I had been interviewed on national television and had stood before live audiences of 1,000 or more. But preparing to speak in this particular hotel banquet room, with fewer than 50 people in attendance, I shuddered unexpectedly. The reason: I was the only person in the room with a Y chromosome.
I survived the experience, but not without missteps. Concerned about saying something sexist, I stuck too closely to my script. I read when I should have been relating more personally to the audience.
Nonetheless, I've since spoken at dozens of all-women professional conferences, religious groups, garden clubs and the like. And I've learned that women tend to be gracious and generous listeners, happy to learn from a man who treats them with respect. I've also learned a few basic guidelines that help me to be most effective when I'm the only man in the room.
Some women are initially suspicious of a man who assumes authority - a man at a lectern, for example. So I've found it helpful, when I speak to all-female groups, to quickly put myself in my place. That is, I tell stories about myself that make it clear I don't consider myself a higher authority. I'm an expert on my topic, yes. But I'm also a fellow human being struggling through life.
Since my talks are generally about men and marriage, I usually launch with a story about one of my weaknesses as a father or husband. These are not hard to come by - and I can immediately sense the relief in my audience: Okay, he's not trying to be Mr. Know-it-All!
When my stories specifically mention my wife and son, there's another advantage. Any question of my "availability" is dismissed. The audience realizes that I'm there to educate and entertain only; I'm not on the prowl.
While women like to see the personal side of a male speaker, I've also found that they prefer not to be patronized with only the personal. Like men, most women don't trust storytelling alone as proof. So I always come prepared with whatever hard evidence is available to back up my perspective.
For example, I have conducted research on what men want in relationships. When I speak to women on this topic, I may start with a story from my own 20-year marriage. Then, in order to reinforce my conclusions, I include statistics about, for example, what percentage of men say they're happy with their wives and what percentage say they wish they'd never married her in the first place.
It may be true that women don't like to be pelted with facts. But they also don't like a speaker who acts as if they can't handle the facts.
It is possible for a man to tell a joke and get an all-female audience to laugh. But the odds are against it. Women have for so long been the subject of male humor that any standard joke set-up (even something as innocuous as, "A man walks into a bar") is likely to put at least some female audience members on the defensive. "Oh, no," they start thinking, "he isn't going there, is he?"
This is not to say that a male speaker should be dull. Women, of course, love to laugh. But they seem to most appreciate humor that emerges out of stories, that evolves naturally from the characters, or that floats up from a clever choice of words a speaker employs.
Finally, this should go without saying: Steer clear of any humor that depends upon - or even alludes to - female stereotypes. For example, never start a sentence with: "There was a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead…"
The liveliest part of almost every presentation I give to women is the question-and-answer session at the end. I always leave at least a third of my time for audience members to challenge me, disagree with me or respond in some other way.
I've also learned that during Q-and-A sessions with women, it's best when I repeat questions promptly after they're asked. That way, any gender-related mistranslations are cleared up immediately. There's nothing worse than answering a question, then being told: "That's not what I asked." (Also, when you repeat the question, those in the audience who couldn't hear it are appreciative.)
Finally, I keep my answers short - about Table Topics length (one to two minutes). The audience has just heard me speak for 30 or 40 minutes. While questioners like to have their queries addressed, I try to share the limited time remaining. Women seem particularly turned off by men who won't ever shut up.
While most women don't like a domineering man, they seem to appreciate one who stands by his beliefs. When I speak about relationships, I'm often challenged by audience members whose husbands (boyfriends, fathers or brothers) don't fit the mold. I make room for each person's point of view, but I don't back off of mine.
Recently, I spoke about my research which shows, contrary to stereotype, that men are not commitment-phobic. A woman in the audience challenged me. "I've been engaged to my boyfriend for 10 years," she said, "and he still won't set a date for the wedding!" I was able to sympathize with her, but added that according to my research, her boyfriend was atypical. "You're telling me/!" she replied.
I now enjoy speaking to all-female audiences. For one thing, women seem especially eager to hear a man's perspective on personal and family issues. Secondly, they're more likely than men to buy and read the books I've written. And finally, it's the only place where an audience member is likely to come up to me afterwards, thank me and say, "I admire your courage!"
In the book, He & She Talk, by Laurie Schloff and Marcia Yudkin (Plume), the authors offer several pieces of advice for women speaking to all-male audiences: