12 years ago, I arrived to the US to take on a newly created executive public relations role for a corporate wine company. I left a senior job and successful career in Australia, but here? I was an unknown PR person with no media contacts, no professional network, no alumni or sorority, and no idea what I was in for.
I had a pixie short haircut, spoke in a thick accent that many colleagues parodied, and I hated being here.
But I was tasked with recruiting and running the best wine communications team in the U.S. and I had to deliver.
Let’s just say that in the first couple of months I learned what NOT to do:
Don’t challenge a senior executive on their choice of plastic bottled water when you believe that San Francisco tap water is better for the environment.
Don’t show people what you thought was a harmless photograph that gets you dragged into Human Resources to outline the vast cultural differences from home.
Don’t question how or why your male colleagues, also on visas, received financial benefits that weren’t offered in your benefits package.
Sure I was “talking”, but the only people listening were concerned HR staff and senior leadership. Not an ideal audience for long-term success.
These situations went against everything I had been taught by mentors and bosses – to be assertive, to question the norm, to ask for what was fair, and have a voice. The skills that had got me here were not going to take me further. Being stripped of what little confidence I had in this new country was hard, and it left me questioning everything.
I felt like the problem child that no one was talking to, let alone listening to. I found myself asking why I had given up my home, my relationship, and moved my life for a situation that was not looking good. I also realized that speaking up had its own risks, and there was an imbalance of power and structure that I could not overcome.
So I had to dig deep quickly, and go to that place that not even Google Maps or WAZE will get you to. I had to do some serious introspection to understand where things had gone awry.
If I could reset myself, maybe I could have a future here. But it would take me to harness exactly what I had nothing of:
But what do I mean by confidence? To me, confidence is a marker or a signal that this is a person you need to take seriously.
But how do you get it? I believe that confidence is a professional decision. We make the conscious decision to FIND it and to USE it.
A globally respected wine CEO recently told me that before every big presentation, he would lock himself in the men’s room and put on his symbolic matador suit. It gave him confidence to go into the bullring and fight.
Of confidence, an actress friend said to me: they don’t pay to see me be insecure, they pay to see me be a star”.
I don’t know many women who come to this industry thinking, “This is going to be a walk in the park.” Confidence for most of us isn’t something that comes naturally.
And how many of us have faked confidence just to get through a situation? Or have faked it when we have no idea what we’re even good at? I realized that having the PERCEPTION of confidence was going to be critical in my survival.
SO WHAT DID I DO?
I found three friends I trusted in my new space and asked them for help. I asked questions:
What was I doing wrong?
How was I being perceived?
What had I missed the mark on?
I was determined not to change who I was, or my message, but I had to show a different facet of myself. So many of my perceived weaknesses were habits I didn’t even realize I had, but I was undermining my own power and potential before I got started.
So armed with these honest and brutal truths I decided to make changes.
I changed the way I spoke – I had to slow down the speed of my speech and enunciate more.
I worked hard to avoid using words that were unknown here and learn phrases that were commonplace.
I changed how I dressed – I had to dress more conservatively to be taken more seriously – whether I liked it or not.
I wore higher heels to assert myself in meetings and literally to take up more space.
I held eye contact more, and faked my confidence that I wanted and deserved to be there.
You are probably thinking why do WE have to make these changes? And you’re right. In an ideal world we shouldn’t. But in the communications industry, you need to speak in a way that people are trained to listen.
And the reality is we still work in a male-dominated industry and to get things done we need to work within the environment we have today.
I have hope for the future.
Now “confident” women WILL pay a price. I was called intimidating, domineering and difficult. I scored wins for my team and we had great success, but I discovered the more straight forward I communicated, the more it wasn’t the place for me. And today, I work in a much smaller company who appreciate and applaud my communication style. And we genuinely like, and respect each other.
Communication in its simplest form is essentially a combination of body language, voice and words.
More than 55% of the way we communicate is through body language. We judge people and they judge us based on body language. So we have to be aware of what we are saying to an audience by the way we use our bodies to communicate. We also need to be aware of what we are saying to OURSELVES through our body language.
When we feel powerful, we open up and get big. When we feel powerless we shut down and get small.
Do you ever see a super hero cower down? No!
You see them with hands on hips, or arms extended. Every super hero is about standing in a power pose; in an open posture, and being present.
However it’s less about superhero poses, but it is about TAKING UP SPACE to make yourself appear bigger than you are. And that’s a GOOD thing. When we are comfortable in owning our body and our space, that confidence comes forth.
Think of a time at work when you felt powerless, how were you standing?
Did you have arms crossed? (passive)
Were you leaning on one hip looking bored or unstable?
Avoiding eye contact (passive)
Picking at your fingers or fidgeting?
In order to be noticed a first step is to have presence – being present, grounded, alert, aware, and “in the game”
Now. Let’s Talk About Your Voice.
The key to your voice is through your breath, and my best advice to you is this:
Harness your breath. Learning how to consciously breathe will help to project your voice, keep control of emotions and exude confidence, without wavering or questioning. But it is critical to learn how to breathe low and slow from your diaphragm. Does everyone here know where their diaphragm is?
Here’s a simple check: take your thumb and put it in the space in space where your ribs meet at your sternum. Breathe in and push your thumb away, and breathe out and push it back. Breathe deep into your diaphragm and slow.
