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Powerful Women, Finding Their Voices

Female executives must find their voice to ensure their message has the impact it deserves. What inspires them to deliver powerful presentations? Speaking for millions of women in poverty around the globe who really are voiceless.

As a presentation skills trainer, I’m often asked about the challenges that women in particular face in making effective and persuasive presentations.

To illustrate these obstacles and how women can overcome them, I tell the story of one client, whom I’ll call Carol. Carol was a leader at a global development institution with a mission focused on improving the lives of women around the world. She held a senior position, which she had achieved based on the strongest credentials and decades of experience in the field. Despite the fact that she was a world-renowned researcher, Carol realized that there was something missing that prevented her from achieving an even greater impact. When she stood in front of an audience, she just wasn’t making her voice heard.

When it came time to deliver a landmark report about gender and equity, she wanted to make sure it received the recognition it deserved. As we began to work together, I saw that Carol was deeply committed to her work and to the well-being of women around the world. She had spent years on this project, and she hoped to draw attention to its findings.

But when it came to publicizing the results of the study, I realized that Carol did not pay sufficient attention to her own presence in delivering this presentation. It had not dawned on her that the person delivering the report would also be noticed along with the substance of the report. Indeed a powerful presentation was essential to giving the report momentum in a media world overflowing with news and information.

I worked with Carol to refine the presentation, honing her delivery. We practiced and practiced to make sure that she projected her knowledge and hard work with her characteristic passion and grace.

But Carol really made a breakthrough when she made a connection between her speech and the report’s findings. As Carol told me, “I can’t back off from the moment. It’s my time to take on this role.” This sentiment echoed the main message of the report: When women and girls can make meaningful choices, where they can make their voices heard, everyone gains.

Once Carol internalized the importance of speaking out, she delivered a powerful presentation — one that was authentic to her mission.

When I work with clients, I teach clients the habits that will make them effective communicators. I emphasize the tools and techniques that convey a powerful voice and presence on stage. Although I’m not a psychologist, my background as an occupational therapist has attuned me to the personal and structural barriers that often hold women back in high-stakes public speaking. Over more than two decades of experience training clients to make presentations, I’ve seen women struggle to connect with their audience and articulate their ideas. Sometimes they compromise themselves, or diminish their abilities, in an effort to be perceived as non-threatening. But I’ve also seen my clients overcome these obstacles when they delve into the content to make sure that speakers are presenting something that resonates with who they are.

Like many executives, my female clients are motivated by professional advancement and promotion, personal fulfillment, and taking on big challenges in their careers. Recently, I realized that there was another catalyst that could help my female clients to find their voice: Many of my female clients are dedicated to empowering women, whether in the context of international development or their own fields. Helping give voice to women around the world can be a powerful motivating force to help women here find their own voice.

In the context of international development, the concept of the woman’s voice has particular importance. After all, women in many developing countries lack well-defined rights. As Carol’s report demonstrated, voice means agency. It means the ability to study, earn an income, own property, and determine the course of their lives. Too often these avenues are limited. Where patriarchy is most entrenched, they must obey their fathers, husbands, or sons.

My female clients who struggle to find their footing on their stage are well aware of their privilege as educated women. They are able to study, work, marry, and vote as they choose. When they turn their attention to empowering other women, they often manage in the process to find their own voice.

A second example from the corporate world demonstrates that this is not only true in the field of international development. In a business world that is increasingly global, some executives worry that their foreign accent hinders them, obscuring their message and diminishing their impact.

For instance, one client whom I’ll call Ming, a Chinese-born executive at a major multinational company, told me that her accent made her feel self-conscious when speaking in public. She passed up internal opportunities to present her team’s work. Despite her elegant demeanor and knowledge of the material, she worried that she would not be able to effectively communicate with an audience. She didn’t feel powerful; she felt scared. She struggled to break through the barrier that had arisen over the course of many years.

When I met with Ming, we did exercises focused on articulation, pacing, and projection. We practiced enunciating key words, and restating them for clarity and emphasis. Together, we identified the importance of landing on key ideas, which provided a means of developing a bolder presence in front of the audience.

Ming found her mantra in a simple idea: “Don’t be afraid to have an impact.” That is the phrase that helped her to find her voice. As Ming explained to me, “I’ve been given a chance to act, to do a job, to speak my thoughts. I need to use the opportunity afforded to me. It’s my right.”

Ming overcame her fears by thinking of all the women who didn’t have that same opportunity. Now she accepts every chance to present her work. She also embraces every chance to mentor other foreign-born women at her company.

There is voice in the larynx — projection, inflection, emphasis. And there is voice in one’s public presence — standing before an audience and being definitive. My passion is to empower messengers, to help them to harmonize their physical and metaphorical voices.

The best presentations are authentic to the person presenting. This means owning your message in every sense of the word. Committing fully to what you are saying means presenting with a sense of purpose. When there is an alignment between the message and the person delivering it, the presentation becomes unselfconscious, fluid, and compelling. Presentations are never just about words, but often include a visual component. This requires poise in self-presentation. This is the path to empowerment.

When I work with clients, the challenge of empowering women is concrete, practical, and immediate. I always begin with the content of the presentation. The message has to be relevant to the audience, meaningful, and clear. Then I turn to the power of the human voice to bring that message to life, to endow it with warmth and power. We work together to craft a presentation that draws the audience’s attention.

So what can you do to develop a powerful voice? The answer is, undeniably, don’t back away. Follow your desire to be heard and make your mark. Embrace your passion and honor your authentic message. Be an advocate for others, if not for yourself.

Sometimes this means assessing how you are perceived and adapting accordingly. For some, this may require toning down the softness, becoming more assertive and unapologetic. For others, this may mean opening up to share warmth and charm, perhaps by revealing a vulnerable moment or an emotional experience. Generally, I have seen women benefit from speaking more boldly and definitively. But many get as much mileage from tapping into a more feminine style. Sometimes it requires finding a balance by integrating the two over the course of a presentation. There are many paths to accessing a woman’s voice. The only “should” is to find your own voice, one that is authentic to your experience, message, and moment.

I feel energized when I see my clients strengthen their voices, and empower women’s voices everywhere. We have the privilege to speak clearly about what matters to us, to share our knowledge and opinions. Don’t let concerns about what others might think restrict you from delivering powerful and important messages. Whether on your behalf or for a larger purpose, you should be heard, loud and clear.

As Ming said, “Don’t be afraid to have an impact.” Speaking up can have a powerful effect on someone else’s life.

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