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Feminspire | April 18, 2014

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Women and Public Speaking: Listen Up!

Women and Public Speaking: Listen Up!

As a high school debater, I spent much of my adolescent years cultivating my public speaking skills. I gave speeches, mostly of a political nature, to audiences of my peers and adults. When I entered college, I began to realize the benefit of having strong public speaking abilities. Being able to express oneself coherently and eloquently in front of others is often what gives individuals the power to influence change. If you can speak persuasively and passionately, this magical thing happens: People start to listen.

I remember while at a summer camp for developing my debate and speaking skills we started discussing a stage in many debate events called cross-examination. CX occurs when direct questions and answers are passed back and forth between two people and requires quick thinking, articulation and a strong presence. The first thing the counselors did was turn to the female students in the group and tell us about our “immediate disadvantage.” If we were assertive — not even aggressive mind you, just assertive — then our image would automatically be taken as “bitchy,” especially if our opponent was male. However, if we were too polite in our responses, as many women are conditioned to be, then we would be seen as submissive and our presence as a competitive opponent would be undermined. In contrast, male debaters could largely be as assertive as they wanted and they wouldn’t be seen as aggressive, just supportive of their points. Unfair, right? I wanted the ability to passionately defend my points without being seen as a bitch just because I was speaking my mind.

But it’s a fine line. While women are judged as being out of place if they take on “masculine” traits, they also can’t be as successful if they don’t use them. As studies of events in the debate community have found, these traditionally masculine traits of assertiveness are generally more valued, especially by male judges, so much so that the percentages of contestants in subsequent rounds (quarterfinals to semifinals to finals) become increasingly male. Society doesn’t see women as natural public speakers, which is ridiculous because there is nothing about women at all that gives them a natural disadvantage at speaking. Some of history’s most rousing orations came from women — Eleanor Roosevelt, Sojourner Truth, Benazir Bhutto, Margaret Thatcher — the list is as long as that of men, if less well known. Even when women are powerful public speakers, it is not often a trait we automatically connect to them. Michelle Obama’s 2012 Democratic National Convention speech was one of the single most powerful speeches given, and yet much of the media paid more attention to how to get her dress than the content of her electrifying oration.

This phenomenon has also been evident with Hillary Clinton, especially when she was running for president of the United States in 2008. Clinton received much criticism, from reporters, opponents, and even from her own party for being “too aggressive” and “cold.” Largely this emerged from the fact that Clinton’s speaking style is less traditionally female; she is more likely to rely on facts and information to persuade her audience than the pathos we tend to expect from women. If she were a man and spoke the way she did, no one would see it is as out of character. Because she is female, it is assumed that she is simply trying to force herself into a man’s world. Internet commentary regarding Clinton’s speeches during the 2008 campaign described her as being too “shrill” and “lacking emotion,” despite her being one of the most educated and experienced candidates in the pool.

In the male-dominated world of politics and power, women are struggling to be recognized as valid and competent individuals who have just as much to offer as their male counterparts. As long as we continue to apply these public speaking attributes to men and women, whether consciously or subconsciously, women will continue to be at a disadvantage when speaking and when running for public office. The United States will have a hard time fixing the fact that although the 113th Congress includes a record number of women, we still only have a 17% female representation in Congress, a number lower than the international average (19.7%) and far, far lower than the female representation in the United States (50.8% in 2010). It will also have a hard time making the step from first African-American president to first female president, despite the fact that women already hold positions of governmental power across the world including in South Korea, Brazil, Liberia and Malawi.

In high school, my public speaking classes always focused on adjusting public speaking styles to provide the “ideal” image to our audience. And yet, every one of us has different strengths. Some of us were more analytical and informational, like Hillary Clinton, while others found our strength in oratory like President Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr. or Barbara Jordan. As my public speaking class at a women’s college emphasized, the key to successful public speaking is not attempting to create the perfect public speaker by forcing yourself to adopt certain attributes. Rather, the key is capitalizing on your personal strengths and amplifying them. It is being able to take the abilities you already have and make them work in an oratorical setting rather than attempting to force yourself to adopt certain abilities that are traditionally expected to work.

Well, that and overcoming the nerves that make it so difficult to speak in public in the first place. Some things are easier than others.

Written by Ariela Schnyer