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Embrace Equity: Strategies for Confident Communication

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Challenges women face when it comes to getting their voice heard.

We’ve all been there… In mixed groups and even in groups where they’re in the minority, men’s voices tend to dominate. Not just because they have a deeper timbre and often speak more loudly than women, but also because they have a greater willingness to contribute.

To add emphasis, men will usually raise their volume while women are more likely to breathe more shallowly and therefore raise their pitch – which can come across as unpleasantly shrill.

Joan was a newly appointed supervisor. “They’ve told me I’m bossy,” she complained to her friend. “You’re allowed to be bossy,” he said. “You’re the boss”.

In my research, I’ve found that not getting heard is one of the biggest barriers to women fulfilling their potential.

  • Do you always contribute to meetings and group discussions?
  • Are you happy to deliver talks or ask questions from the floor?
  • Do you have strategies for dealing with interruptions or being ignored?

Many women suffer from imposter syndrome. They believe they haven’t legitimately achieved the position they’re in, they’re not ‘good enough’, and that one day they will be found out.

I help my clients to reframe this as ‘bravery’, because you only get that ‘imposter’ feeling when you’ve stepped outside your comfort zone – and that’s a good thing for your growth, power and freedom.

    How this comes about

    Gender bias is not on women’s side. Boys are usually encouraged to be competitive, demonstrate their power, and play to win. On the other hand, girls are encouraged to be ‘feminine’, a quality usually associated with softness, nurturing and vulnerability.

    Because of this, when they’re growing up, girls don’t often get the opportunity to take risks. We’re conditioned to ‘be nice’ and ‘play by the rules’, so we don’t experience what it feels like to stretch our comfort zone, behave assertively, or be bold and decisive.

    There aren’t many female role models who stand in their power without being derided. Assertive women are often described as ‘pushy’ or ‘a bitch’.

    The media disapproves of women who don’t conform. Powerful women are portrayed as being unfeminine, ruthless, mad, manipulative or worse. For example, Madonna is more often ridiculed than praised. By contrast, powerful men are admired while also being allowed to be flawed and forgiven for their less-appealing traits.

    Women typically have an overwhelming need to be liked. We avoid saying ‘no’ because we don’t want to upset anyone, we don’t express what we really think, and we dare not disagree with the majority.

    This is a real problem when you’re in a leadership position and you might have to step up and deliver unwelcome news, such as giving negative feedback or announcing redundancies.

    Girls are usually raised to have certain expectations around their sexuality. At an early age, we’re taught that approval is based on our looks rather than our brains, actions or personality. This belief is reinforced by popular culture and social media, and can lead to women choosing to use their looks to get what they want, wearing revealing clothing and behaving in a flirty way, even in a work situation.

    However, female sexuality is a potent power that can be mis-used and mis-interpreted. Depending on it can be a dangerous tactic.

    In addition, girls are often raised to keep quiet about our views. Online, women can even be threatened with violence for daring to express them.

    Because we’re taught to be polite and compliant, many women are reluctant to cause a scene.

    • Do you speak up when you see someone on a train with their feet on the seat?
    • Do you object when someone is having a noisy conversation in the quiet carriage?
    • Do you complain when you discover you (and/or your female colleagues) are not paid the same as your male counterparts?
    • Are you uncomfortable about asking for what you want?
    • Are you afraid of showing off or ‘making a fuss’?

    Women don’t tend to get much practice at this. In addition, we may be fearful of the repercussions. As a result, women’s ability to be powerful is compromised. Women learn to control themselves and edit what they say. Rather than speak up, it feels safer to conform.

    What can you do about it?

    Bottom line, you’ll inspire greater respect and followship when you’re willing to be in the spotlight, ‘tell it like it is’, don’t fudge issues, and are prepared to stick your neck out for what you believe in. It’s not always easy, but it is doable when you know how.

    Here are some practical strategies for confident communication…

    It’s often tempting to shift praise away from ourselves and make it all about the team. Give credit where it’s due, but not at your own expenses. Make sure you use “I” as well as “we” when talking about your team’s achievements, and share the recognition, praise and rewards when that’s merited.

