The Good News about Being a Woman Speaker: How So-Called "Feminine Traits" Translate into Speaker Strengths

Guest blog by Lois Philips, Ph.D.
Author of Women Seen and Heard: Lessons Learned from Successful Speakers

“Listen up. My presentation will change your life.” 

No doubt about it: in order to be successful at work, or in a community leadership role, women must master presentation skills. This is not an easy thing to do because public speaking is a function of the male role, and what we expect men to do. Society encourages boys to become leaders, but being assertive in terms of telling people what to do, how to spend their money, and whom they should vote for (or not) is still a relatively new posture for girls and women. As they move into occupational and professional roles formerly occupied by men only, and see the potential for leadership roles in all facets of life, girls and women don’t have a choice. Women need to be more assertive in finding a “public voice.” The good news is that women speakers don’t need to mimic men but, rather, can capitalize on the very “feminine” traits that society has devalued for centuries. Many of those same traits are speaker strengths. 

“Feminine” behaviors such as “batting your eyelashes,” subordinating one’s interests to others, focusing on conventional standards of beauty, being coy and evasive are media inventions and aren’t what we’re addressing here. Those behaviors don’t help women to succeed in life as people with intelligence and leadership capabilities. Let’s focus, instead, on a cluster of feminine traits that sociologists indicate is a preference for “sociability.” 

In personal conversations, women relate; they don’t dominate. Effective public speaking requires that the speaker is also relating to listeners: empathizing, making connections, solving problems, sharing experiences, and finding common ground. Ask yourself: Do you capitalize on a range of “feminine traits” that can help you to be effective at the podium? Take this self-assessment quiz to find out. 

Reflect on your presentation style. Which of these statements describes you? 

q 1.I enjoy talking with people.

q 2. I am willing to share personal anecdotes and disclose personal information if it will help me to make a point.

q 3.I do worry about what other people think.

q 4.I do like to find out what I have in common with people with or to whom I’m speaking.

q 5.I think about consequences of decisions, and how they might impact other people.

q 6. I appreciate the practical details of everyday life and how things happen.

q 7. I prefer to empower other people rather than taking credit for knowing it all.

q 8. I make things happen through my relationships with people, not (necessarily) through status, position, or power.

SCORING: Give yourself one point for each statement to assess whether you are able to integrate what have been described as “feminine” attributes into your presentations.

q 0-2 Seek opportunities to be whom you are when speaking to groups and audiences. Start by volunteering to be on a panel, speaking to a group of people with whom you are familiar so you can experiment with a “relational” approach.

q 3-5 When you tackle a problem or propose a solution, you’re confident at the podium, expressing feelings, disclosing relevant information, and relating to people in a personal way that makes you able to connect.

q 6-8 Congratulations! Your presentation style effectively incorporates feminine traits; your presentations are thoughtful, you relate to people, and you can personalize dry material. You have the potential to be a leader who can influence others to think differently and take action regarding the extraordinary range of issues facing us as a society. Time to meet the media!

Are my conversational skills an advantage at the podium?

As a result of the female socialization process, a conversational style of speaking will be familiar. Good speakers adopt that off-the-cuff “I’m interested in you, this-isn’t-just-about-me” tone to create a sense of intimacy that people appreciate. In conversation and delivering presentations, curiosity is an advantage. Women know how to keep a conversation going, using segues that bridge from one topic to another with a “That reminds me of ….” and “Has this ever happened to you?” The same skill set is a plus when you address a group conveying an “off the top of my head” approach. People leave thinking, “Now that’s someone I’d like to get to know better.”

Women appreciate the give-and-take of informal conversation. The speakers I’ve interviewed said that they prefer to deliver an impromptu speech, rather than read from a prepared manuscript. Perhaps this preference for interaction is why women do so well during the Q and A phase, after delivering their prepared remarks. Because women approach “speechmaking” as if it were an extension of having a conversation, they tend to scratch out their remarks on the backs of envelopes or scratchpads, rather than writing out their remarks word-for-word. This casual attitude can backfire as those envelopes are rarely saved, explaining why it is difficult to find a collection of women’s speeches, except perhaps for the most formal Commencement or Memorial addresses or those in the Congressional Record. Are you saving your presentations? You never know when they will come in handy, perhaps published as transcribed or rewritten as an article for your organizational newsletter.

Even in formal communication settings such as a public hearing or a conference, “feminine” qualities can be demonstrated when an outline of key points is used only as a guide so that the speaker can look listeners in the eye, rather than reading from a prepared manuscript Even more than the desire to convey information, the more feminine speaker will want to build a trusting relationship with her audience. She knows that those relationships will serve her well in implementing any proposal she has presented. To make contact with people, and using her notes as a reference point, she will look at individuals in the audience, one key point at a time. And listeners remember what is said when the speaker is looking directly at them as she makes her point.

