I’ve been doing presentations for most of my career, and teaching others to present more effectively. Women, especially young women, fall into a few easy to avoid traps. We give away or undermine our power with small signals that we need to immediately stop doing. Here are five things you can start – or stop – doing right now to get your message across with greater impact.
1. Watch your tone. Listen to how you speak as if it was a musical phrase. Say this out loud: “Would you like cream in your coffee?” On the word “coffee” your voice will go up. That’s how we signal that we are asking a question. But women tend to go up at the end of a sentence even when they aren’t asking a question. We’re socialized not to be demanding so we will often temper a statement by casting our voice up at the end. “This quarter’s results clearly show we need a change in direction” is very different than “this quarter’s results show we need a change in direction?”
2. Pay attention to how you stand. Many of us are nervous when we stand in front of people. And our bodies telegraph that to our audience. Standing on one foot, or slouching take away our power. Some women pose, standing to the side as if they are posing for a selfie in a bathing suit. Practice standing with both feet on the floor, shoulder length apart, facing your audience. Practice hand gestures that feel authentic but take up space. Watch TED talks of women who are good presenters. Give yourself permission to take up space. When I present I walk around, gesture with my hands, I take up more space than is socially acceptable. I had to learn that. It’s a skill anyone can learn. Don’t let your posture inadvertently undermine your message.
3. Think of your voice like a musical instrument. Many women fall into what’s called “vocal fry” a way of speaking from the back of your throat that makes your voice raspy. Usually, women only do this when they are uncomfortable. Some people just talk this way, and that’s ok. But if you do it when you’re nervous, you are communicating that discomfort. Tape yourself talking. When you hear the raspy back of the throat thing, try it again without that. Practice talking loudly and focus on the front of your mouth until you can do it at a normal volume. Other women talk in an infantilized way, as if they are trying to sound younger, or flirting with an older man; soft edged with a hesitant cadence, speaking like they have marshmallows in their mouth. That’s harder to get around, but it’s professional Kryptonite. Use audio and video tape to carefully record what you do and try to avoid both of these vocal pitfalls. You voice is not a flute or a recorder, it is a saxophone. Again, if you have a naturally reedy voice you can work around it, but if these patterns come out when you are nervous, you need to overcome them.
4. Own the room. In many presentations or meetings, there is feedback from the audience or other people in the room. Occasionally, people, usually men, will try to dominate the discussion, or cut you off, or derail you. You need to know how to get the conversational ball back in your court. If I’m leading a meeting and it goes south, one simple trick to to stand up. I will get up and walk to a white board. Usually what I need to write down isn’t as important as getting the focus back on topic. If you stand up and walk to a white board people automatically pay attention. Don’t hesitate to name what’s happening. “That’s a good point, Jim, but let’s put that aside for the moment and get back to the creative brief.” “We’ve only got about 20 more minutes, so let’s turn back to the main point here and if we have time at the end we can return to those questions.” This will make people uncomfortable, it may make you uncomfortable. But you need to establish your right to lead the meeting you are leading, or the presentation you are giving, even if others in the audience try to challenge that authority.
5. Be flexible. I like to check in throughout a presentation, especially if I see I’m losing the audience. Once I’ve established my authority, it can be very effective to give some power away in the interest of being helpful. “Let me know if you want me to go more into depth or move more quickly. Is this an area where you want me to drill down or move on?” It takes a very confident presenter to shift on the fly, and reacting to your audience shows your confidence. “Do we need to take a break? It’s right after lunch, we’ve been talking for a while, how about if everyone gets up and stretches. Everybody stand up.” In the event that you get negative feedback, ask a question. “What would you like to focus on that would be more helpful?”
Don’t ever forget that as a woman you are presenting in a gendered social context. If you work, as I do, in a male dominated industry like advertising or technology, recognize that you are going to face some negative energy for having the temerity to assume a position of power in talking to a group. More so if you are a woman of color. Be prepared for this, don’t take it personally, but don’t be surprised. Practice every presentation as if you are going into battle, because in some sense you are. But with these simple tips you can subtly and effectively communicate that you deserve to be right where you are and they will listen to you.