    • Avoid self-deprecation. Be careful with “I’m not sure…”, “I was just thinking…”, “This might not be a good idea…” or “Does that make sense?” and be careful about when and where you show your vulnerability
    • Refuse to say ‘yes’ to every request, so you don’t end up working silly hours
    • Don’t overthink it. Don’t wait until what you plan to say is ‘perfect’. Trust your knowledge and intuition and just speak
    • Trust your instincts. When you feel yourself hesitating, count ‘54321 GO’ and act (this technique was developed by motivational speaker, Mel Robbins)
    • Remember it’s OK to admit what you don’t know
    • If you feel you’re not being treated properly, say so. Don’t rant or wail. Give a clear statement of the facts and their impact
    • Decide what you want and tell people about your desired outcome
    • Use big, open gestures to help demonstrate your self-belief. Stand tall and take up the space you deserve
    • Dress in a way that shows you mean business

    When Joanne heard that little voice in her head telling her to say something, she used to wait until it repeated the same thing three times. Then she’d speak up. On the occasions when she didn’t listen to that little voice, she always regretted it. These days, she reacts the first time she hears that little voice.

    Using your voice

    Using your voice

    To ensure you’re heard, you need to over-ride any childhood messages about ‘shutting up’ and ‘keeping quiet’ and engage the power of your breath and your voice.

    Think about a time when you had power. Remember how you felt, the sights you saw and the sounds you heard. Putting yourself back in that state will help you regain that powerful feeling when you need it.

    There’s an NLP technique called ‘the circle of excellence’ where you imagine standing in a circle where you are your most excellent. The idea is that you put that imaginary circle down in the place you stand when you need it. Bernadette had an imaginary ‘excellence’ mat she took to a talk in Sandown Park. The talk went well, but afterwards, she realised she’d left her imaginary mat rolled up in the car!

    Notice your breathing. When you fill your lungs with air before you speak, you’ll have the capacity you need to increase your volume (if required) and the ‘fuel’ to get your point across.

    Jane was giving a talk to an audience of 2,000 – her biggest yet. She’d done a sound check as part of the rehearsal so the AV team could set the mic levels. Off-stage, she jumped around to get her energy up. When she took to the stage and said “Hello!”, she’d built up so much energy that her voice boomed out too loudly, the audience recoiled, laughing, and she could see the audio engineer frantically turning down the volume!

    Ensure you maintain volume to the end of your sentences, so they don’t tail off apologetically at the end.

    Practice speaking in a steady, melodic and resonant voice. Enunciate your words (especially if you speak with an accent that’s different to your audience).

    If your voice rises at the end of a sentence (‘upspeak’), it can make you sound uncertain (unless that speaking style is the norm where you are). When you’re asking a question, it’s OK let your voice go up. When you’re saying something important, let your voice go down – this makes your point more serious.

    Speak too fast and you’ll seem nervous. Speak slowly and you’ll sound more confident.


    Choose your words

    Watch yourself on video to see if you have any verbal tics. They often creep in when you’re unsure, and they convey your lack of confidence. Knowing about your unhelpful behaviours is the first step to changing them.

    Sally was training to be a journalist. When she first watched herself with an interviewee, she realised she sighed before every question! She soon broke that habit, but then noticed she started every sentence with ‘Well’ or ‘So’. It took her a bit of practice to become properly fluent.

    Avoid filler sounds such as ‘um’ and ‘er’. A few fillers are natural, but overdoing them can be distracting for your audience. It’s better to pause and hold the silence while you think of the next thing to say. Pausing also gives your listeners time to process what you’ve said.

    To help break that habit, the Toastmasters organisation has an ‘um’ and ‘er’ counter who tells you how many you’ve used in every speech.

    If you can’t remember what to say next, it’s OK to admit you’ve lost your place and need to check your notes. Do it with humour, regain your thoughts, and get back to your content.

    Working on a laptop

    Speak your truth

    Stick to your beliefs. You do have the right to hold them, even if someone else has an opposing view. State your case without apology, preamble or disclaimers. If someone objects, calmly tell them it’s a requirement of your job to state your opinions.

    Cutting in

    When you want to participate in a conversation, don’t use your hand like a stop sign. Instead, lean forward and use your hand like a knife to ‘cut’ into the space between you. This works like a silencer.

    Accompany the gesture with a phrase such as: “That’s a great point [Name] and I’d like to add to it by saying…”. Using ‘and’ rather than ‘but’ shows you are building on the conversation while introducing your own perspective, even if when you’re not in complete agreement.

    If someone interrupts you, keep speaking, increase your volume, say: “As I was saying…” or call it out: “I would appreciate it if you’d kindly stop interrupting me”.

    (These are true stories, but all names have been changed.)

    What next? 

    To help boost your skills in this area, you can find out more about executive coaching here:

    You can also explore leadership branding, here:

    You’ll find more information in my book, Power Up.



    Antoinette Dale Henderson

    The Gravitas Coach

    Antoinette is an executive coach, keynote speaker and two-time author with over 25 years’ experience in leadership communications, including 16 years holding senior positions in some of the world’s top PR agencies.

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