Women leaders can pick the right words at the right time to deliver a compelling message – and still botch it. How? We sometimes forget the worst speaking habits and let them slip back into our message.
And once a bad habit messes with the message, the damage is done: Credibility, attention and authority are lost for some time.
“Successful women speak differently. And because they do, doors of opportunity – whether personal or professional – open more easily, quickly and unexpectedly,” says Valorie Burton, author of Successful Women Speak Differently: 9 Habits that Make you Healthier, Happier and More Resilient. “Your voice is how you speak to the world and how you speak to yourself – a filter through which all your beliefs are processed and presented.”
So when you speak – whether you’re leading a group, meeting with executives or having a one-on-one with employees – prepare your words and how you’ll present them. That will help you avoid poor speaking habits.
Here are the top five ways to make the best possible impression:
1. Say it with authority
Say what you know and what you mean. State the facts, stats or reasons to back up your ideas, projection and opinions. If you mean it, say it with conviction, using your personal values and/or corporate vision as the basis for your beliefs.
Taking this approach will help you avoid the tentative words and phrases that often plague women’s presentations, such as: I think …, Maybe we …, I believe ….
Avoid phrases like these: I think it’s imperative that we … I think our best move is to … I think we should …
2. Skip the apologies
First, avoid apologizing unnecessarily. Excuse me can almost always be substituted for saying, Sorry.
Also, pause a moment before sharing an opinion to filter out “qualifiers” such as just, actually, and sorry. After some time, you’ll likely drop them altogether.
With practice at ridding your speaking of qualifiers, you’ll see people pay more attention to what you say and rarely doubt your authority.
Avoid phrases like these: I’m just wondering …, Actually, I disagree … Sorry to … or Am I making sense?
3. Talk straight
Pay attention for times when you’re inclined to “uptalk” – the habit of rising infliction at the end of a sentences so they sound more like questions that ask for affirmation. It often happens when women in leadership are in new situations or speaking off-the-cuff. Knowing when it happens most can help you work around it.
The best way: Practice declarative statements in private to build your sound of certainty. Author Kristin Wong suggests visualizing the period at the end of your sentences.
It’s important because one study found that women “uptalk” nearly twice as much as men.
So you want to avoid statements with a rising intonation such as, We have budget constraints that sounds more like, We have budget constraints, right?
4. Support your phrases
You can avoid “vocal fry” – a creaky, drawn out tone that often sounds like you haven’t had enough sleep, are bored or are apprehensive – by sitting or standing up straight to prevent your voice from dipping into a lower than normal range.
Support the ends of your phrases by making an effort to keep your tone and words as strong at the end of sentences or points – when your vocal cords and breathing become more strained – as they are in the beginning.
This is a vital practice for leaders like you because women are more likely to speak with vocal fry than men. Even worse, research shows that people who have vocal fry are considered less competent and trustworthy.
5. Pitch it right
Ideally you want to maintain a level pitch that’s authentic to who you are and how you speak – not stilted or strained. That starts with being as relaxed as possible, says speaking coach Lisa B. Marshall. Then you can speak at the lower end of your natural pitch. To keep your voice interesting – not monotone – change the tone for certain sentences, phrases or even specific words. For instance, raise your pitch a bit when presenting key ideas to convey enthusiasm.
Several studies have shown that a lower tone – again, at your lower range, not artificially low – often correlates with higher positions in leadership, salary and status.
You can hear a close-to-perfect-pitch presentation in Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg’s TED Talk.
Very few leaders were born speakers. Speaking well takes practice. The more you do it – and avoid the most common pitfalls – the more likely you’ll nail it every time.