Not very long ago, two persistent stereo-types dogged public speakers - stereo-types that have shaped the communication between men and women since our days in the sandbox. If you were a man, you got instant credibility points, whether you deserved them or not, and it didn't much matter what you wore as long as it was expensive and clean.
If you were a woman, what you wore supposedly mattered a great deal, and you had to overcome the lingering suspicion that because you were a woman, your credibility and authority had to be proven - to the satisfaction of the men in the room. As actress Pauline Frederick once put it: "When a man gets up to speak, people listen, then look. When a woman gets up, people look; then, if they like what they see, they listen."
A funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century, though. Men discovered that their veneer of confidence could easily crack, and that being a man was not necessarily an advantage in all business situations. Women discovered they could be quite comfortable in the boardroom, that they were much savvier in many aspects of business than their male counterparts, and that credibility on the podium has more to do with who you are and what you say than what you're wearing. Indeed, the pendulum has swung so far the other way that many experts now herald women as more natural innate presenters, and a woman's style of communicating - consistent eye contact, sensitivity to the audience's needs, the use of more inclusive language, putting the audience's needs before one's own ego - as the model to which we all should aspire.
Still, there is a grain of truth in most stereotypes, even if we don't want to admit it. On any given playground in North America, for example, one can observe boys gravitating toward the football field and the basketball court, where physical aggressiveness and a minimum of verbal communication are amply rewarded. Meanwhile, the girls - despite a few generations of women's liberation - are more apt to be using their imaginations. talking to each other, and generally working together to entertain them-selves in ways that don't involve an elbow to the eye socket. When girls jump rope or play hopscotch, for instance, they sing and clap and encourage each other to try ever more challenging combinations. While the girls are singing. it is safe to say. the boys are not. Never have, never will.
These are gross generalizations, to be sure - and most of us have been indoctrinated to recoil instinctively from such labeling of gender-related behavior. But despite a more level professional playing field and decades of being conditioned to overlook the differences between men and women, most gender communication experts agree there are still very real differences in the way men and women develop, deliver and receive speeches. Furthermore, ignoring these differences can potentially blind otherwise promising speakers to the very factors that may be pre-venting them from connecting completely with their audience. Fortunately, we live in the 21st century now, so these differences don't need to divide us. Indeed, when it comes to succeeding as a presenter, there is plenty men and women can still learn from each other.
"Most of us have been indoctrinated to recoil instinctively from labeling of gender-related behavior."
In the mid-'90s, psychologist and long-time Toastmaster Judith Tingley, AC-G, caused a stir with the release of her book, GenderFlex: Men and Women Speaking Each Other's Language at Work. Among the book's tenets was that, like marketers who tailor advertising campaigns to appeal to certain sexes, presenters should customize their approaches to better appeal to the opposite gender in their audiences. Credibility and authority were the two primary "male" qualities that women wanted most to project in their own communication. To get it, Tingley suggested women do things like "borrow power" by always having a man introduce them (even to all-female audiences), to frequently quote or reference prominent male figures, and use more humor to project an aura of being relaxed and in command. Men were encouraged to use similar cross-gender appeals.
The book was controversial because many women interpreted her message as an attempt to turn back the clock and cater to male communication preferences. Such criticisms are a misinterpretation of her work, Tingley insists, and she still believes both sexes can benefit by tweaking their messages for broader appeal to mixed-gender audiences.
If a woman is speaking on a "female" topic like forming relationships, for example, and the audience is half men, all Tingley is suggesting is that the presenter might benefit from using examples from the business world to make her point, rather than from her personal life. "Talk about the euphoria among an entrepreneurial work group that's worked long and hard to launch a project, forming tight relationships with team members along the way," she says. Likewise, a man talking about economics to an audience of women might consider using analogies based on personal and home finances rather than purely business examples.
Today's ultra-sensitive gender politics make it more difficult to find ways of appealing to opposites in the audience without stereotyping or alienating them. But it is possible - and sometimes necessary.
A few years ago, Nick Morgan, head of Public Words, a presentation-skills coaching company in Arlington, Massachusetts, and author of Working the Room: How to Move People to Action Through Audience-Centered Speaking, was helping a female consultant prepare to speak to the top 250 executives of a financial services firm, all of whom happened to be male. If that wasn't challenge enough, her message was that the company's prized new marketing strategy was bombing, and that the executives had to quickly decide on a new direction.
"It was a case where we had to think through the gender politics quite carefully," says Morgan. "We had to get men past the fact that she was the only woman in the room, and not dismiss her message based on that." Morgan advised her to address the "hippopotamus in the room" right up front, which she deftly did with some self-deprecating humor about the gender discrepancy.
Indeed, more women than ever rise to similar challenges every day. High-profile speakers such as Hillary Clinton, Madeline Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Elizabeth Dole are proof that women can hold their own in even the most ego-saturated bastion of masculinity - politics. And countless other lesser-known but equally polished women turn the credibility myth on its head each day with out-standing performances in boardrooms and ballrooms around the world. Some presentation-skills coaches go as far as to argue that many of the things women speakers do best - the innate tendencies that define their communication styles, the inclusiveness of their interactive impulses, even the give-and-take of their playground politics - are the sort of thing speakers who want to be really good, regardless of gender, should emulate.
