Tuesday, September 29, 2009

week 5: gender issues in public speaking

Have you ever been "talked over" in a meeting? So has Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Ever wonder why you can chat away with a girlfriend or small group, but hate to get up to speak? Most women prefer one-on-one communications; most men prefer making public statements. Ever wish you could adopt the male uniform of flat shoes, pants, jacket, shirt and tie instead of the heels, skirt, and jewelry that seem to trip you up on stage? They're all double-edged swords for women in terms of their public appearances.

To get Stephanie started on our coaching for week 5, I'm sharing the presentation I made to Washington Women in Public Relations about how to step up your speaking, which shares a lot of information about the challenges that women, in particular, face in public speaking.

Most important to remember are the words of Kathleen Hall Jamieson: "History has many themes. One of them is that women should be quiet." From the days of ancient Greece and Rome to today, women have often been forbidden to speak in public, or discouraged from doing it with punishment, name-calling or simply making it logistically difficult.

Ironically, Jamieson also notes that women's style of communicating--connecting with one person, sharing emotions and listening--work best in the age of television. In fact, it works so well, that some of our most successful presidents (all men, of course) have adapted these skills (think Presidents Reagan, Clinton and Obama). Yet many women go the opposite way, wearing male-style uniforms of power suits, making strong-sounding verbal statements, not sharing emotion or personal stories for fear of seeming too soft.

If you'd asked me when I was Stephanie's age whether I observed this, I might have been defensive and said, "Not at all." But today--especially as one who trains speakers--I've heard from many women about the discomfort they feel about speaking. Sometimes that's due to their introverted personalities, lack of training or experience, or nervousness. But often, it's because they've experienced or sensed an issue because they're women. They may feel they're called out for more attention because they wear colorful clothes--something women have as an advantage in their wardrobes--or sometimes they're told their presentations aren't "sexy enough." But whatever the situation, their confidence is undermined. Here's a great example: Women often hear that they "talk too much," yet men and women speak about the same number of words in a day! (16,000, to be exact.) Many more women find that they have trouble seeing women speakers at the conferences they attend, and getting women on the program as speakers continues to be an issue to this day in many settings.

For Stephanie, a beginning speaker, my advice is to be aware of this phenomenon. It's been around for thousands of years, and may be more subtle today than in ancient times, but it's still an issue for many women who speak. It's important to figure out when the problem is about you--or not about you. If it's not about you, it may be that someone's trying to marginalize you in order to get you to stop talking.

Mainly, I want Stephanie to remember that we can coach her in speaking skills and speaking confidence, two big essentials. But she'll also need opportunities to speak, and that sometimes relies on others. If they're uncomfortable with a woman speaking, she may not get that opportunity...and may need to create her own opportunity to speak!

Have you experienced any issues as a speaker that are gender-related? Leave your insights in the comments.