Leadership Communication for Women in Charge

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Some of the questions we’re asked most frequently here at Quantified are about the differences in the way men and women should communicate if they want to be perceived as respectable, authoritative leaders. After all, it’s incredible just how often we see women in leadership positions being criticized (or praised, sure, but more often criticized) not for their message, itself, but for the way they deliver it.

During the last presidential election, for example, we couldn’t help but notice the pundits were more focused on Secretary Clinton’s voice and her struggle to be charismatic than her political stances, plans, and ideologies. And we can’t even begin to count the number of times we’ve heard assertive women labeled unlikable (or worse). And yet, when we compensate with extra femininity, we’re written off as “girlish” or “not serious enough.”

So what’s a woman aspiring to break through the glass ceiling to do?

For any leader—man or woman—the trick to leadership communication is to strike the balance between authority and authenticity, presenting as a confident, charismatic expert who is likely to behave the same one-on-one as she does in a crowd.

Sound like a tall order?

Here are three things to focus on as you develop your leadership communication style.

1.  Confident Presence

Presence refers to the way speakers handle themselves on stage, and it includes the posture, gestures, facial expressions, and movements that make them appear confident and in control—or the opposite. If you’ve ever seen someone get up in front of a crowd and shrink into herself—or, the opposite, gesticulate like a soap opera actor—you know that presence can make or break an audience’s perception of a speaker.

As women in leadership positions, our goal should be not to present ourselves as specifically feminine or masculine, but as confident. If we are standing upright (maybe even leaning forward a bit), making eye contact with our audience, and using organic facial expressions and hand gestures to emphasize our key points, we’ll project a sense of confidence, and our audience will catch on.

They key to developing that confident presence is, of course, practice. Only by practicing can we get a sense of how confident posture feels in our bodies and what kinds of gestures and facial expressions are most natural. And, of course, practice makes us comfortable with the material we’re presenting, which gives us the freedom to focus on cultivating a natural leadership presence rather than sweating about which words to say next.

2.  Assured Language

When we feel unheard as women, we often remind each other (half joking, half fuming) to “say it like a man.” And while it can be tempting to emulate male leaders’ speech in an effort to gain control of a room, doing so will only undermine our authenticity and turn off our listeners.

Women tend to communicate with more empathy, evoking a stronger sense of community, and those are strengths we shouldn’t try to hide. But there is one change we can make to ensure our language is as confident as we are. On the whole, women are more likely than men to use tentative language that dilutes our perceived confidence. This includes phrases like, “I’m so sorry, but…,” “I was just wondering…,” and “Maybe we could try…”

While we know putting those softer edges on our language can be a powerful tool to get the results we want, we can sound much more confident if we replace those phrases with alternatives that sound just a little more in control.

  • Instead of “I’m so sorry, but…” try “Excuse me, but…”
  • Instead of “I was just wondering…” try “Do you know…”
  • And instead of “Maybe we could try…” consider “I’d recommend…”

As women, we know that we know what we’re talking about. Focusing on keeping our communication free of hedging and tentative phrases will make sure others know it, too.

3.  Commanding Voice

Vocal quality is one of the areas where women get the most flack. We’re either too shrill or too girlish or too quiet or, impossibly, too masculine. But a commanding voice isn’t about manipulating pitch to sound a certain way. That will just make us sound fake, and audiences will notice right away.

Instead, the key is learning how to make sure our natural voices sound strong and clear. This means protecting our vocal quality by managing our health—drinking plenty of water, avoiding dairy, and getting plenty of sleep leading up to a presentation—and by focusing on strong breath support to improve vocal tone and quality.

The trick, which will sound familiar to anyone who spent time in choir during school, is to ensure we’re taking full, diaphragm-supported breathsrather than shallow ones that start in the chest. This deep, focused breathing will foster a strong, clear vocal tone and even help calm nerves.

When you get down to it, the key to leadership communication for women is not to talk like men—it’s to talk like the most confident, polished versions of our own, authentic selves.