Baroness Margaret Thatcher, the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and pioneer of women in politics once said, “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a women.” The “Iron-Lady” was known for her distinct communication style and epitomized a female leader who truly owned her voice in a male-dominated field.
However, her voice wasn’t always so confident and authoritative. Early in her career she often received criticism for her weak communication skills. Thatcher reassessed her delivery and tone to develop a communication style that later was described as domineering.
What Thatcher faced is what many women business leaders deal with today. In fact, a study conducted by Duke University and University of California, San Diego found that powerful CEOs tend to have deeper than average voices.
So, does this mean in order to be heard, women need to make their voices sound like James Earl Jones? On the contrary. In fact, another small study showed that successful female business leaders use pitches similar to the average female voice. It isn’t the booming, low-pitch tone that carries the message but the energy behind the words that allow their voices to be heard.
Sheryl Sandberg wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece that “when a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea.” This behavior causes women to hold back, become less creative and be less engaged. To break the cycle of manterruption or talk-blocking, we recommend taking the following steps to discover your voice and let it be heard.
Speak your passion
Speaking out on every issue can quickly give you the reputation of being a loudmouth. In order to influence, decide whom you want to influence and why you want to influence them. Be flexible, understanding the who and why may change, depending on the situation. It is important to understand that sometimes it is the why (your purpose) that drives what group you need to influence and other times, the who dictates the why.
Be a promoter, not a preacher
Speaking confidently does not require you to be an expert. Phrasing plays a big role in how you communicate your ideas and opinions. Think about word choice, tone, body language—all these communicate an attitude toward your audience. As a leader, make sure your message takes center stage over your communication style. Many good ideas have been rejected because groups disliked the messenger—be it arrogance, presumptions, or biases.
Practice makes perfect
A perceived lack of confidence will immediately diminish your voice. Remove any insecurities and rehearse your way to confidence. Prepare a list of points you want to make before a meeting and then practice making these points with a friend, family member, or colleague. It’s one thing to come up the brilliant ideas you want to share, you also have to practice articulating them. Your body then has a chance to fully perform your thoughts and you get the benefit of muscle memory that accompanies speaking them in time.
Research confirms that women are far more prone than men to apologizing. While there are cultural reasons that explain this behavior, researchers have found that one of the key reasons women apologize more than men is that they have a far lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior. Which means, when women apologize it indicates to others that the expression of their opinions is offensive. Don’t let your coworkers perceive you as too meek when speaking up in professional settings. Apologizing sets the standard and people, men and women alike, respond accordingly.
It’s true that businesses with women on their corporate boards have better returns and higher outcomes. As do businesses with more diverse team members. Having women in leadership actually encourages other women to speak up and bring their ideas forward. So speak up and encourage your fellow female leaders to do so. Speak with passion and authority and please don’t apologize.