By Jenny Bhatt
Lately, there’s been a lot of provocative and humorous buzz on all-male panels. All good because it shines a spotlight on a longstanding issue and brings more awareness, hopefully, among public event organisers and participants.
For women speakers at panels, here’s a guide to public speaking and avoiding all those pesky manterrupters.
The issues in public speaking lie in “how” we speak more so than simply “what” we say. Purpose, brevity, structure, confidence, humour, etc., are much-needed. Here are my top three pointers, based on my years in the corporate trenches. Not to say these are the be-all and end-all, but they’ve stood me in good stead.
1) Speak with purpose and brevity
Generally, women tend not to like speaking in soundbites. In the past, I, too, dismissed it as a “male” style of speaking. But, many mixed- gender communication studies have proved that the human brain only retains 25-50 percent of what we hear (we retain more of what we read or see, of course). So, make the words count and make them memorable (look these up to spruce up your soundbite techniques: anaphora, chiasmus, parallelism). It’s OK to prepare and rehearse soundbites ahead of time if you’re not the extemporaneous type. Just use them when and if needed rather than letting them take over the agenda.
And, by the way, this applies not just to words but also to gestures. I see far too many Indian women getting “handsy” when they talk — fluttering hands, fidgeting with hair/clothes. This just calls attention to other parts of your body and away from your words. Use hand gestures economically for emphasis or enumeration only. Watch Aparna Chennapragada, a Product Management Director at Google, doing a very good job here (not a panel discussion, but, still; and, yes, she’s channeling Steve Jobs, whether she’ll admit to it or not.)
2) Structure your points/arguments
Stick to your best or most important three. You may have a lot of ideas but you will lose the audience. The ‘Rule of Three’ is an actual thing. Here’s one of our Prime Minister’s favorite and frequent soundbites from speeches abroad that incorporates this rule of three: “India has 3 greatest strengths: democracy, demography, demand.”
It also helps to frame or outline your points at the start of your response before you get into them. This can serve as an implicit pre-warning to would-be interrupters. Here are a few more ways to deal with this particular breed of co-panelists:
a) When interrupted, keep talking over the interrupter, holding up a hand to signal “stop”. Do not make direct eye contact with him/her because that kind of body language will just seem like an invitation to continue interrupting.
b) If they still don’t stop, then say, “I’m not finished yet. Thanks.” Keep avoiding direct eye contact with the interrupter and, instead, look around the room/audience and make random eye contact with others. The signal you want to send is that you will not allow them to distract you.
c) If all this doesn’t work, call on the moderator directly to step in and mention the interrupter by name. Something like (in a calm, clear way): “Moderator, [Interrupter Name] is disrupting this entire discussion. So, as I was saying….” Just don’t give the interrupter the satisfaction by addressing or engaging him/her directly. This will start a dialogue you don’t want.
3) Deliver with confidence
I’ve seen Indian women talk very rapidly, in run-on sentences and rather high-pitched voices. All this is likely poor conditioning from younger days when it was the only way to get heard. But, it actually has the opposite effect of making people switch off or start paying more attention to the woman and not what she’s saying. For more gravitas and authority, try well-timed pauses, a measured pace and a balanced pitch. Some caveats:
Caveat 1: Pausing does not mean filling in with “um” or “ah” or “you know” or “in fact” or “well”. I see news anchors on television doing it all the time and it just grates so.
Caveat 2: Use your full range: both highs and lows in your pitch; both louder and softer in your tones.
Caveat 3: Do double-check any word pronunciations you’re unsure of as mistakes can make you sound uncertain or inexperienced. There are several online dictionaries that include audio options.
Watch Kiran Bir Sethi’s confident delivery at a TED Talk. [Yes, yes, it’s a talk and not a panel discussion but all of this applies to both.]
Of course, rules are meant to be broken. So, I’ll break my own here and give you a fourth:
4) Use humour vs sarcasm/take-downs
Not easy when discussing a serious topic or when being needled by another panelist. Humour doesn’t come naturally to me so I tend to carry around a few quips/punchlines in my notes/head to such events and use them when appropriate. Also, very importantly, never, never, ever self-deprecate. There are enough who will happily take you down when you’re the lone woman up on a platform, so why invite them by doing it to yourself?
Let’s end with a brief video of Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsico, on communication skills for women and how she had to learn. Always makes me feel good to know that no one is born with it. We all have to work at these skills lifelong.
Keep rockin’, ladies. And do add your suggestions below.