Leadership Communication for Women: Ladies, You Were Born This way!

Guest article by Marilyn Ringo, ex-CNN News Anchor, now a communications coach.

Women are the better communicators.  At least that’s what social scientists tell us.  As the great 21st century philosopher, Lady Gaga says, “Ladies you were born this way!”

Yet when it comes to business communications, women sometimes find that we’re not as effective or confident as we’d like to be.  How can we communicate in a way that is credible, confident, and harnesses our strengths as women? How can we communicate in a way that moves and influences people?

When trying to sell your business idea or product; when conducting a meeting or teleconference; when delivering a presentation or when rallying the troops, there are three keys to effective leadership communication:

  • Focus your message so you are clear, credible and memorable.
  • Deliver your message in a style that confidently connects.
  • Handle Q&A with authority.

Of course, these are not exclusive to women. 

These are fundamentals to great spoken communication for everyone. But there are some issues around these fundamentals that pop up for women in particular.

Focus your message so you are clear, credible and memorable

One of the most important things you can do to be an effective speaker is to be clear with your message.  Avoid rambling or backing into a point.  Often we talk around our point before we eventually get to it.  Or we have our own private “vomitzva”, showing up and throwing up, telling our listeners everything we think they should know.

Selena Rezvani, founder of “Women’s Roadmap”, a leadership consulting firm, believes that business women can muddy up their message by diluting it with “soft talk”, that is talking around a point or qualifying it with apologetic statements. 

The apologetic qualifier sounds like, “I’m no expert but… ”.  Instead she advises say, “The facts show”.  She says women need to be more direct.

I was coaching with an executive from a leading insurance company a few years ago.  We were talking about the importance of getting to the point sooner rather than later, of being more direct.  She said, “That reminds me of my husband.  He tells me ‘Baby, quit circling the airport and land the darn plane’.”

One way to land the plane is by focusing your message on three core ideas.  Come up with your core ideas by asking yourself one key question, “What are the top three things my audience must remember? What points must they take away?”

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook is a great example of focus.  In her TED talk about how to get more women into top leadership roles, she focuses on three key points to her female audience:

  • Take a seat at the table.
  • Make your partner a true partner.
  • Don’t leave before you leave.

She goes on to explain and illustrate each point with compelling personal stories about her experiences around these ideas.

This is good leadership communication, focusing your message; being clear, direct and compelling.

Deliver your message in a way that confidently connects

How we look and sound when delivering our message really matters.  You have to connect with people and engage them before you can lead them or get them to buy into your idea or business.

A famous communication study from UCLA shows that 55% of the impression that we make when we speak is in our visual presence, our body language, eye contact and facial expression. 

Thirty-eight percent is our vocal presence, how we sound.   It’s particularly important to be aware of our visual and vocal presence in this age of texting, when we don’t practice the art of communicating face-to-face as much as we used to.

Nothing connects you better to your listener or builds your credibility faster than good eye contact. Some researchers tell us that women are better at eye contact than men in personal situations.  But when it comes to business, good eye contact is easier said than done.

Virginia Rometty, President and CEO of IBM, knows how critical eye contact is to leadership success.  Rometty became the first woman to lead IBM in its 100 year history. People in the know say that her business savvy helped her rise through the ranks, but her communication skills got her to the top. One of her key skills is eye contact.

An IBM executive who has been in meetings with her told me that Rometty personally connects with everyone in the room with “incredible eye contact that makes you want to follow her lead”.

How do you make eye contact like Rometty?  In smaller groups think about having a “mini conversation” with each person and hold your eye contact with each person for 3 or 4 seconds or through a thought.  To improve your eye contact, practice noticing the eye color of everyone you meet.

Something else women need to consider is body language. In business situations, whether standing to present or sitting at a meeting, we often use body language that may feel comfortable but looks timid, closed, and girlish.  Instead, take up some space.  Use open, expansive body language.  A recent study from Harvard and Columbia University Business Schools showed that simply holding one’s body in “high power poses”, arms out and away from the body, standing and sitting tall, taking up space, reaching out to a white board for instance, can give you an extra surge of power and a sense of well-being.  You not only look but feel more confident.  The researchers noted this has particular implications for women as they seek to be heard and grow their careers and influence.

When it comes to how we sound, women can have a disadvantage since our voices are often higher-pitched and softer than a man’s.  So it’s particularly important to speak with energy and move people with the conviction in your voice, like you’re having an animated conversation with a good friend.  Diane Swonk does this especially well. As chief economist with Mesirow Financial she is often called on by the media to explain complicated economic matters.  She does it with such clarity and energy she genuinely seems to enjoy spreading the economic word.  Her enthusiasm is contagious.

Besides adding energy and conviction to your voice, be aware of toning down the “upspeak” and “vocal fry”.  These are two vocal fads that have crept into our daily talk over the last decade and can sabotage a confident, professional presence.

Upspeak is the habit of ending a declarative sentence with a question mark. This sounds more like you’re apologizing or asking for approval instead of confidently making a point.  I’ve heard professional women with impeccable credentials instantly lose credibility with this uptick in tone.  Instead, finish your sentences with a strong downbeat. Sound like you mean it and believe it.

Vocal Fry is another vocal pattern that has snuck into the speech of young adult women. Vocal fry, once considered a speech disorder, is that guttural, froggy quality where the speaker seems to swallow their words at the end of a sentence.  Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton are famous for contributing vocal fry to the popular culture. It used to be just teenage girls were guilty of this.  But those girls grow up and move into the workplace where people expect them to speak like adults.  That means breathing, finishing a sentence so we can hear your words and leaving those girlish ways behind.

Handle Q&A with authority

Your credibility can rise and fall depending how well you handle Questions and Answers.  Do you do it in a way that inspires confidence?  You can if you prepare for the questions ahead of time. 

Studies show that we can predict about 85% of the questions we’ll be asked.  So before you go into a meeting, a presentation or a teleconference, write down the questions you think you’ll get, both the easy and tough ones.  Ask your colleagues for questions they think might come up.

And then practice how you’re going to answer the questions.  Get to the bottom line answer in the first two sentences.  Keep the answers tight.  There’s just something about answering a question concisely that makes you sound knowledgeable.

I recently attended a women’s leadership forum where a high level aeronautics industry executive spoke.  When answering a question about how she set herself apart in a male-dominated industry, she got right to the point.  She said, “Be prepared and don’t second-guess yourself”.  She went on to give a terrific personal example to illustrate her answer.  It’s that kind of communication skill that helped to get her to the top levels of her industry.

You can get there too if you practice these fundamentals of effective leadership communication.  Let’s prove those social scientists right and show the business world that we women were born to communicate and succeed.

This article was written for The NextWomen by Marilyn Ringo, a former News Anchor for CNN Headline News and an Emmy Award winning television producer and reporter.  She has been a Speechworks coach helping professionals communicate successfully for over 15 years.  She teaches Business Communications in the Georgia Tech MBA program. For more information, please visit www.speechworks.net or contact Marilyn at Marilyn@speechworks.net.

Image of Lada Gaga courtesy of Kimi Kagami.

Sign Up to our Newsletter

So you enjoy The NextWomen. Why not sign up to our monthly newsletter?
You get a Letter from the CEO :-), the chance to catch up with the best of our recent articles - and some extra things we throw in once in a while.

We try hard for smart reading.