add a couple of things that have occurred to you since you first told him about it.”

It’s hard to imagine a more graceful, yet emphatic, way to point out the true source of that smart idea. Unfortunately, it seems habitual bropriators don’t embarrass easily, Frankel adds, so “to prevent it from happening again, meet with him privately afterward and put him on notice that what he did was really not okay.” Repeat both steps as needed.

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