Being Heard: How to Hold the Floor
Tips for Lawyers & Anyone Who Contends with Mansplainers and Conversation Hogs
As a speech coach whose passion is helping women speak out I’m often asked: how can I do a better job of holding the floor?
The question comes from women who want to throw out ideas in meetings and presentations but dread being interrupted, shot down or ignored. Women lawyers are under pressure to demonstrate their legal prowess and problem solving skills. But stepping up to the mic can be risky especially when others don’t want you to have your say. Remember Taylor Swift’s reaction at the MTV music awards when she was about to thank her fans and Kanye West leaped on stage and grabbed the microphone from her. Swift was stunned into silence unsure about how to proceed.
Unfortunately that exceptional moment plays out frequently in conference rooms and around boardroom tables. Men will typically speak first, talk longer and control the debate. Ruth Bader Ginsberg commented that as a Justice on the Supreme Court, fellow jurists ignore her far less than they once did.
Women are more likely to hold back if they’ve experienced what’s been dubbed the dilemma of “speaking while female.” That is — being judged “too” something, whether it be aggressive, shrill, or boring.
Here are a few practical ways to get a word in edgewise:
Before you’ve uttered a word, body language sends a signal. Slouching or leaning back can be viewed as timid or disinterested. Look like you have something to say by getting your head in the game. Position your head closer to whoever you are talking to by sitting up straight and leaning forward from the waist with shoulders dropped back. If seated at a table put your hands and forearms in a “v” position on the table with one hand resting lightly on top of the other.
If the men in the room outnumber the women, getting the group to acknowledge your contribution can be a challenge.
The women in the Obama White House recognized this problem and decided to deploy what they called the “amplification” strategy.
Whenever a woman made a key point in a staff meeting, another woman would echo it by giving credit to the first speaker. This maneuver ensured that everyone in the room recognized the person who originated the idea so it couldn’t be stolen by a later speaker.
Take On Mansplainers
At a workshop for a group of women grad students in international affairs at Tufts University, a hot discussion topic was what to do about mansplainers. The consensus was to call out condescending or patronizing peers who insist on explaining things you already know. Asking the offender an insightful question about the topic which he likely can’t answer is one effective tactic. If you’re an associate and the mansplainer is a partner or client, here’s another situation where having a buddy can be a pragmatic approach. Seek out an ally who can flag the behavior.
The Hand Off
If you hold back on sharing expertise in client meetings for worry about being labeled a braggart, get a trusted colleague to help establish your credentials. Before the meeting, ask a mentor or a supporter to tee up your experience and then hand the conversation off so you can dazzle the client with your insights and practical advice. Volunteer to return the favor.
The Interrupting Trick
It can be near impossible to contribute in a meeting when dealing with long-winded colleagues. Butting in can be viewed as too aggressive. A way to be heard is to wait for the speaker to take a breath and in that split second distract him by using his name. For example: “Bob makes a good point and I would add…” When you interrupt Bob look at him with a smile and then turn away to look at others in the room while you keep talking.
Slow and Low
When someone attempts to interrupt you, use your vocal tone to prevent it. Resist the temptation to speak louder and faster while raising your pitch if someone tries to talk over you. It’s counter intuitive but you will be able to hold the floor if you slow your pace down and slightly lower your tone. Look directly at the person who is trying to interrupt with a smile and gently raise your hand towards their face using a stop motion.
Watch the Best
I start my coaching sessions with a question: who do you admire as a public speaker? Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy are the top responses. Very rarely does anyone mention a woman — even when I’m working with women.
There is much to learn from watching women who excel. For example, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg is a stand out on panel discussions because she engages the audience with humor drawn from everyday life.
Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi is a case study in remaining calm while discussing racism in America.
U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren can electrify a crowd with her plain-spoken, forceful cries for fairness in the financial system. Putting yourself out there is not for the faint of heart. Justice Sonia Sotomayor says: “The greatest obstacle to your own success is your own fear. Failure is never fun. But each time you fail you learn something.”
Take the risk and give yourself credit for having the guts to put your ideas on the line. Only then will you gain the satisfaction of impacting an audience and empowering them to take a course of action.
*This piece first appeared on the Debevoise & Plimpton blog.
Christine K. Jahnke is a Washington, DC based speech coach and the author of “The Well-Spoken Woman: Your Guide to Looking and Sounding Your Best”. Follow her on Twitter at @ChristineJahnke.