Here’s a question. In fact two questions.
Do women qua women face specific public speaking problems? And if so, what’s the best way to tackle them?
Plenty of people make the case that yes, women DO face public speaking problems/challenges that men don’t face. This piece proclaims itself as offering public speaking tips but those tips are largely irrelevant to actual public speaking. It does link to analysis of the Female Brain:
…In the brain centers for language and hearing, for example, women have 11 percent more neurons than men. The principal hub of both emotion and memory formation – the hippocampus – is also larger in the female brain as is the brain circuitry for language and observing emotions in others…
Brizendine’s insights into the physiological differences between men and women are evidence that communication advice should, at least occasionally, be crafted for a specific gender, instead of stretched in an attempt to impact both men and women
What does the Hillary Clinton campaign tell us about all this? Quite a lot?
One of Clinton’s most significant struggles has been with public speaking and connecting with her audience. Commentary on her stage presence—or lack thereof—has provoked debate on how gender plays a role in our assessments of her public speaking skills.
From Youtube compilations of the “Clinton cackle” to derisive tweets like those of Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus (“@HillaryClinton was angry and defensive…no smile and uncomfortable”), coverage of Clinton’s speaking style ranges from satire to the close evaluation of her voice’s changes in pitch over time. Bob Woodward, lecturer in Yale’s English Department and associate editor at the Washington Post dissected her delivery style during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
“She shouts,” he said, then suggested she “get off this screaming stuff.”
Even if ‘occasionally’ communication advice should be crafted for a specific gender (sic), what exactly should be advice for women as opposed to advice for men or advice for everyone? And is there a role for, gulp, men in talking about any of this? Wouldn’t anything a man says on the subject, including on this website, be nasty oppressive hegemonic mansplaining?
Elliot Epstein plunges into the fray with ten professional public speaking tips for women:
Quite simply there is a difference in the way women present, especially to male oriented audiences…
Voice matters. If you have a high voice, it will only get higher at the exciting bits. The audience will then hear ‘shrill’ not passionate. Practice lowering your tone two thirds of a smidgen (very scientific) and you will have room to move
Aaargh. That reinforces the über-sexist stereotype that women are ‘shrill’? But women’s voices do have a different higher pitch. Is that a problem to be fixed? Or something to be enjoyed/celebrated? Margaret Thatcher famously tuned down her public speaking voice to try to come across as strong/authoritative. Good or bad model to follow? Yes!
Voice matters (2). Talking fast is natural with two of your best friends and a bottle of Mumm, but audiences (especially we slower listening men) can’t take it all in. The issue is if it’s too quick and we don’t get it, it’s as if you haven’t said it at all. Add three times the number of pauses as you think normal. Don’t slow your delivery –just add pauses.
True. Applies to men. But slow the delivery too (a bit).
Watch the Bling – I’ve seen presentations where the presenter had 3 bracelets, 4 rings, 2 necklaces and a wrap that was constantly being re-arranged. It just becomes a total distraction – and sometimes a noisy one with a remote mouse being waved around as well.
True. Applies to men.
Don’t Flirt. Yes, I know this is obvious in a professional setting, but it still happens. The hair flick, sexy voice and constantly calling the client by his first name may work for some but it is not perceived by the majority as necessary for professional business engagement.
True. Applies to men.
Practise. Yes, I know it’s boring but there are presenters that will spend three hours checking the spreadsheets, preparing their choice of lipstick, hairstyle, skirt, heels and 20 minutes rehearsing their content, If you don’t rehearse, where do you find your mistakes?
I don’t like the idea of ‘practising’ a presentation, but it’s dead right for both men and women to think very hard about Content/Structure rather than style and look. See below.
How prevalent is crude explicit sexism in public speaking in the UK or anywhere else? How to tell? If (say) 1000 events pass off with woman speakers being received no less politely/warmly than men, but one event features crass sexism, what do we conclude? That women speakers are ‘targeted’ for abuse, or that they’re not targeted? Rebecca Meredith tries to find out whether the primitive norms of the Glasgow University Union are the exception or the rule:
What I refuse to accept is that being by virtue of being a woman, I should be abused and targeted in a way men are not. I refuse to believe that women should accept being overtly sexualised or targeted as “par for the course” in a university which is supposed to represent learning and equality … One student told me she’d been told to wear a shorter skirt in order to win debates, others explained that they had been told that when male speakers debate, they sound “persuasive”, but the tone of a woman’s voice makes her sound hysterical. I myself have been told to defer to my male partner since “men are more convincing”.
Women can debate just as well as men, and we can deal with hecklers just as well as men. What we shouldn’t have to deal with is a world in which to get ahead we have to ignore sexism when we see it, that we have to accept being booed for our gender when men are not, and that we have to see ourselves be turned into crying damsels when we speak out.
More tips for women speakers from Tara Sophia Mohr, focusing on subtle ways language makes you sound less sure of yourself. They all apply to men, but maybe (some) women are more likely to sound ‘apologetic’ by instinct or ‘conditioning’?
