"A good speaker is like a good athlete," says veteran public speaker Janet Stone. "She makes it look easy."
But speaking up - whether testifying before the Senate or telling off a landlord - is often extremely difficult for women, says Stone who, with colleague Jane Bachner, conducts a communications workshop called "Speaking Up" for women employes of businesses and universities around the country.
"Women as a group have a way of talking that is as easy to identify as a Brooklyn accent," Stone contends. "Unfortunately, we have been taught to form habits of low-status speech - word-use, inflection, style, pitch, manerisms and silence - that reflect and perpetuate second-class status. Most of us announce that we are both full of doubt and eager to please everytime we open our mouths."
Stone and Bachner have taught thousands of women how to speak up since they began their workshops in 1972, and have recently incorporated their ideas in a book, "Speaking Up" (McGraw-Hill, 199pp., $3.95).
A former radio moderator, columnist and National Organization for Women (NOW) lecturer, Stone learned public-speaking skills the hard way.
"In 1972 the mention of equal pay for equal work brought an audience of Rotarians to their feet, hissing," recalls Stone. "In Atlanta in 1973, the mention that in years to come we might expect to see paternity leave had male executives almost ready to throw me out of the hall."
While women are increasingly called upon to speak in public, "People are not used to listening to women as the authority and may display either overt or covert resistance," Stone says. Women must stop the "self-deprecating," "ladylike" speech habits and mannerisms , she says, that make them less effective as speakers.
Here is how the authors address what they call "low-status" behavior patterns in "Speaking Up":
A woman who complains, "Nobody listens to me," or "People interrupt me all the time," is often a whisperer. Low volume not only suggest low energy, low enthusiasm and weariness, it also suggests powerlessness. Volume comes from breath support in the abdomen and not from tight throat muscles. Breathe deeply and speak so eveyone in the room can hear you.
A strong, pleasant voice is the greatest asset a speaker can have. If you sound like a giddy little girl you will be treated like one. Raising your pitch on emphasis words or at the end of a sentence makes you sound frustrated, shrill and helpless, while a low pitch carries conviction and authority. To lower pitch, relax your throad muscles. Groan a few times and repeat a sentence in the lowest pitch you can manage.
Eye contact is power. Pretending not to see or hear things has been a traditional "ladylike" way of dealing with unpleasantness. Some women try to pretend the audience isn't there by staring over their heads, up at the ceiling or down at their notes. Look at one person, hold his/her gaze until there is some response. Then turn to someone on the other side of the room and do the same thing, and so on.
Many women have adopted a completely self-effacing body language that could be called "the invisible woman" - or "Don't take me seriously." They do such things as try to adapt themselves to the height of the microphone rather than inconveniencing the equipment by adjusting it. The remedy is exactly what your mother told you. Stand up straight, look people in the eye and quit fidgeting.
Another typical habit is qualifying every statement to avoid sounding harsh or rude. For example, "I'd sort of like to explain . . ." Women also indicate insecurity by reinforcing statements with words like "just" and "really" as if they don't expect to be taken seriously without the extra emphasis, i.e., "It was really raining hard."
Another pitfall: tacking a question onto a declaration as if apologizing for making an assertion - "Ten percent unemployment is unacceptable . . . don't you think? " Speak in active, not passive tense, say the authors, to take credit for an accomplishment. "When I wrote the report," instead of, "When the report was written."
When you know what you have to say is unpopular and put on a big, apologetic smile, you convey ambivalence and appeasement.
The best way to evaluate your speech personality is by watching yourself on videotape. If you don't have access to the equipment, tape-record yourself reciting a speech, conversing with a friend, talking on the telephone. Listen for self-deprecating speech habits and watch yourself in a full-length mirror.
And no matter how frightened you are, remember it's just people in your audience and a speech is just talking. CAPTION: Picture, Janet Stone: "Most of us announce that we are both full of doubt and eager to please." Photo by Douglas Chevalier - The Washington Post