Five simple things I want to tell girls about speaking in public

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:

https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are?language=en

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.

Don’t giggle:

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.

Related image


“Monica:
[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]
Chandler:
Okay, Monica, only dogs can hear you now. “

Friends, Season 1

Slow down:

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.

https://www.fripp.com/are-you-speaking-too-quickly/

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.

Image result for speaking too fast cartoon

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)

Be powerful:

“I raise up my voice—not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard.” – Malala Yousafzai

Thoughts on thoughts

Image result for picture of thinking woman cartoon

Sometimes I make the mistake of asking my family members what they think I should write about. More than anything else, it gives me a glimpse into their thoughts.

‘Write about me,’ one giddy teenager proclaims, while spilling toothpaste on herself, next to her pyjama clad twin, who at least suggested the more mature topic of the crisis in higher education. That tricky topic was echoed by an older sibling who maintained I should consider the debate around decolonisation of universities.

‘Explore why one moment they (our offspring) are watching Barney and Noddy and the next they have rejected their childhood,’ said Andrew, ever conscious of the aging process in others, ‘or sadistic teenagers’ (corrected by one to ‘edgy’ teen) without taking his eyes off FIFA ’16, handed down by Michael who is now on to FIFA ’17.

I won’t ask him, the footballer, I thought, because he will either suggest how they have not yet solved the FIFA cheating glitch with the new version, or something like the vagaries of the English Football transfer window. And the only thing I know about that particularly confusing aperture is that it is now closed.

Sean believes I should review a book and I just might dissect one of the Jeffrey Eugenides novels I have recently finished (if you haven’t discovered this writer and need a chuckle, while coming to grips with deep stuff, he’s your man – Jeffrey, not Sean). Sean’s first suggestion was a self-conscious exploration on the writing of a blog, but, as you can see, I’m way ahead of him.

Liam is MIA tonight, but he told me to stop writing or I would be late for mass (such a good boy! I can say that because he is at the Marais’ house annoying them). Mika on the other hand hummed and hawed and suggested ‘cooking.’ Mwahahaha. But I could mention that Lizzy is now baking banana loaf which smells sublime.

I eventually broke down and asked Michael who merely said ‘I don’t know’ – I hope that is not what he is thinking, but I do have a fair idea now about what each of my other beloved relatives is contemplating. Which begs the question: What am I thinking about and why do I not have a topic of conversation at hand?

The answer is a trifle sad, I must confess: other than worrying about my school’s upcoming Umalusi desktop submission and my own inertia in beginning some of the policy writing I need to do, and wondering whether eight o’clock is too early to go to bed and read my book in the school holidays, I’m not really having any deep insights on life or personal epiphanies. Teasing out the semiotics of such thoughts, what I have realised is that my whole focus generally is on the needs and interests of my family (which is good but can be a bit Betty Crockerish) and my school (Yes, important during term-time); yet I have not cultivated any actual hobbies of my own which often has me getting caught in the middle of trying to please everyone and ignoring my own self.

So, to my horror, on a Sunday night I am having to admit that I am suffering from housewife’s angst. It’s disturbing to admit that even executive women can subjugate their ‘self’ to the vagaries of external views (even though in this case, to be fair, I actually asked the family what I should be sharing in my blog). But I think we women, all too often fall prey to a subversion of self which we mistake as Christian kindness, but often erases ourselves and our own interests or needs, as we try to please everyone.

No more of that. (Even though from time to time – I must remain a bit of a martyr in order to use that against the progeny) I shall employ  a new philosophy which I cannot politely name (it rhymes with ‘bucket’). I shall indulge my own thoughts and share my own ideas.

After that I shall ask my family what they think about my blog.

Personal Assistants

So I have graduated to being managed by a personal assistant. Her name is Gizelle and, like the ballet character after whom she is named, she glides through my life, effortlessly and gracefully fielding calls, managing staff appointments; gently correcting my mistakes (and they are many); protecting me from cute Grade 4 groupies whom I simply don’t have the heart to turn away, but who were becoming accustomed to spending every break with me, not to mention running the administrative nightmare that goes with managing a large school.  And she makes me tea, leaving it steaming on my desk like the lingering whisper of an elfin gift.

Ariel Dorfman refers to the life of a secretary as ‘responsibility without power, the fate of the secretary throughout the ages.’ Now far be it from me to question Dorfman’s experience of personal aides, but Gizelle’s petite, ballerina-like personage may look fragile, but she is a tower of strength and surprising talents, despite her youth. No one argues with her – especially not me.

Wikipedia has this cute explanation of what a personal assistant does: ‘The personal assistant is required to do any task that the manager requires whether personal or professional.’ Seriously? Truth be told I feel guilty every time Gizelle brings me tea, because that is personal and I believe that her duties should be professional only. I wonder how many managers cross the line by exploiting their assistants to do more ‘personal’ work than ‘professional’ work. The Marius Fransman situation is a case in point of how patriarchal managers view those who work for them, especially when they are young, naïve and vulnerable women.

http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2016-08-08-band-of-brothers-anc-integrity-commissions-fransman-report-contains-some-disturbing-nuggets/#.V6o-D_l97rc

The expression ‘my PA’ has a certain feudal ring to it and carries overtones of possession which are worrying. I certainly hope no James Bond wannabees on our staff have tried to flirt with the Meridian Miss Moneypenny. (I don’t think they’d dare.) But on a feminist aside, just google ‘secretary – images’ and see how many pictures of male secretaries with woman bosses come up…yeah…none. The job is almost exclusively considered ‘women’s work’ especially when the boss is a man. And I think as a result  is often considered to be a servile position.

Now I would be hypocritical to say that Gizelle does not field calls from Caitlin (‘Please buy electricity’ – now there is a scary assistant!) or remind me to respond to my sister’s message (an even scarier personage to ignore), but I wouldn’t dream of requiring her to fetch my dry-cleaning (if I had any) or buy my husband flowers/ whisky/ cigars. The school does not pay her to serve me, but to support me.

And thank goodness it does. Her prowess on the computer is lightning fast. She can take complex, scattered data and make graphed sense out of it and her attention to detail has saved me several times already this year from embarrassment and error. She works long hours and frequently takes work home. I am filled with mild panic at the very thought of her being absent. She has seen me at my weakest, but I live in fear of her seeing the mess in my stationery drawer.

Now here is the thing: she does all of this uncomplainingly (well she did once moan at me for signing a document in the wrong place), while running a family of two young children plus three older step-children and a husband who works shifts. Why am I mentioning this? Well because she may be employed as a ‘personal’ assistant, but it is important for me to remember that she has a personal life. She has hopes and dreams and ambitions.

Once a year, we celebrate our secretarial and administrative staff with a hallmark moment, but truth be told, it is impossible to truly give pen to the contribution of such an éminence grise. All I can say is that I am immensely grateful for the person that is Mrs Gizelle Marais, a woman of courage and one to be respected.