Speak Confidently and Unleash Your Power

Woman speaking assertively with a blue speech bubble
Contributing Writer

9 minutes

Women unwittingly deploy certain behaviors that diminish rather than amplify their vocal impact, but with awareness and resolve, female credit union leaders can eliminate these habits.

What you say is important, but how you say it—and how you present yourself when speaking—can mean the difference between someone who is listened to or someone whose input is dismissed. For women who want to advance in the workplace, this is especially critical, since far too often women’s authority and expertise is questioned. This is a predicament made worse by speaking styles, vocal inflections and behaviors more commonly associated with females—habits that don’t always reflect a woman’s true power or capability. Combined with a reluctance to speak up with assertion—also not uncommon among women in the workplace, the result can be a lack of recognition and a career trajectory that doesn’t rise as high as deserved.

The issue of “womanspeak” is a complicated one, and is frequently debated, says Veronica Rueckert, owner of Veronica Rueckert Coaching, Madison, Wisconsin, who works with women on improving vocal technique, public speaking skills and content shaping, among other areas. 

“To our ears, the voice of authority is the voice of a man,” explains Rueckert. “When a woman uses uptalk, vocal fry (a gravelly, toneless speech pattern low in the vocal register) or over-apologizing, she may sound insecure to her audience. If women were the ones in charge in our citadels of power, men might be trying to sound more like women. But that’s not the world we live in … yet.”

The fact remains that there is still very much a double standard for women, says Diane DiResta, founder and director of DiResta Communications Inc., a New York consulting company serving business leaders who deliver high stakes presentations.

“Sometimes it’s due to an unconscious bias,” she says. “[Consequently], women need to hold themselves to a higher standard. They can lose credibility, be overlooked for leadership positions or high visibility projects. Their ideas can be lost if they don’t speak up.”

Diane DiResta
Diane DiResta
Founder & Director
DiResta Communications
[Women] can lose credibility, be overlooked for leadership positions or high-visibility projects. Their ideas can be lost if they don’t speak up.

Cause & Effect

Getting a handle on the vocal habits and speaking behaviors to avoid first requires identifying what they are, particularly since for so many of us, they feel completely natural. According to DiResta and Rueckert, some behaviors that tend to be specific to women include:

  • Uptalk: Using a rising inflection at the end of a sentence or statement that causes it to sound like a question (even when it’s not) or as if the speaker is asking for permission. Although DiResta says many millennial-aged men do this as well, it’s more common in women.
  • Vocal fry: As mentioned above, vocal fry (think Kim Kardashian) is speaking in a low pitch or register, causing the voice to take on a croaking or cracking sound. “While young women hear this as confident, most generations from Gen X on up hear vocal fry as less trustworthy and likeable,” says Rueckert, adding that this also prevents someone from “projecting the voice with strength.” A study cited by Rueckert indicates that those employing vocal fry may miss out on promotions or job opportunities. (At the same time, DiResta cautions against using a pitch that is too high, which can come across as youthful or uncertain.) 
  • Over-apologizing or asking, “Does this make sense? Do you know what I mean?”: Such phrasing can project insecurity and come off as “early-career assurance-seeking,” says Rueckert, who advises phasing both phrases out if possible. “Save your apologies for the big stuff, like the accounting error that jeopardized the company’s bottom line,” she advises. “And if your audience doesn’t understand, let them ask questions, unless there’s a language barrier or you’re a doctor or lawyer conveying need-to-know technical information.”
  • Using weak language: Words like “I feel,” “I think,” “just,” “only,” and “right?” are wimpy and undermine credibility, says DiResta. Instead, use words like “I’m confident that,” “the evidence shows,” “I recommend,” and so on.
  • Meandering: “Women also want to tell the backstory and provide more detail rather than getting to the point,” says DiResta. “Don’t get into storytelling.”

Other vocal and behavioral habits not necessarily specific to women are also worth eliminating, or at least controlling. Take fillers, for example. These are words like as “ah,” “um,” “and so” and “you know” that constitute verbal clutter, explains Lark Doley, the 2018-2019 president of Toastmasters International, Englewood, Colorado, a nonprofit organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of over 16,600 clubs. Filler words are used to fill gaps or pauses in sentences while the speaker collects his or her thoughts. They are common and they are annoying. (Once you become aware of such filler words, you’ll see how ubiquitous they are.) Fillers don’t add meaning. Instead, they indicate hesitation, uncertainty, nervousness or a lack of preparation.

Lark Doley
Lark Doley
2018-2019 President
Toastmasters International
Adopt a good stance and posture. Use a pitch people are willing to hear and listen to. Use good volume and speak in a lower register while avoiding vocal fry. And pace yourself.

