What’s the best way to get noticed, get into the up-and-comer pipeline and start to win more leadership roles earlier? Start by fast tracking your communication skills now—don’t wait for that big opportunity to project confidence and polish up your presence.
Before we dive in, an important disclaimer… men will benefit just as much from the advice below. We direct this to women to combat the stereotypes that can plague their progress.
1. Speak with Purpose and Vocal Conviction
Women can boost their authority with their voices. The three key areas to consider are pitch, projection and pace. In a business environment where the male vocal range is dominant, sing-songy voices can get steamrolled in important meetings. With naturally higher voices than men, it’s helpful for women to push into a deeper register (read: lower their pitch.)
How do you do that?
- Push your voice out. Think about activating your core—just like in Pilates. Be careful not to push it up, where it sounds like you might be screaming at your parents or sibling. It’s hard to slip into upspeak (ending sentences on a higher pitch as if there are question marks at the end of each declarative sentence - sounds unsure and tentative) or vocal fry (the low, creaky voice that sounds hesitant and faux-raspy) when you are projecting your voice.
- End sentences at the same or lower tone than they begin.
- When it comes to pace, pause to add emphasis. Don’t rush through your content quickly moving from one idea to the next. Instead, pause to let each idea sink in. Remember, it’s “Bond. James Bond.”
Who does this well: Ginni Rometty, Kat Cole, Oprah
Who not to mimic: Gigi Hadid, Kim Kardashian, Rachel Zoe
2. Skip the Filler Words!
Like, um, uh, ya know, actually, just, so, honestly, truly, literally… the list goes on and on. These pesky little words get slipped into our narratives, descriptions, presentations and daily conversations. All of us have at least one filler word, even if we don’t notice it, ourselves. It won’t take extra time to cut them out – it will just take extra effort.
Here are two easy steps to cut out your filler words:
- First, find out what your fillers are. You can’t change a habit until you realize it’s there. Record a voicemail to yourself and then play it back. Take notes on what fillers you hear. Common fillers to watch for: “like,” “just,” “um,” “uh,” “actually,” “you know,” “honestly,” “literally,” and – of course – “so.” Chances are, you use some of the same filler words as people around you.
- Then, practice pausing. When you pause, you’ll naturally drop the filler words. Record another voicemail, and be intentional about pausing. Challenge yourself to pause for longer than it feels comfortable. The average pause is only about half a second. Try and stretch that out to 2 – 3 seconds.
3. Own Your Space
Show that you own the room by taking up more physical space. Women have the tendency to want to look smaller and take up less space by crossing their arms and legs, hiding their midsections, and keeping everything close together. Instead, use purposeful gestures that take up space and draw attention to key content points.
How do you do that?
- When you’re standing, drive home a point using big gestures, where your elbows are fully extended. It might feel outrageously big, but these large gestures will add authority if you use them with purpose, for example, when comparing and contrasting.
- If you are seated at a table, move your weight forward, and keep your arms resting on top of the table.
Who does this well: Wendy Clarke, Sheryl Sandberg, Glennon Doyle Melton
4. Be Direct
We work with many women who have so many ideas that they come across as scattered. But what’s behind the scatter? They’re just trying to prove their credibility. By including their analysis, their research, their findings, rehashing and recounting their play-by-play… it quickly ends up being a message about them. It doesn’t have anything to do with the person to whom they are speaking. Instead, be declarative and direct.
How do you do that?
- Get straight to the main point. Then, be brief, be bright, and be gone.
Who does this well: The writers of The Skimm.
You can do this with help from #5, below…
5. Bottom Line Up Front
What is the one thing you want your audience members to take away? What’s the big idea, the main point you want everyone in the room to walk away knowing, the goal of your entire presentation? This is your point of view. It’s the biggest change in how you want your listeners to think about or act on an idea. It’s the “ask” without showing your selfish ambition.
How do you choose your Point of View?
- Find the lead of your story. Boil everything down to just one thing. Often, it’s a challenge, but you have to choose just one main idea and ruthlessly edit the rest.
- That way, you can be declarative and direct. Your audience will walk away knowing your main point.
Who does this well: Elizabeth Gilbert, Meryl Streep, Misty Copeland
6. Lead with Warmth
Women excel at connecting one on one. According to social psychologist and Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy, “Warmth is the conduit of influence: It facilitates trust and communication and absorption of ideas.” Women have an opportunity to leverage warmth and trust to connect with individuals. Leading with warmth and connection is a different brand of leadership than men traditionally use.
How can you add instant lightness?
- Smile. It’s the gatekeeper to likability.
- It doesn’t need to be a plastic ear-to-ear grin, but do turn up the edges of your mouth.
Who does this well: Gwen Stefani, Michelle Obama, Alicia Keyes
7. Open Conversations for Discovery
Including all viewpoints and perspectives is a core strength that women can leverage in times of discovery. Economists have found that women are more collaborative than men.
Gathering information is an important part of the persuasion and planning process. When collaborating on a project or developing a solution for a product, conversations for discovery can be especially helpful. They also allow for increased connection, which allows for more trust. It’s also a great way to share empathy. Empathy is the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s position and to intuit what that person is feeling. Research shows that empathy comes naturally to women. Conversations for discovery and empathy are great tools for building connection.
How do you do this?
- Ask each person in the group for her/his perspective on the problem or issue.
- Try not to solve right away. Listen – and discover – more.
- Determine how this impacts each person personally, and try to put yourself in their shoes.
8. Be unapologetic.
“I’m sorry.” “Oh, sorry about that.” “Are you okay?” Does this clip seem familiar? Women have a tendency to over apologize.
Saying “I’m sorry” too frequently doesn’t come across as overly polite. Instead, it weakens your overall message and presence. And at times, it can have an even bigger cost. If you’re asking for deadline extension, additional resources or even a raise, the last thing you want to do is start your pitch with an “I’m sorry.” While sometimes an apology is necessary (like if you spill coffee on someone during a meeting), most decisions and actions in business don’t need an apology. Instead, move on.
Here’s what to do:
- Instead of relying on “I’m sorry,” say what you really mean. Try it out in a low-risk situation – like the next time your order comes out wrong at Chipotle. Instead of, “I’m sorry, but I ordered the chicken burrito, and I got the steak,” drop the “I’m sorry.” Try, “Can you fix my order? I ordered the chicken burrito, and I got the steak.”
9. Separate your reaction from the response.
Women often get cast as “too emotional” when they don’t separate their reaction from their response. Too often, our reactions are not influential in the way we want them to be. When we react, we jump to an emotional conclusion, triggering anger, disappointment, resentment, frustration or something else.
Here’s what to do:
- When it’s time to respond— which might be right away—stick to the concrete details and action steps. What happened? What do we do now? (Save the “how do I feel about this” for another time.)
- Don’t get defensive, and don’t blame someone else.
Who not to mimic: Hope Solo, Paula Deen
10. Step up.
Don’t defer to someone else! Giving away the opportunity to speak, lead a meeting or present your work only gives away your power. Seize the opportunity to let your behaviors and content shine. Visibility leads to more opportunities.
Communication can win leadership roles, so make it a focus and a priority. Don’t wait for the opportunity to find you—get discovered!
A leading expert in the field of business communication, Kelly Decker is president of Decker Communications, a global firm that trains and coaches tens of thousands of executives a year. She coauthored Communicate to Influence: How to Inspire Your Audience to Action, which shares real-world stories and tips from the C-Suite that apply to us all. Kelly holds an MBA from the Haas School of Business and a BS in psychology from California Polytechnic State University.