“What I mean is that public speaking and oratory were not merely things that ancient women didn’t do: they were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender.”
― Mary Beard, Women & Power: A Manifesto
How many times have you kept your mouth shut from fear that you would be ostracized?
It’s difficult to pinpoint why you feel uncomfortable, unseen, unqualified. Why you don’t speak up at meetings. Why you don’t ask for a raise. Why you avoid presentations as much as possible without getting fired. As Beard points out in her feminist manifesto, we are not only battling our own inner demons of self-doubt (created by observing the world around us and how we are meant to fit in), but we are battling centuries of belief that women’s voices are irrelevant, screechy, not welcome.
So how do we prepare for this fight to speak up and be heard?
In her TEDx talk “Want to sound like a leader? Start by saying your name right”, Laura Sicola talks about how Margaret Thatcher took voice lessons to reduce her natural vocal pitch after becoming known for her “shrill” voice. One of the challenges of being a woman, or a person of colour, or a nonbinary/nonconforming person, in a world created not by us, is that our idea of power might not match the traditional views on the topic. Many people see being dominating, loud, charismatic, overbearing, interrupting, and mocking—as powerful. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the person who was elected to the South of us.
I’ve seen a lot of women’s public speaking work focus, essentially, on how to behave like a man to get ahead. And where that might work, how long would you have to pretend to be somebody else to get there? I prefer, instead, to find your own version of power, and push that agenda.
For example, standard views of power see outgoing behavior as strong. In the excellent book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”, author Susan Cain talks about how introverts, typically underrated, can rise to powerful positions by embracing their differences, and using their strengths to get ahead: “Everyone shines, given the right lighting.” But, practically, how do we do this?
Start by knowing you aren’t wrong. You aren’t making this up. You are up against a bias you did not create, but in your silence, you might perpetuate. Discover your own power, not comparing yourself to others via traditional value norms, and forge forward. Find tools and resources to give your voice volume, and strength and resonance. Stand authoritatively and take up space. Believe that you deserve a seat at the table, and use that belief as fuel.
You’re not going to undo thousands of years of societal thinking overnight. Take your time and go easy. And as you begin to untangle the swarm of chains that patriarchy has made, learn how to deliver your message using the 4 key elements of excellent speaking: Standing, Breathing, Speaking and Reading.
Standing. Use the principles of Alexander Technique (a 120+ year old methodology with lots of research to back up) to stand. Begin by placing your feet hip or shoulder width apart, and feel your feet melt into the ground. Unlock your knees. Tilt your pelvis forward, and bring your hips up and out of their sockets while softly engaging your abdominal muscles. Direct your chest toward the ceiling at a 45 degree angle. Relax your shoulders and let them hang as you gently move your shoulder blades away from each other. Your neck should be free and easy, and the top of your head should lift toward the ceiling. Make small adjustments as you get out of alignment, but this is a strong way to stand that is also the least physically harmful to your body. Be rooted. Take up space.
Breathing. While standing, think of your lungs as six-sided – right, left, front, back, top, bottom and as you breath in through your nose, imagine them inflating like a beach ball. Breathe in for 3 seconds, hold for 3 seconds, and breathe out slowly through your mouth, for 6 seconds. Controlled breathing automatically signals to your brain that you’re not in fight/flight/freeze mode, reducing the cortisol levels in your bloodstream, allowing you to relax and focus. Deep breathing has the additional effect of increasing your lung capacity, which supports a deep and resonant voice.
Speaking. Use your Optimum Pitch as the starting point of speech. It is the most resonant, and at the same time, least harmful way for you to create sound. You can find it by saying “Uh huh”, and as you get more familiar with your optimum pitch, you’ll feel the resonation in your body. You’ll want to inflect upwards and downwards, musically, from your optimum pitch. Luckily, this happens naturally when you are connected to what you’re saying.
Reading. Text Mapping is the key to being able to connect with your audience while reading from a script. Place breath bars (forward slashes – /) in all punctuation points, taking full breaths on periods, and top up breaths for commas and other punctuation. You need to ensure you have enough breath to get to the ends of your sentences – especially key since the ends are often the most important, summarizing all that you’ve said. Practise reading 3-7 words ahead of what you’re saying, to give you a buffer so that you may look up from your page, and connect with your audience through eye contact. That connection ensures that the audience will retain more of what you’re saying.
Megan Hamilton is a musician and a Public Speaking coach with her company ubu skills in Kingston, Ontario. She has worked with hundreds of clients across Canada both 1:1 and in group workshops. For more tips and tricks, or to get a copy of her FREE public speaking guide HOW TO GET WHAT YOU WANT: The 4 Key Elements to Move Past Fear and Speak Up in Any Situation, visit her website: www.ubuskills.com.