April 2, 2024
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Guest commentary: Wing it and risk it: Six tips for women speakers


By Lois Phillips

As a woman with something to say, you need to be well prepared to gain credibility as the voice of authority, which has traditionally been a man’s voice. 

A presentation that flounders — that’s redundant, ignores a current reality or presents inaccurate information — can undermine not only your present authority but your future career goals. 

When your presentation contains a clear and direct message, you won’t waste time afterward sending an “Oops!” email, explaining “Here’s what I really meant.” 

When it’s time to deliver a briefing or a pitch, a woman might think to herself, “I know the content inside and out” and I’ll just wing it. 

That’s understandable because working women today are busy juggling more roles than ever and discretionary time is rare. 

However, when women have advanced into managerial or leadership roles, there will always be those who wonder whether she’s tough enough to take the heat and knowledgeable about today’s fast-paced, high-tech workplace. Your polished presentation should leave no doubt that you’re ready, willing, and able.

Here are six tips to ensure that your next presentation is flawless:

Open strong: Find a hook that immediately engages your audience which could be an amusing anecdote. When people smile and laugh, they’re relaxed and are more open to what you have to say. Or you could offer a shocking statistic that reveals a change in a situation the group is facing, or an incident ripped from that morning’s headlines that will inspire a response. One picture says a thousand words and a stunning photograph on a PowerPoint slide can introduce the case you want to make. Avoid self-deprecating humor because it can undermine your credibility as an expert. 

Inspire a can-do attitude: Your audience is a goldmine of information about the context you’re entering. Snooping is highly underrated! Ask around and learn what’s on people’s minds, especially their worries and concerns. Listen for the themes that are circulating and incorporate them into your presentation, which will make people feel heard and respected. Give credit for big ideas where it’s due. If your presentation is motivational, offer a few suggestions for how to address emerging issues researched from current business trends. Your meta-message must be “Together we can overcome any obstacle to our success.” 

Anticipate minefields: Take the group’s temperature with some informal conversations beforehand. Are people feverish with excitement about a new change or are they exhibiting low energy? Are there any hot-button issues that might unsettle your listeners? Is the group politicized and/or polarized? If your main points are going to feed a controversy, challenge the status quo, or raise hackles, be ready for pushback. Be prepared for tough questions from dissenters or those with a hidden agenda, or their questions might throw you. 

Clarify your point of view: Research from Harvard Business about how men perceive women colleagues’ speaking style reports that “when their female peers do speak up, they fail to articulate a strong point of view. Half said that women allow themselves to be interrupted, apologize repeatedly, and fail to back up opinions with evidence.” That may not always be true for you, but a word to the wise, as we say. Always offer facts, identify sources, and tell the truth. 

Convey self-confidence: “Women do not brag enough,” Producer Shonda Rhimes declared in a speech at Elle magazine’s Women in Hollywood event in October. She concluded that “men brag and women hide” their light under a bushel basket. Most men have no problem mentioning their accomplishments and brilliance as a reason to pay attention to them, rarely worrying whether they may be perceived as bragging. You know what you know, what you’ve accomplished, and where your skills and prior experiences shape your thinking. 

Wind down and close it up: The last few sentences of your presentation should wrap up the major points in a neat bow. Restate your key message, then offer a call to action, ask a rhetorical question, or provide a great quote from a respected in-house leader or an expert in your particular field. when you say, “So, in summary…,” keep it brief. 

Women today bring unique and fresh, new perspectives to addressing the dilemmas and conundrums facing organizations today, such ideas as how to boost sales, increase customer satisfaction, retain talent, and remain competitive. Their presentations must be polished and risk-free. Using these six tips, women speakers can gain mentors, sponsors, and unexpected opportunities to lead. 

Lois Phillips has a Ph.D. from UC Santa Barbara and wrote “9 Fast and Flawless Presentations for Women Speakers” with Dr. Anita Perez Ferguson and coaches executives and leaders in public speaking and media skills.