When a woman leader stands at the podium to speak, why does the spotlight often seem to flash red and blue? Women’s voices have been policed since the beginning of time. Women speakers are frequently criticized for sounding “shrill,” saying “like” or “just” too often, using uptalk (raising one’s pitch at the end of a sentence), and more. Sometimes, listeners appear to judge the delivery of a woman’s speech at the expense of the message.
Some of this behavior may be rooted in misogyny. Implicitly, some people may attribute effective communication to more stereotypically masculine speech patterns. Explicitly, others may seek to dismiss women from the podium by taking easy shots at their voices while ignoring their valuable ideas.
That puts women speakers in a difficult position. Should they change their vocal mannerisms to sound more like men? Perhaps not. For one thing, men exhibit many of these criticized speech patterns--sometimes as often as women—without typically facing the same scrutiny. Moreover, women commonly use uptalk and other speech patterns with intention, sometimes raising their pitch mid-sentence as a defense mechanism against interruption, a method known as floor-holding.
So what, if anything, can women do to avoid gender-based criticism? Women don’t need to “fix” their natural voices or attempt to imitate men. However, they should be aware of the gender stereotypes and biases that may affect how their speech is perceived. And perhaps the most important thing a woman speaker can do is be intentional in how she communicates with her audience.
If you are a woman speaker preparing for your next public speech, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I feel confident, prepared, and deserving of attention?
- How can I vary my pitch, tone, volume, and speed to show expression in my voice and hold the audience’s attention?
- Have I included opportunities for listeners to respond?
- What message should I signal to the audience through my body language? How can my nonverbal communication improve my delivery?
- Have I crafted an organized speech? Do I need a slideshow or another visual aid to map my presentation for the audience?
- Am I prepared? If so, am I relaxed enough to perform effectively?