Plenty of things about being a woman probably make you want to shout—and not in a hands-in-the-air-like-you-just-don't-care kind of way. One of those girl-specific concerns is deciding how you want to present yourself at work, especially when you consider the Gordian knot of communicating while female: coming off as confident and competent without crossing the border into Aggressive-stan.
So how do you let the rest of the office know you're the boss but not Madame Overlord Dictator? We consulted three experts and distilled their vast knowledge into a dozen handy tips below.
1. Don't say "I'm sorry" without finishing the phrase.
Deborah Tannen, linguistics professor at Georgetown University and author of Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work, says that when women apologize, oftentimes the response they receive is "It's not your fault." If you're really not to blame, then why sound like you're the guilty party? Instead, complete the sentence: "I'm sorry that happened" has quite a different ring to it, no?
2. Take your time.
If you feel like you're going the appropriate speed, you're already going too fast, according to John West, head instructor and co-owner of New York Speech Coaching. Aim to speak at the rate of no mistakes: whatever speed you can successfully articulate your ideas without using "um" and "uh," excessive "likes" and "you knows," or unintentional words. This might feel like you're talking in slo-mo, but West says listeners report speakers who screen each word before they come out sound more put-together and self-assured.
3. Do your homework.
You didn't think you could get out of this one, did you? Study up so you know the language of your workplace, says Robin Lakoff, linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Learn some technical terms if that fits with your environment, but don't throw jargon around too much. Also avoid being too formal: Don't rattle off polysyllabic words like you've recently reunited with your SAT flashcards. Striking the perfect balance between colloquial and correct is tough, we know.
4. Just breathe.
Breathing with the chest isn't optimal for talking or for relaxing. Instead, West recommends a diaphragm-centric method, which you might have practiced in yoga before. Basically, the diaphragm contracts to make the stomach expand on the inhale and the lower abs then contract on the exhale. It feels weird when you first try it, but this technique calms you and gives you a better speaking voice. And because the body doesn't feel like it's panicking, your mind can better access the content it needs.
5. Find a role model.
Whether it's Olivia Pope, Alicia Florrick, or a friend you admire, pick a woman who knows what she's doing and emulate her, Lakoff suggests. Study how she interacts with higher-ups and fellow employees. What did she do? How did she do it? If she's not a fictional character, you could even practice with her.
6. Pause on punctuation.
"The idea is that it's totally fine to take as long as you need to think about what you want to say, but take that time on punctuation," West says. Two ways you can increase continuity and remedy pauses between words: Film yourself and see if you can make it through 60 seconds without any "likes" or "ums." Or read out loud before bed, linking the words until you get to a period or comma and taking a big breath before you start again. (P.S. It's perfectly OK if you can't keep it up 100 percent of the time.)
7. Skip the disclaimer.
Tannen says many women will open a conversation by discounting their ideas: "Maybe you've already thought of this, but ..." "You might have heard this before, but ..." Those phrases undercut your authority and give the impression you're uncertain. Just go ahead and say whatever it is you were going to say.
8. Reduce your self-imposed sense of urgency.
As listeners, we don't respond well to someone who looks like she's overly concerned with the audience's judgment, so stop feeling like you need to rush. Remember: Haste makes waste. Stammering, stuttering, and vocalized pauses create a picture of someone who doesn't know what she's talking about—and that's not you.
9. Watch out for rising intonation.
Although some of her colleagues think women up-talk to ask for approval, Tannen says she believes it's simply the speaker leaving room for a response; ending statements as if they were questions tends to generate connection, such as "yeah" or "mmhmm." Trust that what you have to say is important and those declarative sentences will come out declarative.
10. Stay grounded.
Don't twirl your pen—or worse, your hair—shift around, or fidget. The trick isn't to get rid of that energy, West says; it's to channel it into your breathing. Apply it to your inhale. Stand up straight and transfer your weight to the balls of the feet with a little give in the knees: This posture improves clarity of thought. Find a relaxed stillness and gesture organically versus using extraneous movements.
11. Be very clear about the response you expect.
It's like this: You begin with praise and the person you're talking to only remembers how happy you were with his work—not the part where you said, "I need those corrections by the end of the day." That's not to say never give compliments, Tannen says. Just be sure to start with the main point and reiterate those specific instructions at the end.
12. Believe in yourself.
Repeat until self-esteem reaches peak levels: I'm here for a reason and I have a lot to contribute.
Image via Everett Collection