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How do I communicate in a way that is credible and assertive but that I can still be myself?

We hear that a lot from women as they try to grow their careers. They want to come across as professional. But they don’t want to lose their personality. They especially don’t want to come across like a man. At Speechworks, we have been coaching women to be more effective communicators for 35 years.

Here are five fundamentals that are key to effective leadership communication for today’s professional woman.

Fundamental #1:
Focus Your Message and Answers.

Both women and men ramble on or talk around the point before eventually getting to it. I was working with a marketing executive at a large insurance firm a few years ago. We were talking about getting to the point sooner than later when answering questions. She said, “That sounds just like my husband. He tells me, ‘Baby, quit circling the airport and land the darn plane!’” Of course, this is not just an issue with women.

Women can be better than men if they learn how to focus their message. Simplify and clarify your message by focusing on three core ideas.

Example: A high-level aeronautics industry executive was speaking to a women’s leadership forum about what it takes to be a successful leader. She said:

  • Be true to who you are
  • Be a strong communicator and listener
  • Take calculated risk

She then went on to illustrate each point with compelling personal stories. When answering questions, she got right to the point. She was asked, “How do you set yourself apart in a male-dominated industry?” Her answer, “Be prepared and don’t second- guess yourself.” She then gave another terrific personal example to illustrate her answer.

Focusing your message on three key points and answering questions by getting to the bottom-line answer makes you come across as confident and credible.

Fundamental #2:
Speak in Statements, not Questions.

Tone down the “Up Speak.” “Up Speak” is that characteristic of many young women. They take a perfectly good declarative statement and turn it into a question. (See Kim Kardashian.) As comedienne Tina Fey tells women in her book, Bossy Pants, “Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions.” This practice of ending sentences in a question sounds more like you’re asking for approval rather than making your point confidently. Don’t end your sentences with a sing-song uptick in tone. Instead, finish your sentences with a strong downbeat.

Also, many women (and men) qualify their statements with questions. Instead of making a proposal or recommendation by starting with a question like, “Have you considered?” or “What do you think of…?” Make a direct, confident statement like, “I recommend…” or “I propose…”

Simply speaking in statements will raise your credibility and inspire confidence in your strength as a leader.

Fundamental #3:
Energize Your Voice.

Of course, female voices are often higher pitched and softer than a man’s. Many female business professionals ask how to lower their pitch. There are breathing exercises and other vocal techniques to accomplish that to a small degree.

But what’s more helpful is to deliver the message with energy and passion in your voice.

Some women tell us they feel they are held to a different standard than men when speaking. One woman executive said, “If I’m forceful I’m seen as pushy or aggressive, but a man is seen as assertive.” As a result, women are sometimes hesitant to use a stronger voice. You don’t need to be loud or strident, but you do want to be heard.

The best way to energize your voice is to talk like you’re having an animated conversation with a good friend. When you do that, change your volume, vary your loud with soft. Change your pace, vary the fast with slow. Use pauses for emphasis and to help eliminate the filler words, the “ums” and the “like, I mean.”

Move people with the conviction in your voice.

Fundamental #4:
Energize Your Body Language and Face and Make Eye Contact.

There are often vestiges of the “cute little girl” in female body language. This is the
“tilt-a-head” or closed, timid, gestures. These things may have worked for us as girls, but they don’t translate well to the professional businesswoman.

Open up your body language, stand or sit tall and proud. Gesture with intensity. Take up some room at the meeting table. Not only will you look more confident, you’ll feel that way too.

As girls, many of us also learned about averted glances. Lose that girlish habit and make strong eye contact to connect and build credibility.

Often businesswomen feel that to be taken seriously they need to look serious. Don’t be afraid to smile and animate your face. Raise your eyebrows. Communicate your concern, your confidence, or your commitment to an idea.

Fundamental #5:
Dress Appropriately.

Business dress for women, like fashion in general, has changed over the decades. The bow-tie blouse and manly suits have given way to tailored dresses, pencil skirts and high heels.

A human resources executive told me she thinks that young women are getting mixed messages about dress in the workplace. She said they follow the example of TV news anchors who are “dressed like they’re going to a cocktail party.” Or they get the impression that showing up to work in miniskirts and flip-flops is fine.

When giving presentations, the general rule is to dress toward the upper end of what’s expected. Depending on the audience and the business culture, that generally means a suit or a dress. You can be fashionable but not distracting. Distracting and inappropriate is tight, short, low-cut, flashy.

Make sure the listeners are paying attention to you and your message, not your jewelry or your body. If you want to be perceived as a leader, dress like a leader.

For women, being a strong, effective communicator, doesn’t mean you have to be masculine or tough. It does mean focusing your message in a way that is clear, direct and memorable, and sounding and looking like the leaders you are or want to be. Practice these five fundamentals of leadership communication for women and you’ll connect with your audiences and persuade.

Marilyn Ringo

Marilyn RingoMarilyn Ringo is 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.