Strong words for women

In praise of big women
November 12, 2014
My new book–public speaking for kids of all ages!
November 14, 2014

In my last entry, I offered some easy ways for women to adapt body language to project more confidence and power during presentations. But unless you’re a silent movie star or a back-up dancer to Britney Spears, it’s not enough to just walk the power-walk; you also need to talk the power-talk.

What is powerful talk? The good news is that it doesn’t involve being mean or “bitchy” or manipulative. It does involve carefully choosing the words you deliver, and the way your voice delivers them. Characteristically feminine styles of words and delivery can often undermine what you’re trying to accomplish. I’ll give a few examples of each below.

The words you choose:

Often, the words we women use diminish us, making us seem uncertain, insecure, even less intelligent than we really are. (Ever wished you could have a “do-over” on an important work conversation so you could say what you really meant?) It’s actually pretty easy to change these habits, once you recognize them.

Don’t apologize. Or at least, don’t apologize unless you really need to, and you really mean it. Many women offer up “I’m sorry” at the drop of a hat, even when we have nothing to do with the poor fedora’s fate. What we might mean is “I feel bad for you” or “too bad that nasty thing happened”—but our statement of identification and sympathy is usually heard as an apology, as if we somehow think ourselves to blame. No need to preface a statement with an apology either, as in “I’m sorry—can I just add something here?” That’s saying that you have no right to add to the conversation—which of course you do!

Skip the disclaimer. Be careful about apologizing for yourself using other words, as in “I’m not entirely sure of this, but…” or “I didn’t really get a chance to prepare this presentation, but…” or “I know I’m not saying this well, but…” You’ve undermined your credibility before you even made your point, and ensured you won’t be listened to. Just say what you need to say, without the disclaimer.

Just the facts, ma’am. Women may move slowly into a topic–you tell a story, filling in details, then you remember another side note to explain, then you qualify and address possible objections—and then make your point. This works fine with friends, family, and small groups of co-workers who love you and who may share your conversational style. But in more formal group situations like meetings and presentations, you want to deliver the goods first. Then you can elaborate. Succinctly. (All of this is much easier to do if you’re prepared—think through your ideas before the meeting. If needed, bring some notes along to keep you on track.)

The voice you use:

Breathe. While most women have naturally higher voices than most men, sometimes our voices can get even higher when we’re under stress. One common reason is breath—if you talk-too-long-without-coming-up-for-air, your pitch will rise. To address this, breathe from your belly (see my last blog), and pace yourself—take a breath before you really need to. If you’re reading from a script, you can even mark in places to take a breath. The pauses that occur when you take a breath will help you sound more relaxed, and allow your audience to absorb your stellar ideas—and your pitch will stay at its natural register.

It’s your birthday. If you’re not sure what your natural pitch is, here’s a thing to try. Quick: sing the happy birthday song out loud by yourself, without caring what you sound like.  Why? The notes you used for the first “happy birthday TO YOU” are likely in your natural range, even for speaking. Now try moving from “happy birthday to you” directly into talking, maintaining roughly the same pitch. How do you feel and sound now?

This is not a question. In about 1980, many speakers started ending sentences with a higher pitch (think Valley Girl). It can make you sound friendly, hip (at least in 1980), but also immature and unsure. Worse, many listeners will assume you’re asking a question, not making a statement: “I went to the store the other day?” or, the doomed-to-backfire “I’ve decided to ask for a promotion?” Instead, the end of a declarative sentence usually goes slightly down in pitch.

Stay strong until the end. Some female speakers run out of steam at the end of a sentence, either becoming very quiet or speaking very quickly at the end. Either way, the message is “psst: you-can-stop-listening-now-because-this-last-part-isn’t important.” Keep your volume up and your pace consistent at the end of sentences, and listeners will stay with you to the end.

Here’s to a new year full of adventure and accomplishment! Write and tell me what speaking-related topics you’d like me to address in 2015.

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