President Ronald Reagan was lauded for his delivery skills, making each person in the audience feel as if he were talking directly to him or her in a conversational tone. Interestingly, we later learned that a woman, Peggy Noonan, wrote many of Reagan's most outstanding speeches. Her words empowered Reagan with a feminine style of empathy and caring that made an impact, across party lines.

Am I being strategic – or self-indulgent- when sharing personal anecdotes?

Women disclose what they know. Hoarding information? No way? That’s a man’s game. Whether you just discovered a new outlet for designer shoes, the best interest rate for first-time homebuyers, or the cure for cancer, you like to share what you know. It’s what women do. Of course, going on and on and on is never a good idea when listeners are busy people wanting you to get to the point. 

Women have grab bag of personal stories they can use to make an otherwise dry subject come alive for an audience. They remember these stories because they were instructive, occurring at choice points in their lives; as a result they can recall them instantly, and the stories become tighter and more pointed with each telling of the tale. Stories can form the basis for sustaining friendships and family life and are a way of revealing values and character. What better way to get to know a leader than through the personal examples she provides? 

Former Governor Ann Richards has admitted that the years after her divorce were a time when, "I smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish." Through self-deprecating humor, she makes it clear that this destructive time in her life is behind her; she went public with this situation before the press used it to destroy her credibility. Women are comfortable using their life experiences as a strategy for making a point, which works well at the podium. Being candid about one’s imperfections makes the audience trust the speaker as someone who is “just like us.”

Statistics are abstract and often misleading; they don’t do justice to the complexity of problematic situations. Stories help statistics come alive. Describe the economic and social consequences of being a teenage mother when you describe “Mary”. Explain the idiosyncrasies of a family business by describing three generations running “The Chang Restaurant Business.” What does the war in Iraq mean unless you tell us describe the life of a young soldier from our neighborhood. Pie charts don’t help your audience to care about the impact of a particular policy on real people. Personal examples soften up the listeners’ apathy or resistance to changing their point of view.

For example, Susan Lowell Butler was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and initially given a poor prognosis. Using a dynamic presentation style, she speaks to conference audiences, sharing the challenges she faced in moving from diagnosis to treatment. The importance of funding cancer research takes on new meaning when she asserts, “I wasn’t going to be a statistic.” Butler is now an advocate for increased funding for cancer research, and listeners are more likely to join her. Women are more likely to respond to a human face than to the most shocking statistic presented as an abstraction. Do you have a personal story that will support your key points?

Can my relationship skills help me get my message across? 

Political speakers pay media coaches big bucks to learn how to “stay on message,” but this is less important to women who want their message to make sense to their listeners. After all, your listeners are going to be most affected by a proposed change in a way of understanding a problem or taking action. You propose “Elect me!” or “Invest in my product (service)!” In order to achieve your goals, you need your listeners’ buy-in. Staying on message is less important than whether the listeners can relate to you. Will they care? Can they relate to you? Women worry about what other people think, and doing so is probably a good strategy for any speaker.

For example, you may want to speak about controversial issues but cultural obstacles can get in the way of being seen and heard. Television producer Christina Saralegui speaks about breast cancer and gay issues in ways that get people involved because she relates to and respects the Hispanic culture of modesty. As a Hispanic woman, Saralegui wants to build bridges when she explains, “We’re all parents and we have the same problems. I try to appeal to the common denominator…. everyone is in this together.”

Should I worry about what other people think?

Maybe it's true that women tend to worry more than men do about what others think, and conventional wisdom indicates this anxiety impedes women’s ability to be decisive leaders and make those tough decisions. Interestingly, twenty years ago the groundbreaking book called “In Search of Excellence” pointed out that the best managers walk around the office and find out what people are thinking and feeling. No big news to women; we’ve always operated that way. As a result of caring about what others think, women speakers are more likely to have learned about the audience beforehand to know what they’re getting into. Knowing what people are worrying about allows the speaker to be better prepared for what might be asked during the Q and A. No need to operate in a vacuum before making a decision. Good leaders have always known this and, as a result, their presentations have been more effective in persuading people to join with them.

Before discussing something as complex as, for example, the new Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 which provide guidelines for oversight of Corporate Boards, a speaker will want to know about her audience’s level of sophistication. Did anyone in the audience lose their pension as a result of recent scandals? Are they worried, confident, or in denial? Women speakers know how important it is to meet with members of your audience before a presentation to scope out their interests, needs, perspective and sophistication. Schmoozing with people during a break in the meeting or conference can help the speaker gather anecdotal material and test her position. Will it fly? Can she explain complex terminology in everyday terms? 

What do I have in common with my listeners? 

