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For Female Speakers: How to Avoid Common Traps

It’s clear from the feedback I’ve been getting from women in my audiences lately that they often work harder to influence in front of groups, yet in spite of their hard work, they fall into common traps. But these traps are simply habits that can easily be corrected with awareness, practice, and feedback.

For my female colleagues, clients, and friends and the men who support their success: Here are four ways to adjust your mindset and your language when you’re speaking: be certain, paint the big picture, be firm and be vocally persuasive.

(1) Certain vs. Tentative

Instead of using language like this…

“We kind of need to get going on this project.”

“How would you sort of like to proceed?”

“I really don’t think this will get us where we were trying to be.”

…speak with confidence and authority, like this:

“This project comes first.”

“Our next step should be…”

“This doesn’t fulfill our goal.”

In order to be taken seriously, think before you speak, and speak with certainty. “Like,” “umm,” “kind of,” “you guys” and “sort of” convey insecurity, not influence.

(2) Big Picture vs. Detail

Don’t get lost in the gathering and detailing process. Begin with facts and data, but take that one step further and carefully engage your audience by using metaphors, mental pictures, and thoughtful images to piece the message together. For example, a new sales strategy could be described as a six-step “workout”; customer focus might be visualized with digital photos; a new benefits plan could be analogous to maintaining a healthy environment or lawn.  If you run, hike or jog, you could convey the sensation of a runner’s adrenalin to a step in the change process. Visual images help your audience see the big picture.

(3) Firm vs. Forced

You don’t need to become “one of the guys.” Be yourself, stay on message, and remain confident. Be ready to articulate the issues well. If you have the time and access to your audience, conduct brief phone interviews prior to your presentation. You might even reference them in your presentation for greater credibility.  Liberally affirm the general intention and work of the audience or the initiative.  Women are natural at this: “While this is a difficult time, it’s clear that this team has the right attitude. I see it in your reactions to the data today and I hear it in your project reports.”

(4)Persuasive vs. Distracting

The female voice can be one of the most persuasive instruments on the planet – or it can be one of the most grating and distracting. In essence, every woman’s natural voice is beautiful; it just gets corroded with bad habits along the way. Those habits may include inadequate breathing, poor use of the vocal apparatus (lips, tongue, teeth), ineffective pitch and tone, or lazy projection of volume, to name a few. These habits are often heightened when presenting.

To maximize your female voice,  (1) record it often. Audio is a speaker’s best learning tool. (2) Use a microphone to enhance it. Never say no to a “mic” in general, but especially if the acoustics are poor or if you are speaking to a group of more than 50 people. (3) Deepen it. Most women benefit from thinking down scale a bit. Practice finding the range of your voice by counting to ten from low to high pitch. Be aware of the middle or comfortable pitch you naturally have. (4) Use your “standing voice” when you want to have impact. Whether sitting or standing, support your breathing and project your volume so that all or even one can hear.

Never underestimate the career-building potential of your presentations at meetings, even seemingly mundane regular meetings. Consider everything you say an opportunity to make a powerful impression. Awareness is the first step, then practice and asking for feedback from those you trust.

What traps have I missed? What do you observe in yourself and other female presenters?

©2010 Cyndi Maxey

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