By the end of 2016 the balance of global power could be very much tipping towards women. The UK’s new prime minister, Theresa May, is keeping her cool in the midst of political mayhem and Hillary Clinton has her sights set on the US presidency. If the media can stop talking about their hairstyles and choice of shoes long enough to listen to what they say, we might learn a few things about how to get to the top as women.
From the boardroom to television panel shows, women are having a more visible presence in today’s working world. Yet, we are still naturally more risk averse to public life and taking on leadership roles than men, despite having an amazing array of skills essential to the smooth-running of families, businesses, charities, political parties and so on.
Although men are more prominent and confident in public life, there is one thing that continually tops the list of a person’s biggest fears, regardless of gender: public speaking, closely followed by walking into a room full of strangers.
Unsurprisingly, a whole industry has built up around conquering the fear of speaking in public.
Stand-up comedy is a heightened form of public speaking and most people say to me that they could never perform comedy when I tell them about what I do with Funny Women. I have worked with thousands of women as a comedy producer over the last 14 years, which has given me a unique insight into different performance styles and methods for building confidence, and I do truly believe that everybody has the ability to be funny, to entertain, and, in doing so, build better relationships – in both business and leisure.
I also like to challenge the rules laid down by the presentation industry because I know first-hand that women have a different mind-set coupled with an innate ability to use humour when it comes to communication. Here are a few basic guidelines which will help you to find your funny and get your voice heard.
Speaking in public can be a tougher call for women than men as female brains are wired slightly differently to their male counterparts. Women take longer to formulate and process our responses, because we have so much more going on in our prefrontal cortex. While this gives us a greater mental bandwidth for multi-tasking, it is often misinterpreted as procrastination, when in fact we are mentally weighing up the pros and cons before we act and say anything.
Learn how to use this ability to be a powerful and effective diplomat, especially if you aspire to public life. Don’t feel pressured into a particular style of presenting, but go with what feels comfortable for you. Say it like it is and act natural.
Discover your style of presenting, whether that is standing up, sitting down, or moving about. Just be wary of pacing as this tends to distract from the content. Only use PowerPoint to illustrate your talk, draw attention to a point or get a laugh, don’t just write out your script. When it comes to slides, pictures are always better than words. You want your audience to listen to what you are saying, not be reading ahead. Less is always more powerful.
Maintain eye contact with your audience, whether it is to 500 people in a room or five people around a boardroom table. At Funny Women we work with voice coaches who teach a range of techniques, which help people envisage their audience. Once you have ‘got cosy’ with them, the rest will be plain sailing.
The best comedians have performed their acts hundreds of times in their heads as well as on stage. The old adage of practising your material in front of a mirror with a hairbrush still stands. Watching yourself in such close quarters will also make you aware of how you use your hands, help you adjust your posture, and learn to focus your eyes. Check how often you blink and even what clothes look right. Film yourself and watch your performance back - it might be painful at first, but it will be valuable for you to learn what does and does not work.
Match your public voice with your virtual voice so that there are no surprises when you turn up to speak. Ensure that you represent yourself consistently on your website, via social media, emails and even in good old-fashioned letters. So often you meet people in person and they are completely different to how they are portrayed on the internet. Get a good up-to-date portrait photograph taken and, if necessary, get some expert advice about writing a profile. Don’t be afraid to use the same sort of jargon and colloquialisms that you would when speaking out loud.
As an expert you know your subject better than anybody else and, if you second guess yourself, so will your audience. Everything you need to say is filed away in your brain and you just need to find the best way to access this. Cue cards, slides with pictures or even notes written on the palms of your hands are useful. Anything goes as long as you can carry it off with confidence and a smile.
A pithy one liner has more impact than going all around the houses with a meaningless analogy. If you hear something good, write it down as you might be able to use it later. Conversely a good storyline can really help to illustrate a situation or impart some advice. Just cut out the excess and think about how you might feel on the receiving end of this narrative. Good stories have a beginning, middle and an end. They help people remember the point you’re trying to make.
Check out both TED and The Moth for lots of good online talks and storytelling. Listen to other people talking when you are out and about, travelling on public transport or queuing up in the supermarket. You never know what witticisms you might pick up along the way.
Lynne Parker is the founder and chief executive of Funny Women, comedy experts helping women to perform, write and do business with humour. Funny Women runs public workshops and provides bespoke training and coaching for individuals and organisations. Visit the Funny Women website for more details or go along to the next Stand Up to Stand Out comedy workshop on Saturday 3rd December, where you can find out how to use humour to empower you, improve your presentation skills and make what you say memorable
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