- Alexis Knutson, Laura L. Dominic
FROM GOOD TO GREAT: COMMUNICATION TIPS TO ADDRESS TWO COMMON COMMUNICATION BARRIERS WOMEN FACE
Originally published in Defense News, Summer 2016
We recently had the pleasure of meeting with a group of female professionals at a roundtable luncheon to discuss the communication issues they felt were keeping them “good” communicators, not “great” communicators. They each had completely different communication styles, yet all shared a similar story: “My clients are mostly men, and when I walk into the room to make a pitch, I feel like I’m already 10 feet behind the starting line.” In listening to the issues they felt were barriers to being excellent communicators, two general categories of concerns emerged. The first were a series of communication traits that were the product of low self-confidence. The second were communication traits that fell into the oft-cited “double-edged sword” of gender and communication.
These barriers to effective, powerful, persuasive communication are not unique to women. Men and women who are nervous show their unease through the same vocal and visual cues. Men and women who are perceived as dominant display the same powerful communication styles. But somehow, too often, men get a pass. Partners at law firms don’t call asking us to help their young male associates be more assertive in front of clients. Jurors don’t criticize a male attorney for pounding his fist on the table. Until societal expectations change (and there is evidence they currently are), there are ways to overcome the perceived low-credibility communication cues.
There are ways the less experienced, nervous, low-confidence attorney can mask these feelings as they progress through their career. There are ways a woman who is criticized for being too aggressive can capitalize on certain communication cues without changing her overall style. Interestingly, in many cases, the communication advice is the opposite for each end of the spectrum, from the person with low confidence and a passive speaking style to the person with high confidence and an assertive speaking style. For example, a louder voice is a high-credibility cue that sends a message of confidence and is a good technique for the nervous speaker. Yet, the recommendation for a woman who is criticized for being “too aggressive,” will benefit from a slightly lower volume, while maintaining her other high-credibility cues.
The following recommendations are for any professional woman striving for excellence in their ability to communicate effectively and persuasively. But these skills can be utilized by any attorney, man or woman, who identifies ways their own style can be honed and improved while maintaining their personal speech style. For the person with lower confidence speaking publicly, they may have no trouble with interpersonal communication, but need to focus on upping their credibility when speaking in front of a group. For the person with a more assertive style, nothing needs to be changed about their communication in front of a group, but adapting their interpersonal communication style will benefit their work relationships. Thus, we focus on the ways in which people from each end of the spectrum can borrow from the other side to become doubly effective in their communication, no matter what the venue.
EXPERIENCE, NERVES, AND CONFIDENCE
“I want to impress new clients.” “I want to come across as credible as I know I am.” “I don’t want the jury to know I’m nervous.”
Experience generates confidence. It’s no surprise that the longer you do something, the better you become at it. This competence results in stronger communication traits. But what do you do the first time you go to court? How do you exude confidence before you’ve honed your negotiation skills? There are several presentation techniques that can help.
Increase your volume.
One of the telltale signs of low confidence is a quiet speaking voice. This makes sense. If you’re not confident that what you’re saying will be well received, why would you want to say it loudly? We hide our nerves with low volume. The solution to this is easy and obvious – increase your volume. The problem is that it is often difficult for a speaker to gauge their own volume. Voices sound louder inside our heads than they do coming out of our mouths, but it is rare that a speaker is too loud. So, it’s better to err on the side of thinking you are too loud than speaking at what you perceive to be a comfortable volume. Practice by putting a live body on the opposite side of a large room and speak as loud as you can so that person can hear you. Video or audio tape yourself from as far away as possible to see if your voice is reaching the back of the room. Chances are even when you think you’re speaking loudly, you have room to go two or three notches louder. Be careful, however, that your tone does not become more strident as you become louder.
Slow your rate.
Another vocal byproduct of nerves is speaking too quickly, the reasons for which are clear. If you do not want to be in the speaking situation, the best way to get out is to speak quickly. One of the best ways to slow the pace without being too obvious is to take a slow breath after each sentence. This will not only slow your heart rate, it will help slow the overall pace of your speech. Be careful not to speak too slowly, however, particularly in the Western part of the country where a slightly more rapid pace is the norm. Listeners can process words faster than speakers can say them, so often our listeners have already completed our sentences before we finish them. If we are speaking too slowly, we may lose an audience whose attention has moved onto another topic.
