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Unexpected tips for women speakers, from women who own the stage

50/50 Pledge
Feb 4, 2016 · 5 min read

Over the last few months, we’ve talked to some of the most talented women in tech about their professional speaking experiences. We’ve learned how to prepare for a talk, how to pick a talk topic, and how to conquer stage fright. In addition to general speaking tips — amazingly useful for anyone, not just women — it’s true that there are some aspects of delivering a presentation that are unique to women speakers. We chatted with Natalia Burina of Salesforce, Ellen Chisa of Lola Travel, and Caterina Rizzi of Breather to understand what unique challenges exist when you’re speaking at a tech conference as a woman.

The result? We uncovered some uncommon tips we never expected to hear. These are the little-known tactics that these women felt were important for others to consider before the next time they step on stage.

Dress for the Stage (and Camera)

Choosing what you’re going to wear during your presentation is important, but potentially not for the reasons you’d expect. There are particular aspects of dress that really matter to women speakers on stage because they will affect how you hold your hands, your body temperature, and the quality of the recording of your talk, among other things.

“I always wear something I’m comfortable in,” says Ellen Chisa, who leans toward more casual dress for her speaking engagements. “I wear jeans and a shirt. And it’s better to have a solid color on.”

She also advises other speakers, if possible, to ask about the color of the background of the room. “If it’s dark, wear bright colors. If it’s a white room, wear a neutral.” Most events these days also record speakers’ presentations. Wearing solid colors means that you won’t create any visually abrupt patterns throughout your recording. Specifically, stay away from high-contrast, small patterns, especially those with either vertical or horizontal lines.

Natalia Burina also notes that, to stay comfortable, you need to think about how your body temperature may change while you’re on stage. “Don’t have a bulky sweater on. You will blush. You will get hot.” This bit of advice is potentially counterintuitive: While oftentimes office temperatures may not be favorable to women’s natural body temperatures, remember to dress for the stage and not your desk.

Bring a Friend

Especially if you’re new to speaking, don’t do it alone.

“It helps to have someone you know in the audience so you have support. That’s really huge,” says Natalia. “I went with a friend to be interviewed by Jason Calacanis. I was surprised how much it meant to her to get support. They’ll also give you feedback like, ‘Your presentation was really great but your voice wavered.’”

Having a true friend that will be honest with you can be very valuable, while others may not be so forthcoming. Natalia also says, “It helps to have someone who can help calm you and who can get something for you last-minute. It’s a seemingly small tip, but it’s really helpful.”

Hair and Accessories

When you’re on stage, it’s important to keep the focus on you and your story — not the pendant wildly swinging from your neck, or the bracelets loudly jangling from your wrist. Before giving a presentation, check what you’re wearing to see if there might be a piece of jewelry that could distract you or your audience from your presentation. If you’ve done a great job preparing, you’ll have a solid sense for how you’ll move during your talk and can make a quick decision on what to keep on versus what to set aside during your time on stage.

Another thing to consider is your hair. If it’s long and you’re wearing a clip-on mic, you’re in for a constant battle to keep your hair from sweeping across and obstructing the microphone. You’re also risking it getting caught in the clip itself — not a pleasant on-stage experience! A handy hair tie or headband can help to keep your voice clear and any unwanted mic interference at bay.

Don’t Drop the Mic

If you haven’t spoken at an event before, you might not have thought about how much the type of microphone you’ll use matters. Some events have clip-on mics so you’re hands-free, while others have mics on stands or handheld mics. If you can, ask in advance what type of microphone you’ll be using so you can better prepare.

If you’re unsure what type of microphone you’ll be using, you may end up with a clip-on mic. And if you wear a lightweight shirt without a solid collar, clipping that mic to your shirt can potentially cause problems.

Caterina Rizzi had an unfortunate run-in with a clip-on microphone at a recent conference. “If you’re using a clip-on mic, don’t wear a loose shirt because it pulls down while you’re talking.” If you are wearing a thin shirt with little structure, pair it with a sweater or blazer to which you can solidly attach your microphone.

After giving a few talks, you will develop a preference for your speaking style, the type of event, and the microphone to match. Caterina found that over time, “I like holding the mic because it gives me something to do with my hands. I don’t feel awkward.” Having this information is great, but make sure you also put it to use. If you have a preference, be sure to relay with the event organizers beforehand so they can try to have your preferred gear on-hand.

Once you’ve taken the time to find a great speaking gig, have prepared an amazing talk, and are ready to share your expertise with the audience, we hope these (not often talked-about!) tips can help you deliver an amazing talk.

To confidently share your ideas, you’ll want to feel at ease and comfortable. You’re now better prepared to navigate a handful of important yet unexpected issues that you may come against in the position you’ve worked so hard to be in — a confident woman sharing her expertise on stage.

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