Mary L. Shapiro, Professor, Simmons School of Management
Whether you're presenting to an audience of two or 200, speaking with credibility and authority is paramount. Unfortunately, according to Professor Mary L. Shapiro of the Simmons School of Management, women often self-sabotage their speaking skills.
"Women are promotionally self-deficient," she began. "And, our mothers and girlfriends reinforce it by telling us, 'No bragging!'"
A major disparity exists between how men and women are socialized to speak, Shapiro continued. It is even evident in the Boy Scout pledge, which begins with "I will" versus the Girl Scout pledge, which begins with "I will try."
"For boys, one-upmanship through speech is OK," she said. "This is not so for girls."
As adults, these kinds of socialized, gendered expectations put women in a double bind: follow masculine rules, and you risk being seen as aggressive. But, follow feminine rules, and you probably will be perceived as weak.
To level the playing field, Shapiro outlined five commandments of presenting with credibility and authority.
While many presenters spend most of their time planning the body of a presentation, Shapiro pointed out that audience attention is at its highest levels at the beginning and end. "It's like a sales cycle," she explained. "Sell the idea, explain it and then remind them of the value."
To get a presentation off to a great start, Shapiro suggested stating how long it will take. She also warned against setting low expectations. "Even senior-level women preapologize for their presentations," she said. "This sets the bar low, and people in the audience will see it that way."
While introducing yourself, Shapiro suggested answering the audience's unasked question — Why should we listen to this woman? — by sharing credentials, authority and expertise. "Explain what they'll walk away with after investing time in your presentation," she said.
When presenting the body part of the presentation, Shapiro warned against diluting its impact with disclaimers, qualifiers ("maybe," "um," etc.) and tag questions such as "...don't you?" and "...you know?"
Finally, when concluding, Shapiro recommended recapping the key messages and avoiding what she called the "Elvis" closing of "thank you very much."
"You must recap, because people retain only 12 percent of what you say," she added.
Most people do not like giving presentations. In fact, Shapiro pointed out, studies have shown that public speaking is the no. 1 fear among many businesspeople. Knowing this, she offered simple strategies to help speakers channel their nerves — not using a laser pointer, for example, if you are prone to shaky hands, and drinking a lot of water to combat dry mouth.
Beyond these, she suggested reframing nerves as energy. "Don't think of it as anxiety," she said. "Make it work for you in the form of excitement."
To slow down a natural fight-or-flight response, Shapiro suggested working with the audience instead of burying your head in your notes. "Make eye contact with every person," she advised. "That way, it's not a 1:50 conversation, but a bunch of 1:1 conversations."
Eye contact and voice play crucial roles in communicating authority via body language. For starters, Shapiro recommended using a wireless microphone versus a podium if possible. "It might seem less formal, but, ironically, it's even more powerful," she explained. "It demonstrates that you're confident enough to get in their space with your message.
"It also keeps them from snoozing," she laughed. "Walking around takes away the audience members' sense of anonymity. The limelight is on them."
With regard to eye contact, Shapiro recommended maintaining three to five seconds with everyone in the room at some point during the presentation. "This is reflective of American culture," she explained. "Do it with one person, and then move on to the next one."
The speed of your voice is also critical to an effective presentation, Shapiro added. "Slower is better because it shows confidence," she told attendees. "Even newscasters reporting on hurricanes speak slow!"
When attempting to control the audience, Shapiro began by warning against ever saying, "I don't know." A better approach is a three-pronged one: (1) acknowledge the value of the question, (2) indicate that you have a lot of information on that subject and (3) tell the person you would like to think about it and get back to him or her.
Setting and maintaining ground rules at the beginning of the presentation is also vital, according to Shapiro. "Upfront, say, 'Please hold your questions until the end,' or 'Feel free to ask questions during the presentation,'" she advised.
Further, Shapiro reiterated the importance of involving everyone in the audience — inviting them to see you afterward if you failed to cover something, for example — as well as handling troublemakers by giving them attention and then moving on.
"Their motivation is usually to be hard or to prove they're more knowledgeable than you," she explained. "Answer their questions in good faith, and then move on."
One way to do this is by employing "audience control 101" — that is, including everyone in the room in the answer. If the troublemaker persists, Shapiro suggested thanking him or her for the question, angling your body away and asking the audience if there are any other questions.
Finally, Shapiro asserted that soliciting feedback on your presentation is crucial to improving your skills as a presenter: "You've got to make sure your intended reputation, credibility and authority are aligned with the audience's perception of your presentation."
— Reporting by RaeAnn Slaybaugh
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