Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book journal: Credibility and the feminine rhetorical style

U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann was described as giving a "statesmanlike" speech in England. Hillary Clinton did the "seemingly unthinkable" when tears came to her eyes as she spoke with voters during the 2008 presidential campaign about the difficulties of running for office. So are their speaking styles masculine or feminine?

The answer for women speakers is very likely a little of both, but the point remains: Men and women have different rhetorical styles, although the feminine rhetorical style has largely been dismissed, as women have not been as prevalent in the history of public speaking, compared to men. As I continue researching for my book on women and public speaking, I'm finding some interesting threads on masculine speaking, feminine speaking, and the credibility issue for women speakers that lies beneath which style you choose when you speak. Because even today, research shows that we see male speakers generally as more credible than we do female speakers.

If you're a woman speaker who has felt that you needed to change your hairstyle, put on a suit, speak in a lower voice or fix something about your speaking style to bolster your authority as a speaker, you've had your finger on the pulse of a much more complex issue. Here's what I'm reading about:
  • Who talks when will tell you a lot about our different speaking styles: In her landmark book about the language of men and women, You Just Don't Understand, noted Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen distinguishes between the "report talk" of men (more public or in groups, more announcements, reporting results) and the "rapport talk" of women (more intimate, in small groups or one-on-one, focused on connection). And if you know how women have systematically been excluded from public speaking throughout history, it's no wonder that women developed a more private, intimate, personal style of speaking, is it? Tannen explains in this Washington Post article that it's important to pay attention to when men or women speak, to whom, and why, to understand the differences. (Otherwise, men and women speak about the same number of words in a day.) Gender and Discourse, another Tannen book I'm digging into, looks in more depth at the differences between the genders in their speaking. 
  • Here's a test: Can you tell male and female speakers' styles apart? In her "left-handed commencement address" at Mills College in 1983, part of our Famous Speech Friday series, novelist Ursula K. Leguin noted how women politicians, still rare, sounded an awful lot like the male politicians. She said: "Intellectual tradition is male. Public speaking is done in the public tongue, the national or tribal language; and the language of our tribe is the men's language. Of course women learn it. We're not dumb. If you can tell Margaret Thatcher from Ronald Reagan, or Indira Gandhi from General Somoza, by anything they say, tell me how. This is a man’s world, so it talks a man’s language. The words are all words of power. You’ve come a long way, baby, but no way is long enough. You can’t even get there by selling yourself out: because there is theirs, not yours."
  • Television favors the feminine rhetorical style: In her landmark 1988 work on the impact of television on political rhetoric, Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking, Kathleen Hall Jamieson takes a long look at what's called the "effeminate," or feminine, style of rhetoric as well as the history of women's public speaking. She points out that television, particularly as a platform for politicians, "invites a personal, self-disclosing style that draws public discourse out of a private self and comfortably reduces the complex world to dramatic narratives. Because it encompasses these characteristics, the once spurned womanly style is now the style of preference." 
  • Bonus or minus? Depends on your cred:  Jamieson notes "the double bind in which television traps a female politician. The style considered credible is no longer suitable to television. But only a person whose credibility is firm can risk adopting a style traditionally considered weak. So a male candidate whose credibility is in part a function of presumptions made about those of his sex is more likely to succeed in the 'womanly' style than is an equally competent but stereotypically disadvantaged female candidate." I think that today's wide range of formats for public speaking--including YouTube videos and TED talks--carry forward this demand for a feminine style of speaking. The storyteller, the confider of personal details, is in demand as a speaker, and that favors women's strengths as speakers.
  • So of course, the most prominent speakers of the feminine rhetorical style are men: Jamieson's book makes a thorough case for considering U.S. President Ronald Reagan as a prominent and successful adopter of a "self-disclosive, narrative, personal, 'womanly' style." Many observers, myself included, also put U.S. President Bill Clinton squarely in that speaking camp as well, and occasionally, President Barack Obama. Meanwhile, the public roads are littered with women politicians who, lacking in credibility afforded to men, tried on masculine, stentorian (loud and powerful) speaking styles, from Geraldine Ferraro, the first U.S. female nominee for vice president, to Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. Jamieson notes (and I agree) that "women abandoned and now must reclaim the 'womanly' style" of speaking. Play to your strengths, ladies.
  • Adopting a male style negates your femininity as a speaker: In her important speech, The Public Voice of Women, classics professor Mary Beard connects the practice of women adopting a masculine rhetorical style with the ancient practice of labeling women speakers androgynes, or sexless
    wonders (something that dates back to the first century in Rome and is still going on today). She said, "Those [women] who do manage successfully to get their voice across very often adopt some version of the ‘androgyne’ route, like Maesia in the Forum or ‘Elizabeth’ at Tilbury – consciously aping aspects of male rhetoric. That was what Margaret Thatcher did when she took voice training specifically to lower her voice, to add the tone of authority that her advisers thought her high pitch lacked." 
  • Is that where impostor syndrome comes from? Beard then confronts this tactic head-on, saying, "all tactics of that type tend to leave women still feeling on the outside, impersonators of rhetorical roles that they don’t feel they own....we need to go back to some first principles about the nature of spoken authority, about what constitutes it, and how we have learned to hear authority where we do. And rather than push women into voice training classes to get a nice, deep, husky and entirely artificial tone, we should be thinking more about the faultlines and fractures that underlie dominant male discourse." Beard's speech and much more about it are in our Famous Speech Friday series here.
The issue of credibility and speaking style still is a double bind for many women speakers. As a coach, I'd always tell you that you'll do a better job as a speaker if you speak in a style that is authentic to you, and the feminine style is the one currently preferred. But that doesn't mean your audiences will view that approach--or you--as credible. It's an issue we talk about as part of my new workshop on women and public speaking.

On May 15, I'll be convening another session of Be The Eloquent Woman in Washington, DC. It's a subversive new workshop that helps women executives and public officials learn how women speakers are perceived and how to turn those expectations on their heads with confidence, content and credibility. You can grab a sweet discount by registering by April 11. Go here to read how the first workshop went and what participants had to say.