Do the same rules apply to women and men for giving presentations and public speaking? Yes, and no. Here’s what the research tells us, and more importantly, what you can do about it.
Speakers find greater success when they have a compelling story, clear call to action and empathy for their audience. But delivering that presentation can be a dramatically different experience for women and men.
Before you write this off to a perceived lack of confidence or blame vocal pitch or intonation, it’s worth examining how our own actions reinforce behaviors that minimize women’s voices.
Women are interrupted more often. Interruptions are nearly impossible to avoid. Humans are wired to formulate a response before the other person has stopped speaking, making interruptions somewhat inevitable. But women are more likely to be interrupted by men than any other combination (women talking to women or men talking to men). A 2014 study by Adrienne Hancock and Benjamin Rubin from George Washington University found that male participants interrupted a woman 2.1 times during a 3-minute conversation. Men interrupted other men 1.8 times. Women were also more likely to interrupt other women than men.
What you can do:
Observe how frequently interruptions occur, and by whom. If the problem seems pervasive, ask your team to practice a version of reflective listening. Anyone interrupting repeats or paraphrases what the speaker was saying and then explain the connection to the new thought. This prompts teams to be more aware of when and who they’re interrupting. This won’t work for every meeting because it slows the pace, though it is a good exercise to default to when excessive interruptions re-emerge.
Ladies, if you’re being interrupted, you have a few options:
- Let the serial interrupter know what’s happening. Often they’re not even aware of it.
- Try working in directional phrases and strategic pauses to make your ideas resonate, “If we take one thing from this meeting, its. . .” “What surprised us most from the research was . . .”
- In the moment — and this is a more assertive tactic — make eye contact with someone other than the person who is speaking over you and continue to talk. Men are less likely to yield the floor when interrupted.
Women don’t speak as much as men. Georgetown linguistics professor Deborah Tannen found that “men tend to talk far more than women in formal business-focused contexts, like meetings”. Prattle found that on earnings calls, men speak 92% of the time.
Women aren’t talking because of a lack of confidence. Kristen Kling, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, analyzed more than 200 studies on confidence and gender and dispels this conventional wisdom. Kling and her colleagues found that the “only noticeable differences occurred during adolescence; starting at age 23 differences became negligible.” In fact, our experience coaching speakers reveals an even divide among women and men experiencing imposter syndrome.
What you can do. Give women the floor. Design your agenda to give your team members specific roles and speaking opportunities. Hold brown bags to encourage women and men to present to colleagues. Bonus points for providing feedback on their performance to promote continual improvement.
(See also “interruptions” above.)
Women spend more time on presentation slides. No one wants to stand in front of a slide with a typo or incorrect data. But when we ask clients how they prepare for presentations through hundreds of survey responses and in workshops and coaching sessions, women are more likely to spend most of their time editing slides than on any other step (researching the audience, brainstorming messages or rehearsing aloud, for example). It’s true that many speakers use presentation slides to organize their thoughts.
But ladies, we need to do more than prepare slides. The part that men spend more time on than women is rehearsing with others. They rehearse in informal settings — running ideas by colleagues over lunch and coffee, or even hallway conversations. In the process they are laying the groundwork for their ideas, generating support, and getting a preview of how colleagues might react or push back on messages.
For your next big presentation, if you find yourself locked away in your office working on slides, try this instead: step away from the desk and start talking and testing. The best way to get better at speaking is to. . .speak.
Along the way you just might get some practice managing interrupters and gaining more comfort speaking aloud in a bigger group. How much smarter would that make us all?
By Meghan Dotter, founder and CEO