Hedges, qualifications, and hesitations.
Nerves and lack of confidence are often accompanied by vocal fillers (or non-words). Examples of fillers include disfluencies such as “um,” “uh,” and “ah,” and hesitancies (or the addition of words that do not add meaning) such as “so,” “well,” and “you know what I mean?” These words are often sprinkled throughout the speech and are used in lieu of a more credible pause. The more a speaker practices, the less likely he or she is to use vocal fillers.
Some research has found that women use qualifying statements more often than men. Qualifying statements are often needed, but when they do not actually provide meaning to a speech, they lower a speaker’s credibility. Examples of qualifiers include, “I think,” “I guess what I’m trying to say is…,” and “perhaps.” “Your honor. I think, perhaps it would be best if we request a new trial date in light of these new circumstances.” Do you “think” it would be best, or are you actually requesting a new date? “Sort of” seems to be the qualifier de jure. “Next the driver sort of veered to the left.” Qualifications are often used by people who are not confident about making a statement, or by those who think they have not earned the right to be assertive. The trouble is that qualifications suggest a lack of confidence and perpetuate the perception that you have not earned the right. A good way to show your clients and senior partners that you are confident is making stronger, more concise statements: “Your honor, a new trial date would be prudent given the new circumstances.”
Intensifiers are words that attempt to increase the importance of a message. “The injury was very, very bad.” “The plant manger fell way below standards.” “Our product is so safe, there really are very few accidents.” These types of words are low credibility because they send the message that you don’t have a more explicit way to describe your message. They are words we use when we “really, really” need to get our point across but don’t have more precise and descriptive words to use. Lack of preparation often results in the use of intensifiers. Replace these empty words with concrete, concise, or quantifiable language. Replace, “Our tires are really, quite safe,” with, “Our tires have exceeded three different safety standards three years in a row.” Replace, “We are so focused on equality in our workplace,” with, “We have implemented annual trainings focused on equality and set up an anonymous hotline for people to call if they have any concerns.”
Stand with an open frame.
A closed body frame, or standing with legs and/or arms crossed or in a slightly hunched position, is a protection mechanism. A nervous speaker seeks comfort in keeping their body close and tight. While you might feel better, you don’t look better. Break out of your comfort zone and open your body. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Use your hands and arms to gesture. Make your gestures and movements meaningful. Many people try to put this tip to use by pacing aimlessly in front of the audience. Sure, you’re implementing movement into your speech and showing confidence by stepping out from behind the podium. But if you’re willing to move, make the movement meaningful by linking the movement with the layout of your talk. For example, standing close to the audience, discuss the company on the departmental level: “Within each department we have a designated representative who can take anonymous complaints regarding equality.” Then stepping back a number of steps, discuss the company as a whole: “And within the company, we have an anonymous hotline setup where employees can voice their concerns if they’re not comfortable speaking to their designated representative.” This links the micro/macro focus of the speech to your intentional movement, making the message more persuasive and memorable for the audience.
Maintain eye contact.
One of the best indicators of credibility is eye contact. When delivering an opening statement or closing argument, making eye contact with every member of the jury will enhance your credibility more dramatically than if you simply scanned the jury box. Typically, women anchor their gaze on people’s faces more than men do, thus establishing a connection on the individual level more easily. But women are also more likely to break eye contact earlier when confronted one-on-one. Practice maintaining eye contact, even when you’re uncomfortable. One insider’s tip for maintaining the illusion of eye contact in uncomfortable or confrontational situations is to focus your gaze on your conversation partner’s forehead just above their eyes. Try it with a friend – they won’t be able to tell whether you are looking in their eyes or slightly above, and you will earn the credibility of maintaining eye contact.
When it comes to vocal inflection, women tend to exhibit rising intonation or inflection at the end of sentences. This means that many statements sound like questions, thus reducing what should be strong, decisive statements to weak, indecisive questions. This is particularly obvious with many female witnesses we work with. The following is a sentence taken from a recent witness preparation with a nurse. First, read the sentence as a statement, with a strong voice from beginning to end; then read it with a rising intonation at the end.
