Public Speaking and Communicating With Power Getting Past The “Venus” Myth For Female Executives
Family therapist John Gray was hardly the first to insist communication problems are gender-based. While it reinforced old stereotypes, Gray’s pop-psychology tome of the early 90’s did give female executives something new to ponder. If “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus” as his runaway bestseller claimed, what did that mean specifically for the Venetian executive? After all, her professional success on any planet still was likely to rest firmly in the hands of Martians.
For many women trying to climb the corporate ladder, the meaning was clear: when it comes to corporate success, communicating like a man is essential. In the decade since attention focused on gender communication differences, a whole marketplace of communication training sprang up focused on helping women fix their communication skills. Seminars were quickly added to business and professional rosters, to help women find their “executive voice.” Female specific executive communications coaching established itself alongside “assertiveness training” and “negotiating for women.”
I find only one thing wrong with the concept. It’s bunk.
As an executive trainer, and as a professional woman, the continued demand for women’s communications coaching means more focus on firms like mine. So why do I instead find the fixation on women’s communication skills frustrating? To quote Groucho, “Who are you going to believe? Me, or your own eyes?”
Despite the cacophony about gender-based communication differences, I’ve found a very different and much healthier reality in my own practice. In the professional sphere at least, there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the communication problems of the sexes.
I find nothing gender-specific about confidence or clarity—two of the essentials for powerful public communication. Nor do I find any correlation between gender and the ability to maintain good eye contact or to speak thoughtfully using simple language to evoke complex ideas. Certainly it would be difficult to correlate gender to the ability to speak with conviction and passion—all hallmarks of powerful and persuasive communication.
I’ve trained countless executives of both genders. What I see is an array of common communication problems. Highly successful executives of both sexes often have trouble knowing how to deliver a speech: how to move, where to stand, how strongly to project their voices, how to communicate powerfully, yet succinctly, and how to stay in control. I’d go so far as to call public speaking the single most hated job requirement of senior executives of either sex, ranking in dreaded competition alongside speaking to reporters, presenting to the board, and testifying to Congress. Inevitably when coaching executives in media training or public speaking, clients of both sexes will routinely complain they have no “natural” talent for any of it. My response is always the same. Nature and talent aren’t what’s called for I tell them—this is about hard work and preparation.
For both men and women, effective communication is first and foremost about confidence. It’s about the clarity of the vision; not the sex of the visionary. It’s about the power of the message, not the gender of the messenger.
The notion of a communication disadvantage for women probably stems from widely heralded academic works analyzing interpersonal communication, such as Deborah Tannen’s “You Just Don’t Understand.” As several studies, including a 2004 study at Purdue have suggested, gender differences even in interpersonal communication tend to be small, but have become wildly exaggerated in popular culture. Thus the rush to “fix what’s wrong” with women’s executive communications, with no real evidence that communication failures in the executive suite are gender based.
Many executives buy into the notion that corporate communication skills are intuitive. That’s what makes it easy, especially for women, to believe others (men) do it better. In reality, the kind of communication skills that allow executives to successfully interact with reporters, deliver powerful presentations and riveting speeches are learned skills that many executives of both sexes struggle to master
The truth is women aren’t a special class of disabled communicators. The good news is that anyone can learn to be a powerful and effective public communicator. The better news is the same planet we all inhabit is one on which good communication skills are yours for the taking.
Aileen Pincus is a communications consultant and President of the Pincus Group, Executive Communications Training. She can be reached at www.thepincusgroup.com