A conversation in which people relate to one another’s concerns about what really matters is how women learn, strategize, and plan and share resources. Jargon, acronyms, and spreadsheets are guaranteed to put people off. We’ve all been a member of a family, we’ve all worked, been to school, paid taxes, earned licenses or credentials. Find that common ground and hold firm but keep the connection as simple as possible. As former Governor Ann Richards said, “Explain the issues in language your mama can understand,” and people will pay attention. Consider levels of education, work sophistication, parenting, age, socioeconomic factors. Are you managers or support staff? Prefer people to products? Find that common ground, or you won’t have a leg to stand on when your listeners competing interests, the upcoming coffee break, or the fascinating person seated next to them draws their attention away from you- the presenter.

The “relational” approach to public speaking is more engaging than the “talk at” approach to which we’ve grown accustomed. The latter is not how women typically communicate. Talking “with” is more like it. “What’s on your mind?” we ask, and then we can take it from there in linking our topic to those concerns.

Why brag about myself when I can brag about other people?

Women tend to be unassuming and self-disclosing, perhaps to a fault. Modesty, by definition, means freedom from conceit or vanity. Considered a feminine virtue, modesty can be appealing to audiences when they realize that a speaker is admitting that she's new at the leadership game, particularly when she says, "I'm human, I can make mistakes, and I don't know everything, so let's figure this tough problem out together." That's quite different from the speaker who masquerades as open-minded when listeners know a proposal is “a done deal.” Arrogant speakers think they have an edge on knowing more than anyone in their audience. That approach may have worked in the old days, but audiences today deserve more credit. Everyone sitting in front of you is an expert in something. Modesty assumes a position of mutual respect: people appreciate being respected by the “expert” at the front of the room.

Some speakers forge ahead with a canned speech, no matter what the audience's unique perspective or demographic composition might be. In a post-Enron era of scandals at the top, audiences want to hear from new leaders who are outside the system, and women leaders will certainly have a fresh take on a range of social and economic problems. 

More often than not, women brag about their staff or other volunteers instead of their own accomplishments. What’s wrong with sharing recognition? A more modest approach can be appealing to listeners, particularly if they are among those being applauded. Taken to extremes, modesty can backfire, but still, let’s take the middle ground, and leave grandiosity and posturing to men.

Are the practical details of everyday life important to my listeners?

Women haven’t had access to great wealth so they tend to be more practical and can paint various scenarios for their audiences. Since women speakers of diverse backgrounds share a perspective that lies outside of “ the establishment” (historically populated by white males), they can draw attention to situations that are often ignored. Women tend to become advocates for change in areas that directly affect their everyday lives. It’s not just health care; it’s a question of “How can my mother—and yours—pay for her prescription drugs on a fixed income?” It’s not just employment in general; it’s a question of “How can I fund my small business?” It’s not education in general, it’s “How can I get my school Board to fund after-school programs?” It’s not just the issue of affordable housing, it’s “How can I qualify for my first homeowner’s loan?” It’s not just safety, it’s “What will it take to install more lighting in our parking lots?” It’s not just the issue of child-care, it’s “How can we as parents organize high-quality, affordable childcare for employees in our corporation?” If women don’t address the more practical details and implementation of broad policy issues as they affect us in our daily lives, who will? 

Think it's impossible to make dull, dry, technical and financial talks more relevant to the lives of families and women? Women speakers are more likely to give hard, cold statistics a human face because they see numbers in terms of human equations: A equals B. 

Architects who design complex buildings are the first to admit that “God is in the details.” Present a visionary plan and people immediately become anxious about the future. They wonder: How do we implement this new product or service? What are the steps? Who will be affected? How long will it take? What compromises will we have to make? As you present the blueprints for change, know that listeners are more willing to help you if they know what they’re getting into and presenting the practical side –including attention to details - mean fewer surprises later.

Can my relationship skills help me to gain credibility as a leader- i.e., as “the voice of authority?”

Good speakers—and this is true of both men and women—aren't aloof. They know how to build relationships with the audience before and during the presentation. At the podium, Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Dole share anecdotes about people they’ve met that illuminate how policy and legislative decisions play out in everyday life. Hillary talks about her mother’s experience growing up unloved and poor, and how she, in turn, became committed to improving the foster care system. Liz Dole walks the room “Oprah style” and gets up close and personal. Each professional speaker has staff members help him or her learn about their audiences. 

You can do the same thing by making some phone calls beforehand and after your presentation to build and maintain relationships. People create momentum around the change efforts you are proposing but people don’t go out of their way for people they can’t relate to. Whether attitude or behavior, change doesn’t happen overnight. A dynamic presenter builds new relationships with like-minded people who come up afterwards and ask, “I liked the way you presented your case. Where do I sign up? I want to work with you on this.”

Women today don’t just want a level playing field or a seat at the table: they want to be at the head of the table or at the microphone. Feminine attributes and qualities such as relating, disclosing, and caring—coupled with an outsider’s point of view—ensure that dynamic women speakers are seen, heard, and remembered.

[1] Excerpted and adapted with permission.