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3 Ways Women Diminish Their Authority

by on November 28, 2015

Woman participating at town hall meeting and talking about local

As a communications adviser, I’ve often been asked by women leaders and government officials all over the world to work with them on how to enhance their authority when they speak, especially when they’re working in male dominated environments plagued by implicit gender bias.  While many women have natural advantages when it comes to communicating for rapport and relationship building, I’ve found over the years that regardless of ethnicity or culture, women have some common, universal communication patterns that detract from their authority.  Here are the top three habits I’ve observed:

  1. The use of self-diminishing qualifiers
    “I’m not the expert on this, but…”
    “I may be incorrect on this, but…”
    “This is only my opinion…”
    “I’m sure many of you might disagree…”

These are all real examples I’ve heard many women use before they make their statements.  I find that for the most part, women try to avoid sounding too aggressive, so they err on the side of tentativeness. Unfortunately, your listeners hear your attempt not to be too bold as meekness and uncertainty.

Here are better alternatives to the above:
“While my expertise is in macroeconomics, I can say this about the  potential social impacts of this policy decision…”
“Here’s what we can say based on the facts so far…”
“In my view…”
“As I’m sure you know…” (Don’t put your audience in a state of disagreement before making your case. Just using the word “disagree” will bump them into that state.)

2. Weak Body Language

As humans, we are unconsciously programmed to pick out the alpha in the room. Body language cues are just one set of signals sent by leaders, and they are often the most powerful. I’ve observed that when nervous, especially when it comes to public speaking, many women have the tendency to shrink their body language, to make themselves smaller. They talk with their hands tensely clasped in front of them, or hide behind a large lectern, or sit with arms clamped to their sides and hands in their laps — like schoolgirls. Leadership communications calls for expansion when it comes to body language.  Your arms should be loose and down at your sides when you talk, so you can gesture naturally as you speak. Your chest especially should be up and open, shoulders relaxed and out, not rounded towards your chest.  Also, smile.  A genuine smile expresses confidence and warmth.  We are drawn to leaders who can show that kind of real engagement with the audience.

3. Be concise

Several studies have shown that women talk more than men do, and use more words than men. Some scientists say it’s due to a higher level of a protein linked to verbal communication, others also say it’s the different way women’s brains are wired — allowing more and faster access to the left and right sides of our brains. This is a great advantage for women as communicators, but it can be a disadvantage for perceptions of authority.  More words, longer sentences, interminable speeches will diminish the power of your message, not enhance it.  No one will recall every word you say, it’s impossible. Communication is not about what you say, it’s about what will be remembered, and what will inspire.  Short declarative sentences are easier to remember.  Avoid using ‘and’ or ‘but’ to join phrases, use periods and pauses instead.
Avoid rambling or going off course.  Deliver your talks in a linear style, don’t circle back to points you’ve expressed earlier.
Sprinkle your speeches with bullet points.  This is especially helpful for keeping your audience with you at all times, by telling them what’s coming next. For example:

“I’ve talked so far about the past year’s goals and challenges met. Lastly: results.”

Stick to 3 points if at all possible. We can all remember 3 things. When we hear a speaker say,  “I’d like to elaborate on our 12 strategic pillars…” the audience will check out immediately. It psychologically comforting to instead hear a speaker say: “I have 3 issues to address:  Actions, Results, and Vision. First, Actions…”  It creates cognitive ease for the audience. They will be more willing to get on board your train of thought.

Finally, it’s important for women to be aware of the difference between assertive, and arrogant.  Too often women err on the side of subduing their natural authority, to the detriment of their effectiveness as leaders.

For more, check out our new book, The Master Communicator’s Handbook.

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