You’re Going to Be Great, but Here Are A Few Tips Anyway
Some of the best public speakers in the world are women, and you may be one of them. This is an era when women are more successful, respected, and sought out for speaking engagements than ever before.
But, despite all that hard-earned popularity, there are still very real psychological barriers that women speakers face when they stand up in front of a crowd.
No matter how progressive and feminist your group may be, our brains are all the product of 1.6 million years of evolution, during which women were considered second-class citizens, or worse. This isn’t anyone’s fault, it’s a just a logical byproduct of biology. But, as with any cultural quirk, knowledge is power.
If you’re aware of some of the special, and mostly subconscious, challenges you face, you can prepare more effectively and perhaps give a more persuasive presentation. We hope this quick blog offers some useful insight.
Reframe Your Game
After reading that introduction, some of you ladies are feeling even more self-conscious about speaking in public. That’s because I inadvertently set you up to fail. I pointed out that women presenters may face a slight psychological disadvantage, and many of you have subconsciously internalized it.
The brain is a very strange place.
This phenomenon is called priming, and it affects men and women alike. Since women tend to be less self confident about public speaking anyway (more on that later), especially new speakers, it’s more important to prime your mind to give the best presentation possible.
Instead of reading a blog like this one before your next big event, why not watch (or read) and incredible speech by a woman much like you? No matter what your race, nationality, religion, or political beliefs, there are dozens of amazing speeches to choose from. Begin here if you need some quick inspiration.
You’ll be primed to present powerfully in no time.
You’re An Expert But May Not Realize It
Men tend to be more confident about their mastery of a subject than women, regardless of whether they are or not. No one is sure why, but Rebecca Solnit wrote a hysterical essay about the phenomenon, and it’s worth a read if you’re ever feeling unworthy.
Perceptive men notice the difference as well. “Even when minimally prepared, men believe they can “wing it” and get through successfully,” writes negotiation expert Charles B. Craver. “On the other hand, no matter how thoroughly prepared women are, they tend to feel unprepared.”
Are you feeling unprepared? Be honest with yourself—you may need practice. Or, you may have imposter syndrome: The feeling that you’re a fraud, rather than a true expert, despite being an accredited, recognized and respected expert. Men get it too, but it’s more common in women.
If that’s you, let it go.
Elsa built her own ice castle when she stopped listening to the self doubt accidentally inculcated into her by parents.
You know the adage, “Fake it till you make it”? You aren’t faking your expertise, you’re faking self confidence. Take credit for your accomplishments, own your accolades, and be proud of your intelligence and experience. If and when that little voice in your head undermines your confidence, let it go.
You Need to Be Aggressive, But You Can’t Be Aggressive. So Be Aggressive.
Every ambitious businesswoman (and most happily satisfied housewives, for that matter) understand exactly how this works. You need to be forceful in order to make your agenda happen. Perhaps negotiate your salary, or challenge colleague at an important meeting.
Aggressive men are more likely to be seen as alpha males, standing up for themselves and getting things done. Women are characterized as pushy, bitchy, or bossy. Sheryl Sandberg wrote a book about it.
On the upside, Megyn Kelly successfully leveraged that sort of thing into a $20 million contract with NBC. You can handle this.
In the heat of rhetorical battle, those are tempting jabs for a male opponent to take—often without realizing it. The most common feminine responses tend to undermine your own argument.
For example, you might down your points with words like “just,” “maybe,” or “actually.” You could also start using vocal patterns that make your statements sound like questions, rising slightly at the end. Try reading, “My work helped with the $1.6 million Widget Account,” as a statement, then as a question.
Be aware of these inadvertently submissive social cues. They’ve protected women from the ire of aggressive men for millennia, and they have their place. But not in the office or onstage.
Appearance Matters More
Someday, we’ll judge speakers on the content of their presentations. But this is still 2017 and if you’re a woman, you’ll be also judged on your looks. Men are under increasing pressure to look attractive as well. But female speakers have to clear an even higher bar—and worse, we’re very aware of that fact.
No woman is immune. Communications skills coaches Ros Adler and Lea Sellers note that “working in Dubai with women wearing the long black abaya and the hijab, we find they are still very conscious of their face, their hair and their hands when speaking in public.” If you’re expected to wear a form-fitting dress suit, every lump may feel like an Achilles Heel.
It’s not. No one expects you to look like a supermodel. (Being too attractive might even affect your audience to take you even less seriously, because life is unfair.) All you need is to look polished, fashionable, and professional. And, more importantly, feel that way.
So take a little time for yourself before a big speaking gig. Get your hair done, have a mani-pedi, and make sure your outfit is comfortable, appropriate, and well fitted. That way, you’ll go onstage with a little extra confidence, which makes you even more attractive.
But Be Aware of What You’re Wearing
Men’s business outfits—whether suits or business casual—make sense. (Well, except for the tie. Who decided that wearing a leash to work was a good idea?) A button-down shirt, khakis, short hair and maybe a wedding ring is easy, efficient and effective.
Not all men take advantage of this, of course.
Ladies have a lot more leeway, which is great on some days but can prove problematic when you need to decide what to wear when presenting in front of a crowd.
So give your outfit a quick check for potential problems. Can you really walk around the room in those heels? Can you sit down in that skirt and maintain your modesty? Is your jewelry prone to clinking, clanking, or getting caught in your sweater?
It’s better to sacrifice a little bling and feel secure on stage.
Relax. You’ve Got This
Most importantly, don’t worry about it. This is just a sample of all the advice for women speakers available online. Look hard enough and you’ll be told to practice pitching your voice an octave lower, to wear brown, to talk about sports—all sorts of strange things.
You’ve made it this far by being you. Most people in the crowd are actively trying to get past their subconscious tendency to underestimate women, because that’s a surefire way to lose opportunities, friends, and jobs. The ghosts of human history are the psychological equivalent of smoke and mirrors, and you’re the real deal.
So embrace your expertise, practice your presentation, and give the best speech of your life. Well, until the next one.