"A more inclusive and softer style is more available to be listened to than an aggressive or unilateral approach," says Phyllis Mindell, president of Well-Read, a communication consulting firm in Pittsford, New York, and author of the book How to Say It for Women. Mindell says a town supervisor she knows in upstate New York is a good model of this light-but-firm approach. "She has a calm, pleasant and very feminine speaking style, but she says very hard things in a way that gets people to follow her because she doesn't exclude or set up barriers," Mindell says. "She speaks softly but powerfully at the same time."
Nick Morgan also believes women have certain innate skills that make them effective speakers. "Many women tend to be better at striking up a dialogue with an audience and getting people to open up," he says. When presenters initiate such a dialogue, rather than simply lecturing (as a man might be more likely to do), "the whole audience feels more drawn into the presentation, and there is a stronger sense of inclusion," he says.
Men, too, have natural advantages that work in their favor more often than not. Their voices, for one, tend to be deeper, and, according to Morgan, both men and women are predisposed to think of a male voice as more authoritative than a woman's - whether we like it not.
"We all want to think this is changing, but when you hear those voice-overs on trailers advertising the latest movie, it's still usually a man talking," he says.
To be sure, many women have naturally appealing and sonorous speaking voices. Those who struggle with voice quality, however, can work on altering the pitch of their voices to ensure greater resonance and strength. "Men tend to drive their voices lower when they feel they are off their basic pitch, but when women have a problem, my experience is they drive their voices higher into the 'little girl' voice, which undercuts credibility," Morgan says. The antidote? Women should practice opening up lower registers to add more heft to their voices, he says.
Men, on the other hand, are more likely to be nasal droners who speak in a monotone. Such guys could learn a few things from the women in their lives, because those women are more likely to use a broader range of volumes and inflection in their voices - something every speaker should learn how to do, says Morgan.
Still, having a booming bass or melodious alto isn't everything, reminds Mindell. "If the language is strong, the pace is appropriate and the statements are confident, even a sweet, musical, small, thin voice will be heeded."
Another trait of men that often gives them an advantage in the business world is their desire (in general) to use fewer words than women. This "get to the point" mentality, which puts a premium on decisiveness and lack of equivocation, makes many men seem more decisive than they really are. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to qualify statements and are more willing to digress if they think it's necessary to clarify a point. Indeed, when it comes to language-weakening qualifiers, women tend to be bigger offenders, coaches of both sexes say.
Common phrases like "sort of," "in my opinion," "we'll try to," or "we'll do our best," suggest uncertainty and timidness. "They're relational words that people use in one-to-one conversations to share authority, but they don't always transfer well to the presentation context," Morgan says.
Author and gender communication expert Deborah Tannen says women are more likely to downplay their certainty and men to downplay their doubts. A woman's statement of, "From what I can tell, I think it'll work, but we never know for sure until we try" becomes "This is a winner. We've got to go for it!" in malespeak, Tannen explains.
On the playground, whoever has the ball is the one who gets the most attention, however briefly. In the working world, whoever has the microphone or is at the front of the room is carrying the ball, so to speak. And as every schoolyard veteran knows, a certain amount of authority comes with having the ball in your hands; what you do with the ball in that moment is very important.
"The last thing you want to do is immediately give up the provisional authority you're granted by the audience when you first get up to speak," says Morgan. And yet, that's what many speakers do: By fiddling with papers or their microphone, seeming disorganized, apologizing for not being prepared or for being late, opening with a story that's just a little too self-deprecating - these are all familiar destroyers of authority. And men, it seems, are innately less prone to handing over their power unwittingly.
Patricia Fripp, a San Francisco-based speech coach who specializes in sales-presentation training, says that while both sexes struggle with non-verbal practices that distract from their messages, the problem tends to plague women on a larger scale. "I watched one very senior executive client make an otherwise good presentation, but when she was done I asked her if she realized how many times she touched her hair in those 20 minutes," Fripp says. The answer? More than 30 distracting touches.
Mindell says one senior executive she knows introduced herself at a meeting and said she managed a $52 million budget; then she unconsciously shrugged her shoulders, downplaying her accomplishment. Again, while they may seem insignificant, and can plague either gender, such non-verbal cues send strong messages to audiences that often conflict with the message the speaker is really trying to convey. Both men and women need to understand this important principle of authority and make a conscious effort to nurture rather than squander it.
In fact, though much is still made of the differing styles of men and women in the workplace, effective speakers - be they men or women - share more important qualities than not. As presentation coach Phyllis Mindell says, "Good planning separates the women from the girls, the strong from the weak, the confident from the fearful, and the men from the boys."
Indeed, whether you're shooting a three-pointer, skipping double Dutch, or presenting to the board of directors, it always comes back to solid preparation and good fundamentals - basics our kindergarten teachers tried to teach us, and we are still learning to this day.
At the risk of being ticketed with misdemeanor generalizing, we offer this list of gender-specific strengths, predilections and tendencies that the opposite sex might consider adopting: