Bill Hoogterp has a drinking game he wants me to try. He says to pick my favorite soda, pour it into a glass to the halfway mark, then fill the other half with water. “Taste it,” he says, on a break from a speech-coaching workshop he’s hosting in New York. I do. It’s gross, like a soda that’s been sitting overnight with ice.
Watered-down Pepsi is what we sound like, Bill explains, when we pepper our sentences with weak language like “um” and “like.” It dilutes what we’re saying. So for the next 15 minutes, every time I use weak language—“like,” “ya know,” “whatever,” “so,” “totally,” “just,” “I mean” (in other words, my entire vocabulary)—I must drink. “I’m not sure I like this—” I begin. Drink! (The filler phrase: “I’m not sure.”)
“Wait, but what constitutes filler—” Drink! (The filler word in this case: “wait.”)
“Ah, man, this is like . . .” I stop myself before I have to drink again.
Bill tells me that the most powerful thing a person can do to improve the way they communicate is to eliminate watery language. “It would also make our meetings half as long,” he adds.
Bill is the founder of an organization called Own the Room, which has coached the likes of Molly Ringwald (actress), Mellody Hobson (chair of the board at DreamWorks), and Sheryl Sandberg (author of Lean In) in the art of public speaking (along with the body language to do it well). Since founding the organization with his wife, a former engineer, he’s traveled around the globe conducting workshops for women and men at hundreds of international companies. He didn’t start out his career in public speaking, but rather as an activist—until he realized how much more effective he could be if he learned how to better project his voice (and message).
I ask Bill to assess my speaking style on the spot, and he directs me to describe what I do for a living into his iPhone. He observes closely, and then we watch the video together. “Do you want the honest version or the brutally honest version?” he asks me. I tell him to be brutal. “You have really good ‘micropauses.’” (I am flattered, though I have no idea what a “micropause” is.) “You use almost none of your volume range, but your speed range is good. You don’t use ‘upspeak.’ But you don’t have ‘authoritative speak,’ either.”
He pauses. “Do you want to know what your problem is?” he asks. “Uh, yes,” I tell him, employing yet another filler word.
“Your problem is you’re driving a Ferrari with the handbrake on. You’re capable of more power than you realize.”
If the goal is succinctness, then Bill is right: I probably could convey more power if I cut the filler. And yet, I sort of like the way I talk. Should I have to change it, simply because it doesn’t fit with what’s been deemed, somewhat arbitrarily, the workplace standard?
At a time when dissecting the way women speak has seemingly become a favorite pastime—our pitch, our sorrys, even our punctuation—Bill is part of a growing field of coaches and consultants who teach people how to deliver a message effectively: to open their throats, to create more oral resonance, to cut filler words, to use space and body language to convey authority and add gravitas.
When it comes to women and speech, though, there’s an important caveat—that what’s been deemed the ideal doesn’t necessarily match the way women actually, well, talk. And so we are told that we sound unconfident when we raise our pitch. That we should remove our “likes” and “justs” (and there are apps to help us do it), defry our chords, and that we should practice, and learn to find our “best speaking voices.”
But what if we’ve already found them?
Linguists will tell you clearly: male and female speech patterns have always differed. Women tend to have more versatile intonation patterns; they place more emphasis on certain words; they speak about more personal topics. And while the masculine style of communication at work is to give orders—as in, “Here’s what we need to do” or “We have to do better”—the feminine style is to persuade. “I have an idea that I want you to consider.” Or she may phrase her idea as a question: “What do you think of this approach?”
It has long been a truism that women lead popular linguistic trends: creating new words, playing around with sounds, creating verbal shortcuts that catch on in the vernacular (pretty sure it wasn’t a man who first LOLed). Yet it is the masculine style of speech—succinct, straightforward, confident—that is associated with workplace leadership and power.
Which means that when it comes to work, women are often left to adapt their language to speak more like men: Female speech is perceived as insecure, less competent, and sometimes even less trustworthy. No wonder Margaret Thatcher hired a vocal coach to help her sound less “shrill.”
But wait, there’s more. Yes, women can adapt, but they mustn’t adapt too much—lest they sound masculine. In her book, Talking from 9 to 5: Men and Women at Work, linguist Deborah Tannen describes a woman who received negative feedback when she tried to talk like her male peers—but was able to remedy the situation by adding words like “sorry” back into her speech. As Tannen noted later: How could anybody possibly not lack confidence if she’s constantly being told she’s doing everything wrong?
And so here we go again . . . that persistent double standard, that damned if you do, damned if you don’t, speaking softly when they’re trying to talk loudly, trying to cut the sorrys while still sounding modest, avoiding “I feel like” but still speaking in a nurturing tone. Easy, right?!
At the end of the day, there is no right way to talk—especially if you want to sound like, you know, yourself.
This article is adapted with permission from Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace by Jessica Bennett. Copyright © 2016 by Jessica Bennett. Published on September 13, 2016 by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.