It is a truth universally accepted that women have to contend with prejudice both overt and subtle when standing up to speak. When the audience ((no matter its size or gender make-up) has completed its superficial scrutiny of what fashion statements our clothing and body shape are making (inexpensive elegance from Les Chinese and sponsored by Cadbury in my case,) the group will eventually engage with our message.
The challenge is to ensure that our messages are not lost in poor presentation skills. Here are a few pointers I have found useful in my own delivery as well as in coaching young people in the classroom.
- Own your space.
- Don’t giggle.
- Lower your pitch.
- Slow down.
- Stay away from insipid expressions and apologies.
Own your space:
Any good communication depends on what I call ‘crossing the gap’ from speaker to listener. If you are called to share an opinion or give a talk, your primary task is to carry your message from your own genius to the hearers.’ Don’t shrink from traversing that space with your body language. An audience will applaud anything if it’s said with enough panache. A bombastic oration which is flimsy on content is always better received than timid eloquence (which may explain the popularity of certain politicians and churches – despite the patent lack of spiritual or bodily gain from Doom, snakes or loud praying – ask Brighton and Pastor Lukau of the the coffin fame.)
Don’t get me wrong I am not advocating vacuous braggadocio performances, but a confident pose is a sure way to have your audience sit up and take notice (and I don’t mean like Mr Moyo’s fake rising from the coffin!) I am assuming you have profound wisdom to share – so stand and deliver it with aplomb. Much has been said about the Wonder Woman stance being an effective warm up before an important speech and I must attest to its efficacy. Also, studies have proved it, so you don’t have to just take my word for it: Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on body language is brilliant:
Something else women are not taught is the authority which is communicated through a firm handshake. We don’t need to get into the relative power plays engaged in by persons of Mr Trump and Mr Macron’s ilk. Men may well use the strength of a person’s handshake as a measure of their personal value, and no matter how much we dislike that, if you’re going to allow your hand to flounder limply in someone’s grip like a pap snoek, you may not be taken seriously. I also find that men will hug a female colleague, before they shake her hand, and although one may well hug them because they are close friends, it isn’t professional. Be the first to stick out your hand and initiate the gesture.
Nothing says “I am inadequate and insecure’ like a giggling Gertie. Every description of giggling fits includes two interesting words: ‘silly’ and ‘girls.’ While this may have your inner feminist fuming, we cannot argue with the fact that self-conscious tittering (no matter your gender) makes your audience see how uncomfortable you are in a situation and definitely has no business gurgling out on a podium.
The problem of course is that oftentimes our unconscious Piglet or Nervous Nellie bubbles forth uncontrollably at inopportune moments, especially when we are anxious. We know instinctively we shouldn’t be letting that flutter of foolishness loose, which is why if you google images of giggling most pictures depict a person with a hand covering the twittering. It must be so because even the giggling emoji says so.
So explore techniques to calm yourself before your big moment. Avoid big sighs or obvious palm pinching though. Try placing your tongue on the roof of your mouth and breathing deeply. Plan and practise your opening.
Lower your pitch:
Back in the Dark Ages when I was a student teacher, I eagerly asked for feedback from my charges. ‘You have a squeaky voice’ was not quite what I was expecting, but in hindsight marked a singularly significant shift in the gravitas with which I was perceived.
Anxiety can alter our pitch so cultivating relaxation habits before a presentation and consciously lowering your voice will help you come across as more authoritative. Lions are taken more seriously than hyenas. It is horribly unfair that men automatically command attention simply by having deeper voices, but women can consciously lower the pitch – you don’t need to be Batman gravelly or Louis Armstrong deep – just avoid the trill and shrill.
[complaining about her Thanksgiving] Did anyone ever give a hoot about what I wanted? NO, NO, NO, NO! And I’m just… [her voice gets very squeaky and high-pitched]
Okay, Monica, only dogs can hear you now. “
Friends, Season 1
If you ignore the horrible grammar (sorry my American friends) in the graphic below, you will see just why you should reduce your pace. Coupled with a high pitch you can end up sounding like Minnie Mouse, according to Speech Coach Patricia Fripp, if you speak too fast for your audience and they definitely will not get the gist of your message.
Remember the first point in this article: own your space – that means YOU regulate the pace. Your audience is not going anywhere. They are yours to entertain.
Avoid insipid expressions and don’t apologize:
- ‘Hi’ and/or ‘guys’ (too casual seems sloppy)
- ‘I just want to say’ (Just say it!’)
- I’m sorry I’m a bit nervous’ (We immediately do not trust you or your message and can’t wait for you to leave the stage, because your nervousness makes us anxious)
- ‘Um,”ok’, ‘like’ repeated use of ‘so’ (Filler words show us you are nervous and they are downright annoying, which means we listen for them instead of your message.)
- ‘Oops I’m not very good with these electronic devices’ (See above)
- Adverbs like ‘literally,’ ‘actually,’and ‘really.’ (They (in fact) add (very) little to your argument and (actually) become like filler words – irritating)
- ‘Stuff,’ ‘things’ (Name them)