Monday, July 12, 2010

"How do I establish credibility as a speaker when my age and looks work against me?"

This month, I'm asking you to tell me your answers to the questions "Who are you? What are you looking for here?"  Follow the link to share your reasons, questions and challenges, and to add to the list, which includes some compelling challenges for speakers.  Here's one from Annie:
I am a 30 year-old executive at a life science company. The blessings of my Asian genes is that I look about 10 years younger, but professionally it is my number one curse. I teach seminars around the globe, speak at universities and give regular presentations before the senior management of companies. Usually the audience is in shock when I begin speaking because they thought I was the intern or assistant. How do I establish credibility in as a public speaker when my looks work so dramatically against me?
Just being different may make you feel--or prompt others to act--as if you don't have enough credibility to be speaking or speaking up. That can happen when there are big discrepanies between the audience and the speaker in terms of age, gender, race, even modes of dress.  If you are the youngest person in the room, the only woman or person of color, or the casually dressed intern amidst the sea of suits (or the reverse of any of those situations), it's easy to feel like the "other," out of place and out of sync.

I'm not going to advise fighting fire with fire.  Some public speaking coaches will tell you to wear glasses to look more serious, or, if you're a woman, to pull your hair back to look more serious, or to put on a suit like a suit of armor.  But if those are not things you'd normally do, they may distract you even more. 

I'm assuming, by the way, that your content is not the problem here.  Most of my public speaking trainees who face this appearance issue have already nailed their content, and find that's not enough.  So here are seven ways to boost your credibility with the audience and turn that tension into a dynamic presentation:
  1. Make sure the credibility problem isn't in your head.  If you're also doubting your credibility, it's time to work on your confidence level again.  Try these 12 tips on Confidence: Fake it until you make it.
  2. Check your voice.  In addition to appearance, some young women find their vocal image gets in the way of credibility. Check out this guest post from vocal coach Kate Peters on figuring out your vocal image, and note that we tend to hear sentences that end with a downward tone as more decisive, and those that end with an upward tone as indecisive. 
  3. Take charge of your introduction.  In addition to these tips for making sure you've written (or are delivering) a worthy intro, in this case, I'd advise using your introduction and bio, if one is printed in advance materials, to prepare the audience. Make sure your photo is included, and if your bio can accurately say something that emphasizes your youthful accomplishment, do it:  "Annie Smith is the youngest scientist at LifeMarkBio to be published in all three major journals in the field," for example. Put it right out there.  Check these tips on introducing yourself to be sure you aren't over-promoting yourself in an effort to boost your cred. 
  4. Make it more personal:  If the group is small enough (a presentation to senior managers, for example), walk around the room before the meeting gets started to shake hands and introduce yourself one-on-one, or greet people at the door: "Good morning, I'm Annie Smith. I'll be sharing the new marketing data with you this morning. Looking forward to your questions."  That gets it out of the way on an individual level, and you'll look composed and confident to boot.
  5. Clue the audience in before the talk. This may be a time to also consider building an online presence, a special web page for your presentation that includes advance materials, including your bio and photo, your slides, handouts, even a welcome video from you. Add links to your online profiles to show your credentials in more detail and encourage networking. Make sure your audience gets the link ahead of the event.
  6. Develop a relaxed, non-anxious sense of humor about the surprised reaction.  You know it's coming, so have a couple of gently humorous--but not self-deprecating--comebacks ready if people gasp or otherwise react visibly and audibly to your appearance. (Make sure you're criticizing neither the audience nor yourself here.)  "In addition to discovering the fountain of youth, I've been working on...." or "I was worried about that, too, but then I realized we're all aging at the same rate" might be two to try.  The trick is to appear confident, not to recoil from a mention of your young years.  Laugh if you want to, in a bemused "there you go again" kind of way. Then transition to your real content.
  7. Find something you have in common with your audience--that may not be on your resume.  It might be location, an event going on nearby, or some other topic that will take people out of the frame of "us versus her" and create a bond.  Work that into your remarks early on to build rapport.  Or take a poll of the audience to find out what you all have in common.
Andrew Dlugan's Six Minutes blog selected this post as among the best public speaking blog posts in the week of August 14, 2010.  Thanks, Andrew!

Related posts:  What's credible about you as a speaker? The answer may not be on your resume

Confidence: Fake it until you make it

When you have to introduce yourself

Take charge of your introduction

When self-deprecating humor doesn't work for you