Why women need good presentation skills

May 28, 2013

Former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet

Recently I got this email from a friend and listener to the show who had attended a series of presentations by budding entrepreneurs:

"I noticed a GAPING chasm between the way the women presented to the group and the men. Their projects were equally valuable and interesting, but the men tended to speak very confidently and in a way that made it easy to listen and get excited about their project. The women were much less commanding up there...They tended to go up at the end of their sentences, trail off, and be non-declarative. It made me much less interested in their work."

I've had similar experiences myself lately. I've been to a couple of conferences where the lousiest talks were given by women. What really hit me was that some of the worst offenders were speaking at a women's conference. I came into the room late to hear a senior executive at a famous global retailer finishing off her speech in a monotone, clearly reading from a script. Yawn. An hour or so later one of the women running the conference got up to tell people what the agenda was after lunch. But no one could hear her because they were all talking amongst themselves. She didn't command our attention by coming on stage with something like, 'Before you go, I'd like to tell you a few things about the afternoon'. She didn't command the room. Like so many women, she approached her task tentatively, afraid to take a stand and shut us up forcefully (but politely), as she could have done. Instead, she kept speaking in a soft voice, and most of us kept ignoring her. Rude, yes, but this woman did nothing to engage her audience. She didn't deserve our attention.

Why does this matter? Because if women don't speak well and present our ideas clearly and compellingly, people won't take us and our ideas and products seriously. As my correspondent above also pointed out:

"It got me thinking, this has to be happening in workplaces and conferences all over the place. It's got to affect financing that women are not getting, projects their firms are not getting, etc."

I'm sure it is. What I don't understand is why these women - especially those who must speak publicly as part of their jobs - aren't being trained properly in presentation skills. This type of training is invaluable. Take it from me, a reluctant and relatively new public speaker.

Presentation tips:

  • Your voice is so important. You need to speak relatively slowly (which can be tough when you're nervous), clearly, and take frequent pauses to enable people to take in what you've just said.
  • As one of my presentation trainers, Stacy-Marie Ishmael, often points out, you must make eye contact with different members of the audience as you speak. It really helps connect you to them. She recently linked some of us on her newsletter list to this HBR piece by TED founder Chris Anderson on how to give a great presentation.
  • Don't go in thinking people want you to fail. They don't. The audience is actually rooting for you. After all, no one wants to sit through a boring presentation. On the contrarary, we're all eager to be entertained.
  • The reason many women suck at presenting is that we are far likelier than men to suffer from a lack of confidence. That comes through loud and clear in a presentation. If you don't believe in yourself, how do you expect the audience to buy whatever it is you're talking about or trying to sell? This is a wider issue, one that can't be neatly taken care of in presentation training, but being aware of it should at least help move the needle a little.
  • Watch yourself present - get someone to tape you practicing your presentation - which you MUST do, time and again, to feel confident on the day - or just tape yourself. Then play the video back, and cringe. Yes, cringe, but then improve. Change the bits that aren't working.
  • If, like me, you are someone who genuinely enjoys communicating with people, let youself go and actually enjoy your talk. I really like people (most of the time). What helped me was thinkng of this not as some big, scary presentation where I had to impress people, but as my opportunity to communicate with a whole bunch of people at once. Yippee!

    Changing the subject completely, be sure to tune into the latest show on professional women, work, and sex, which just came out. And let me know what you think.