Build Your Leaders

What Television's First Woman President Has To Teach Us About Women and Communications

I have a confession to make: I am addicted to Tuesday night's new hit series "Commander In Chief." Sure, Geena Davis is beautiful. She's tall, regal, and has the best lips in the business after Angelia Jolie. But, television' first woman president has captured my attention for another reason: I am fascinated with her communication style.

President Mackenzie Allen commands respect, and yet she is likeable. I would follow her lead and still enjoy throwing back a beer with her after a hard day of work in the White House.

Most women are damned-if-they-do and damned-if-they-don't when it comes to communicating in the male-dominated worlds of politics, business, and education. In order to compete, they must find a delicate balance between authority and likeability.

All great communicators possess what I call "the terrific triad," credibility, likeability, and authority. While many women want to claim their authority, they are concerned about appearing too domineering or abrasive, and thus losing likeability. "We are in a double bind," one female executive shared.

To make matters worse, our culture associates authority with men. When we think of those traits we consider authoritative, we immediately think of tall, solidly built, and a lower pitched voice — all characteristics associated with men, not women.

In today's world, women are expected to be both authoritative and feminine. Most women agree that's difficult.

In my experience as a communications trainer and coach, most women have to sacrifice some likeability for authority, and that is okay.

Many women naturally have high likeability factors and can ramp up their authority and not lose all their likeability.

I worked with a young woman in her twenties whose public relations career had derailed due to her poor presentation skills. When she stood up to present, she acted like a little girl, losing all credibility and authority.

I asked her to pretend she was a tough-talking member of a women's motorcycle gang. "Spit out the words!" I demanded. As she did, her voice got louder and deeper. By getting in touch with her anger, the timid, little girl was transformed into a powerful woman.

Her coworkers were impressed and their positive feedback helped her overcome her discomfort in acting out her authority. From then on, she remembered the "motorcycle mama" whenever she presented and reclaimed the authority she already possessed.

Along with attitude, stance, eye contact, pausing, and vocal quality signal authority. When they present, many women I coach assume a dancer's pose with one toe pointed out at a ninety-degree angle. While this stance may be pretty and feminine, it holds no authority. I counsel both men and women to stand in their full power by placing their feet shoulder-width apart and equally distributing their weight.

The eyes have been called the "windows of the soul." As such, they are one of our greatest assets in winning audiences. I coach executives to begin their presentations by standing in silence, finding a friendly face, establishing eye contact, taking a deep breath, and then beginning their talk. This simple tip helps speakers become grounded and start their presentations with authority.

Many presenters talk while moving their heads from person to person like a sprinkler system, or worse they lose all connection with their audience by staring at one person, the slide screen, or into space. I train presenters to pick one person and maintain steady eye contact with that person until they have delivered a complete thought.

Like intensive eye contact, pausing signals authority. I teach students that there is power in the pause and recommend that pauses be used to emphasize important points.

Thirty-eight percent of our power as a presenter is determined by vocal quality. To maximize vocal quality, I suggest that women consider:

  1. Raising the volume and projecting their voice.
  2. Lowering the pitch of their voice, if needed.
  3. Avoiding letting the intonation rise at the end of a sentence, or what Jerry Seinfeld termed "up-talking." Up-talkers often appear uncertain about what they are saying, thus losing all authority and credibility.

Nothing creates a more powerful impression than conviction. While many women have strong convictions, they often have a difficult time expressing them. Most women have a conversational style that strives to make others feel comfortable. To accomplish this, many women position their beliefs as opinions and use disclaimers before they speak, such as, "I may be wrong about this, but..." While this conversational style is extremely effective in building consensus, it can undermine the authority of the speaker.

When women speak with absolute certainty, claiming their full authority, their likeability factor may decrease, but it is worth it if they are able to garner the respect and recognition they deserve.

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Copyright 2006, All Rights Reserved

The Career Engineer" Randy Siegel works with organizations to take high-potential employees and give them the leadership and communications skills they need to be successful as they rise through the organization. Purchase his book PowerHouse Presenting: Become the Communicator You Were Born to Be through, and subscribe to his complimentary monthly e-Newsletter at