Once you have control of your breath, you can start to use your VOICE. 38% of our communication is in our Voice.
Women’s voices are naturally higher in pitch than men and can be perceived as less authoritative. Your authentic voice is attached to your natural breathing cycle, so the more you speak in line with your breath, the more authentic, and likable you will be perceived to be.
A 2016 study at the University of Illinois, looked at vocal resonance as it related to dominance and authority. The study found that men and women who lowered their pitch ended up with a higher social ranking, and were considered to be more dominant and a higher level of authority in the group. People who raised their pitch were seen to be more submissive and had a lower rank.
Ironically research also showed that while lowering your voice can command authority; guess what men find more attractive in women? A higher pitch of voice.
Another research project from the University of South Australia studied the voices of two groups of Australian women aged 18 to 25 and comparing archival recordings from 1945 to recordings in the 1990s. They found that the fundamental frequency for women had dropped from a A# to below middle C to roughly a G#. Researchers speculated that the transformation reflects the rise of women to more prominent roles in society leading them to adapt a deeper tone to project authority and dominance in the workplace.
Now, when we get nervous – our voice speeds up and we get higher in pitch. We also lose the power of the pause or of silence. So breathing will help you bring that back into balance.
And the simplest way to practice using your voice is to sing. Every day practice singing somewhere – sing in the car, in the shower, singing is the way to get comfortable with hearing your own voice. Using our voice to exert authority doesn’t mean you’re about to go and command the next company meeting, but it can certainly help boost your confidence to step up to the stage.
Also, enunciate your words, and use volume, and intention to drive home the point. Consider that booming “inner grumpy mum voice”. Nothing drives more fear right?
Words. Actual words comprise 7% of effective communication, but knowing WHEN to speak is critical. So how do you know WHEN to speak?
Observe – use data points to gather facts to form your position.
Listen – for cues or topics that are your opportunity to make your point.
Speak UP – settle your nerves and literally use your voice, probably louder and deeper than you normally do.
If when you DO finally talk, be clear, concise and to the point. Find the most important person at the table and make the point to them. And if people aren’t listening, make the point again. Yes it takes courage and you won’t get it right the first time.
AND SOMETIMES IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU
Sometimes it’s for others who maybe don’t have a voice, or don’t have the access to the audience, or the community, but need their message heard. Talk for THEM.
And if you are a woman in that room? Amplify and mobilize the message.
According to a report in The Washington Post, during the Obama administration, female staffers made a pact that when a woman raised an idea, other women in the room would repeat it, giving credit to the author, forcing the majority audience (men) to recognize the contribution – and denying them the chance to take credit for the idea. Again, repeat the point to amplify and give appropriate credit.
How about when you are not face-to-face? In email, text or on the phone, it’s tough to read body language, and you need to work extra hard to be understood. You have no idea what frame of mind the audience is in, so keep communications, short, to the point, and crystal clear to minimize potential for misunderstanding. In email, remove all apology words. No more “Sorry” - unless of course, you have something to genuinely apologize for.
None of this is magic; remember that confidence is a professional decision.
But it takes PRACTICE. So that’s what I want you to do:
Practice taking up space,
Practice using your voice
Practice using body language
Practice channeling that confidence.
Because one day you will realize that all that practice has you actually DOING it.
And some days you have to fake it until you make it. And there’s no shame in that. We ALL have those days where we had to paste on the smile to get through a conversation, altercation or meeting with a difficult boss. I don’t have the answer to every tough situation, but do you want to see what I use for those days? Do you want to see what’s my matador cloak??
It’s my gold WonderWoman slap band. That’s my secret weapon when I’m feeling less than. I channel a superhero who believes in truth and strength and doing the right thing. When things get tough, I ask myself, “what would Wonder Woman do?.”
SO TO RECAP:
Amplify other’s voices – you never know how much they may need it.
Harness your assets and learn your weaknesses
Learn how your body language plays a part in the way you are perceived
Harness your breath and become very comfortable with using your voice.
YOU GOT THAT?? Ok so let’s try it!
Everyone put down your phone, pens, drink bottles and stand up exactly where you have been sitting. Now on the count of 3 I want you to say: “Let’s negotiate my contract Jim.”
Okay – you know what I saw? (share observation)
Now…we are going to do this again but this time I want to you to:
Ground through your feet and get settled
Find your diaphragm and take a deep breath
Now drop your voice an octave - even if feels fake or false
And repeat after me: “Let’s negotiate my contract Jim”
Notice any difference? Did you feel a little stronger? More powerful? A little more in control?
I tell you what, I wouldn’t want to be Jim!
Okay you can sit down. PRACTICE… PRACTICE…PRACTICE
Today what would I say to my younger self, stepping off that plane?
You will be judged.
You will be challenged.
You will be talked over.
Dismissed and ignored.
But keep showing up, because it is worth it.
My younger self would never have believed that I would be leading teams, or being flown to Italy to speak about wine communications, or coach a Chief Operating Officer on how to be a more effective speaker. Or to be invited to speak with you all here. But here we are.
Keep showing up.
Observe, listen and use your voice.
Use that seat to fit 100 more women into the conversation.
BECAUSE YOU’RE IN THE RIGHT PLACE.
And when you think that you’re not being heard? Just know that Wonder Woman is always listening.