I was in the ladies restroom at a conference years ago when I met an attractive professional woman in her early 40s. She looked like someone who would be able to win over any audience. She was warm, engaging, and polished. But something was wrong. She told me: “I am so nervous. I am about to go on stage to speak about something I love: giving back to the community. Yet I am terrified because everyone in the audience is so distinguished–many are major philanthropists. What will they think of me?”
Public speaking is not easy for anyone, male or female, but women have an additional issue that makes them nervous about speaking formally and informally: Many of us give too much power to our audience to judge us. We build our audiences up, and diminish ourselves. Impostor syndrome is part of it, but there are other reasons.
Why do we give away our power in this way? Many women have been conditioned to care what others think of us and be viewed as likable. In public speaking situations, we want to draw close to our audiences and have them like us. But that same empathy can lead us to put our listeners on a pedestal–and diminish our sense of self.
We become the object of other people’s gaze. Every fleeting glance becomes cause for concern. We worry about the person at the back of the room checking his Blackberry, thinking: “He must dislike what I am saying.” We tolerate interruptions (studies have shown that women are interrupted far more than men) because we have given power to others. We often pull back when challenged in a meeting and let others take over the stage.
Men may get nervous before public speaking, too, but it is often not the same kind of nervousness; it’s not based on giving too much power to their audience.
Power means feeling good about yourself, feeling that you have a lot to offer others in the room. And that sense of power is critical when you are speaking. It grounds you and gives your voice its depth and expressiveness. When you give away that power, you can feel weak and disconnected from your strong self. What’s the answer?
Here are some ways you can own the room and feel confident speaking to small and large groups.
First, recognize what’s happening. If you feel vulnerable or nervous when you are speaking, it could well be that you have given your audience the power to reject you.
Next, accept that you are the powerful one when you are speaking. You have created a talk or a spontaneous comment in which you are sharing your thinking with the audience. If you have prepared well, they will benefit tremendously from what you say. That puts you in the power position.
Find a mantra or a thought to repeat to yourself. For example, you might say: “I am here because everyone in the room needs to hear this message.” Or, “I have a vision of our organization that can inspire my listeners.” Or, “My community work can be an example to everyone in the audience.” Such a mantra can ground you with authority when you speak.
Next, look at the people in your audience who are responding to you positively. Your insecurity might draw you to the faces of those who look doubtful or inattentive, but by looking at the captivated faces, you’ll bolster your confidence and power. You will get a truer picture of how the audience values you.
Finally use speaking techniques that slow you down and give you control:
- Using a conversational pace rather than an accelerated delivery
- Pausing between ideas
- Adopting a “power” position (whether sitting or standing), with arms open and gestures large
Recognize that we women tend to care too much about what our audiences think of us. Then take steps to change your mindset and behavior. Say to yourself: “I am not going to undermine myself anymore. I am going to prepare well and stand up knowing that I have something important to say.”