Taking Control

Breaking your reliance on fillers is often difficult, requiring mindfulness, preparation and practice, says Doley, who is also a full-time training team lead for MAXIMUS Inc., an outsourcing company headquartered in Reston, Virginia, that provides business processing services to government health and human services agencies throughout the U.S. and overseas. But making efforts to do so is essential since fillers can undermine a woman’s efforts to project strength, confidence and self-esteem, she explains. 

Doley invites women to embrace “the power of the pause”—something Toastmasters emphasizes, explaining that pauses make both the speaker and those listening stop and think. What else does this Distinguished Toastmaster advise?

“Adopt a good stance and posture. Use a pitch people are willing to hear and listen to. Use good volume and speak in a lower register while avoiding vocal fry. And pace yourself. The pace needs to be appropriate for the audience,” Doley says, recalling when she was presenting in China and was cautioned to speak at a slower pace so the audience could better understand and connect to what she was saying.

Rueckert also believes in pauses, explaining that they (along with inflecting the voice downward) make speakers appear more in command.

“In one study of male leaders, the longer the speaker paused while speaking, the more authority he was perceived to have,” she says. “Just as silences are a part of music while an orchestra plays, pauses are a part of your speech.

“Women especially tend to feel pressured to rush through their material instead of owning their space and their speaking time,” Rueckert continues. “Learning to be comfortable in the silences of your speech can help you fully inhabit the material.”

Don’t overlook body language, says DiResta. Make direct eye contact, use a firm handshake and keep your posture erect and confident. Above all, avoid tying yourself in a physical knot.

“I hear from too many women that they’re afraid of looking busy or frantic when they talk with their hands,” Rueckert says. “So they sit with their legs and arms crossed—what I call the lady pretzel. This makes it very hard to take a deep, fortifying breath and results in a weak voice. It also gives them a small physical footprint.”

Instead, unfold those arms and legs, and go ahead and talk with your hands, she says. Doing so will not only help you breathe easier, it will help you feel more confident and less anxious.

Veronica Rueckert
Veronica Rueckert
Veronica Rueckert Coaching
Women especially tend to feel pressured to rush through their material instead of owning their space and their speaking time. Learning to be comfortable in the silences of your speech can help you fully inhabit the material.

There are plenty of resources available to help rein in the speaking and behavior habits that are sabotaging your efforts to find a place at the power table. Doley extols the value of Toastmasters in helping people become more confident and comfortable speakers. DiResta suggests considering these strategies:

  • Go to a speech coach for an assessment of any vocal habits that need improving. You can correct these habits by continuing to work with a coach.
  • Ask for feedback from a manager or co-worker.
  • Take a voice or diction class at a college. Or, try a voice-over class. You can also purchase voice and diction videos or CDs (or check out YouTube).
  • Do relaxation exercises.
  • Record yourself, listen to your speech behaviors and practice the changes you want to make.
  • Watch top broadcasters or accomplished speakers, such as those giving Ted Talks.

Both DiResta and Rueckert have authored books on the subject of public and work-related speaking. DiResta wrote Knockout Presentations: How to Deliver Your Message with Power, Punch, and Pizzazz; Rueckert’s book, Outspoken: Why Women’s Voices Get Silenced and How to Set Them Free, is slated for publication July 2.

Implementing some of these strategies made a difference for her, DiResta says.

“Confidence and how to sell myself were always my issues,” she explains. “I learned by reading books, taking classes, hiring coaches and modeling from top speakers. Setting stretch goals and volunteering also helped me to develop my skills and confidence.” cues icon

Calling All Voices

woman standing and speaking confidently in a meetingEnsuring that everyone is heard is essential for effective leadership. This is especially critical where women are involved, because according to Veronica Rueckert, owner of Veronica Rueckert Coaching, Madison, Wisconsin, women are interrupted more frequently than men.

“Including by other women,” she says. “Women Supreme Court justices are interrupted far more often than men, and in studies, women who talk more often than their peers are perceived as less competent than men. As a society we’re still getting used to the idea that women have the right to talk and be heard. We think it’s a done deal, but it’s not.”

What can leaders do to create a culture of inclusiveness where everyone feels comfortable contributing?

  • Ask everyone to weigh in, says Diane DiResta, founder/CEO of DiResta Communications Inc., New York. If one person is taking over the discussion, or another is staying silent, leaders should redirect, saying something like “Let’s hear from others,” or by posing a question to the quiet person, she says. “Model listening by using clarifying questions and restating what the person has said,” DiResta adds. “If the leader models communication, others will follow.”
  • When possible, balance the number of male and female participants, says Rueckert. “Bringing equal numbers of men and women to the table means women will talk more often—and research shows women’s voices have the power to change outcomes in significant ways,” she says. “Moving towards a consensus model away from a majority-rules model will also bring women’s voices into balance.” cues icon

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, California.

CUES Learning Portal