Drop the “just:” “I’m just wondering …” “I just think …” “I just want to add …” “Just” demeans what you have to say. “Just” shrinks your power. It’s time to say goodbye to the justs.
While you are at it, drop the “actually.” “I actually have a question.” “ I actually want to add something.” “Actually” communicates a sense of surprise that you have something to say. Of course you want to add something. Of course you have questions. There’s nothing surprising about it.
Don’t tell us why what you are about to say is likely to be wrong. We are still starting sentences with, “I haven’t researched this much but …” “I’m just thinking off the top of my head but …” “You’ve clearly been studying this longer than I have, but …”
Don’t make your sentences sound like questions. Women often raise the pitch of their voice at the end of a sentence, making it sound like a question. Listen to your own language and that of women around you, and you are likely to notice this everywhere. Unsurprisingly, speaking a statement like a question diminishes its power. Make statements sound like statements; drop the tone lower at the end.
The dominant theme of analysis of women and public speaking is to emphasise deep issues of lack of confidence that (it’s said) affects women much more than men. Yet glossophobia is an equal opportunities worry-maker.
If (if) women feel less confident in public speaking, how best to confront that issue? One way is to emphasise it: admit/own your fear as the only means to confront it! Hence a busy industry of women public speaking coaches who first stress female public speaking fearfulness, then offer confidence-building of all shapes and sizes as the key to women’s public speaking:
Alison Shapira offers special programs to help women overcome the specific challenges they face when speaking in public
The Goddess of Public Speaking shows smart, creative, high achieving women how to overcome speaking nerves, find their authentic voice and relax into… wow!
Lynne Parker looks at the impact of biology: speaking out in public can be a tougher call for women than men as female brains are wired slightly differently to male brains. We take longer to formulate and process our responses because we have so much more going on in our prefrontal cortex. While this gives us a greater mental band width for multi-tasking, it is often misinterpreted as procrastination. In fact we are mentally weighing up the pros and cons before we act and say anything
Speak up Like a Diva keeps men firmly out of its public speaking sessions aimed at ‘quiet girls’
Caterina Rando sees power in your posture: A narrow, tightly held posture stimulates the release of cortisol, which can cause feelings of shyness or withdrawal, while a powerful, wide-open position triggers the release of testosterone, which creates feelings of confidence and well-being … You know how Wonder Woman stands with her feet apart and arms open wide? This position can project a lot of authority when used by women in public speaking.
And so on.
* * * * *
I have given many public speaking sessions to men and women in different sized groups in different countries and cultures, and (a recent example) to senior women from Afghanistan. I have given personal coaching to both men and women. And I know what works.
Whatever biological or socially ‘perceived’ differences men and women might have as public speakers pale into insignificance as compared to what they have in common. Fear, unease, uncertainty, nerves about public speaking affect men and women alike. If men are indeed ‘more confident’ they also may be bad public speakers. Who wants to listen to a confident man talking nonsense confidently?
Above all, confidence for women and men grows naturally from strong content, not from fancy voice coaching or reducing rattling bling or a new hairdo or standing like Wonder Woman.
It’s remarkable that so many of the offerings out there in this area are expensively superficial and useless, saying nothing at all about Content. They urge you to practise your speech or presentation or find ways to get the audience laughing or whatever. But how EXACTLY to do that? How EXACTLY to organise then pace your thoughts around interesting and unexpected ideas that engage audiences because they are interesting and unexpected? And, having worked out all that, how EXACTLY to make it all work on the day? Even Hillary Clinton with the most expensive advisers in the world and years of experience got it completely wrong. With (for her) horrible results.
Luckily for you, I know how to do all this. The changes in just a few hours are transformational. And once you know what you’re doing, you can easily build on that by tuning the clothes and voice and eye-contact and bling and poor English (if that’s a problem) to make the whole effect even more powerful.
BUT the very first thing to do is learn and understand what public speaking is all about, and how you organise whatever you want to say into an argument that makes sense. There is no difference whatsoever between a great speech delivered by a man and a great speech delivered by a woman. They are both great speeches. Why? Because they are smart and well organised and interesting and well delivered and fit the occasion perfectly. Its their greatness as speeches that stands out, not the gender of the speaker.
How to give a great speech/presentation, or at least a damn good one?
That usually means thinking hard about what this audience needs and wants and expects – and then doing something else.
And it also means thinking about YOU. What do you bring to this issue anyway? What risks are you prepared to take? Where do you want to take this presentation as part of your wider life plans? What does it mean? Where does it add value? What should anyone care?
Get all that sorted out, make a plan for speaking strongly but with emphasis and pauses in all the right places, and you’re well down the road to success. In public speaking the words themselves are the easy bit. Confidence in content creates the space for confident delivery.
You know what to do. Treat yourself and surge boldly into 2017, perorating mightily in all directions.
That’s why I was pleased to get an email this week out of the blue from an African woman:
This is an email to say thank you the 6 hour masterclass you held in London that has changed my life. I later quit my job and started my own business and have recently won my first contract to deliver coaching services. I have always believed I am a good speaker and your session and tips helped me take that to the next level.