Women And Public Speaking
April 11, 2023
The ability to present information publicly, candidly, and persuasively is clearly advantageous for career prospects and leadership positions. Speakers are putting their best work forward and letting their audiences see confidence and preparation shine through.
And if the goal is to deliver a unique and motivating presentation, speakers ought to know ahead of time if their audience has prior knowledge about the selected topic. The audience expects speakers to be something of an expert and to learn something.
This advice almost seems second nature to women advancing their careers and providing a conduit for the generations of women who will follow.
Yet, speaking stages remain heavily weighted toward male speakers—in the range of 70% male speakers to 30% female speakers, and a woman is far less likely to deliver the keynote address.1
NAVIGATOR does throw off the percentages. For example, at the 2022 NAVIGATOR conference held in Nashville, Tennessee (USA), nearly 50% of the speakers were female. (Out of the 117 speakers, 57 were female and 60 were male). However, the point is the overall picture.
Why do women tend to shy away from taking the primary role in a public presentation while appearing comfortable in secondary roles as moderator or fielding audience questions?
Findings in several recent studies suggest the obstacle has less to do with lack of self-confidence and risk-aversion and more to do with deeply embedded social norms. People follow the social norms of their reference group, the boundaries of which are usually fairly defined; changing social norms requires changing people's misperceptions of what others do and approve of in their reference group.2
And, if that’s the case, women empowering other women should nullify gender discrepancy.
A public speaking webinar hosted by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) demonstrated the confidence Sherri Griffith Powell and Lee Ann Magoski have in public speaking. Powell is Senior Communications Consultant at Mission Critical Partners Inc., and chairs the NENA committee on NG911 Education & Training. Magoski is County of Monterey (California, USA) Director of Emergency Communications and 911 Advisory Board member of California’s Governor’s Office of Emergency Communications.
These women know what they’re talking about.
Psyching yourself up mentally, emotionally, and physically and pulling your shoulders back (posture is all-important) are essential to any public speaking engagement.
“Never underestimate yourself or your audience,” Magoski said.
Powell advised hooking the audience at the start. “Plan to tell a story,” Powell said. Storytelling builds connections and encourages participation—you're all part of the story—and motivates your audience to listen and empathize with what you’re saying.
Pointers to successful public speaking include preparation, timeliness, and staying mindful of potential barriers—such as mentioning religion and/or politics, spreading rumors, and telling off-color jokes—that can fracture an audience.
“Keep the focus on what you want to get across,” Magoski said.
Practicing your delivery is where “the rubber hits the road,” Magoski said. She recommended practicing in front of a mirror or enlisting a co-worker to listen and note the tics in your speech pattern.
Powell suggested setting yourself up in an environment like the speaking venue. If the opportunity arises, visit the room where you will be speaking. Familiarizing yourself with the space, she said, “helps give you the feeling of owning the space.”
Magoski said speakers must gauge audience attention. If they look bored, engage them in a story or field questions from the audience. If someone leaves, make an excuse for them. “Don’t take it personally,” Magoski said. “Roll with it.”
Finally, don’t overestimate the likelihood of falling flat in your presentation. Visualize success. Push aside the social norms that might be holding you back. “If you believe you have something valuable to say, say it,” Powell said. “Don’t let others convince you otherwise.”
1 Tomich J. “Why Do Women Shy Away from Public Speaking Engagements?” https://janicetomich.com/women-public-speaking-conferences/ (accessed Sept. 27, 2022).
2 Cislaghi B, Heise L. “Gender norms and social norms: differences, similarities and why they matter in prevention science.” 2019; Dec. 13. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1467-9566.13008 (accessed Sept. 27, 2022).