“Next, I checked the vital signs of the mother and looked at the fetal heart monitoring strip to check on the baby.”
Clearly, the first reading signals to a jury a nurse who was confident in what she was doing, thus making a much stronger impression of competence and expertise. Reading the same statement with a rising intonation leads the jury to question her credibility as the statement actually sounds like she is questioning herself, leaving them to wonder if she was confident in her skills and choices that day.
DAMNED IF YOU DO, DAMNED IF YOU DON’T
“When he speaks loudly, he’s assertive. When I speak loudly, I’m too aggressive.” “I don’t want to have to change my powerful communication style just so I don’t come across as a bitch.” “I feel like my communication style flies in the face of the stereotypes of women.”
These are the concerns from women on the opposite end of the spectrum – the women who say that their communication style is too powerful, and that it is often met with criticism. We tell these women that they have not only a huge advantage when it comes to presentation skills, but they have a unique opportunity as women to go from “good” to “great” with just a few communication techniques. The double-edged sword only exists because these women already embrace the powerful communication style that is associated with high credibility. The opportunity exists by coupling their strong style with borrowing a few communication techniques from the other end of the spectrum.
Whereas the techniques described previously for those on the reserved end of the spectrum pertain more to public speaking scenarios, the following techniques for those with strong communication styles will be most useful in interpersonal, small group, or meeting settings. Of course, let your strongest, most commanding self shine in front of a jury, during meetings with clients, or presenting a CLE. But adapting this style to one that is more approachable will earn credibility amongst small groups.
Lower your volume.
The nervous speaker is encouraged to increase the volume to send a message of confidence. But if you are at risk of being perceived as “overly confident” or “arrogant,” a slightly lower volume can be helpful. This is especially true in one-on-one conversations, discussions with subordinates, or in small group settings where you are the top dog. If your intention is to connect with those you are speaking with, lower your tone to send a message of inclusion and mutual respect.
Capitalize on our ability to ask questions.
A woman who is criticized for being too demeaning can capitalize on a technique that women tend to be very good at – asking more questions. This is particularly helpful in interpersonal communication settings or meetings where you are at greater risk of being perceived as unnecessarily aggressive. Think about the demand, “Schedule a meeting with the expert,” versus the request, “Would you mind finding a date to meet with our expert?” Framing your requests in this way gives the perception of choice to the listener, and will likely increase their willingness to comply with those requests. Likewise, adding a question to the end of a statement can serve to increase perceptions of inclusion and be seen as an invitation to add input. For example, saying, “We need to make a plan for which witnesses can speak to which aspects of our case. What do you think?” will allow for input from the group, thus increasing your credibility as a person in a position of power who is also willing to accept opinions of the group.
While jurors expect to see some assertiveness when examining a witness, they also expect, or rather demand, that attorneys be polite. Because women’s body position show interest – head nodding, forward leans, and mirroring postures – they may be perceived as more polite than men in the courtroom. Female attorneys may be able to more easily avoid some of the negative feedback we hear from jurors about the unnecessarily aggressive male attorneys by using these body cues in court.
Use the inclusive “we.”
A conversation becomes instantly more inclusive when the speaker uses the term “we” rather than “I.” Although we do not suggest sharing accolades for things you have truly done on your own (saying, “We did a great job getting that motion submitted on time,” when you were the only one working on it until 3am) or sharing the blame when the blame clearly lies elsewhere (saying, “We must have forgotten about that deadline,” when the responsibility was on your colleague), you can use “we” to bring others into the conversation. For example, saying to the group, “We should discuss our strategy for the upcoming depo,” before describing your thoughts will give the impression that others are included in the strategy and leave them open to further communication.
In the end, it is about turning “good” communicators into “great” communicators. Although people fall all along the spectrum from less assertive to more highly assertive, there are skills and traits that people can borrow from each that increase credibility. Those who are less assertive can borrow traits of the highly assertive when speaking in front of a larger group, and those who are highly assertive can borrow from the less assertive when speaking in small-group or one-on-one settings. The more you practice, the more natural these communication traits will become. Confidence begets good commutation skills. Your communication style will become a product of your experience and of practicing the most useful communication skills along the way.