Encouraging women to the podium: Not just about speaking but about influencing

| Alex Barker

In late 2020, I was booked to speak at two very different conferences a few days apart. Both were public events where the content and the line up of speakers were the main draw. 

The first one lasted two days. On the whole it was excellent, but I noticed one thing that rankled me. On both days, the first two speeches of the day were delivered by able-bodied white men.

The second conference lasted a full week but I only attended the first day. In this instance the first three speeches of the day were again, given by able-bodied white men. 

Across the two events, I’d say that a couple of these talks were exceptional, but the rest were just ok. It was clear that the speakers had been recruited because they were CEOs of relevant companies, not because they were especially proficient at speaking or engaging an audience. 

Within the programmes as a whole, there were plenty of women and people of colour speaking too and even some specific panels on diversity, but the positioning continued to bother me. 

The opening keynote of a public conference is the best slot: everyone’s keen and caffeinated, and they’re generally the best attended. So who you select to open really matters.

Every time you put a particular demographic front and centre, you are sending a cultural signal about who is important and what an expert looks like. You are affirming and reinforcing the audience’s idea of who has knowledge worth listening to.

If that demographic is narrow, it tells any would-be speaker who doesn’t fit the mould, that they don’t belong up there.  

These small, seemingly careless moves, create long term norms that seep into our subconscious and affect how we see ourselves.  

The charity The Female Lead recently did a study about women at work, and they found that even though women are passionate, independent and committed to their work, they suffer from the ‘Unentitled mindset’ which translates to ‘expecting less, not taking up too much space, and not demanding more’.  

After three years of running Be More Pirate workshops, I’d noticed much the same. The inner rebellion – confronting our internal limitations – is the first barrier and I’ve come to believe that cultural conditioning is an equal, if not the dominant driver of inequality. 

But rather than moan and berate conference blind spots and the systemic bias it creates, I realised I could use my own experiences to help other women see themselves in a different light. 

So I designed a coaching programme ‘Pass the Mic’ to help women improve their confidence speaking in a range of different scenarios; job interviews, pitching for work; difficult conversations, and talking about issues you care about. I offer this because it comes from my direct lived experience – I know that being able to use my voice properly has had a bigger impact on my career than anything else. 

But, in truth, the programme is not about just speaking, it’s about influencing. Why? Because when we speak, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do, whether we know it or not. Public speaking is scary because we care about the audience’s opinion. We want them to approve of our content and delivery. 

A common way to avoid or reduce judgement while speaking is to simply impart factual information, without putting any of yourself into it. That, I realised, was exactly why some of the speeches I was listening to felt mediocre.

To influence, you have to get people to feel something. Speaking is a transmission of energy, and that is the first and most important principle of the course: recognising that your energy is more important than your message. 

That’s the secret to influence. What we work on in the course is exactly how to build it. 

Aside from beginning to equip women to more effectively advocate for themselves, I believe that speaking to influence is an underrated and undervalued skill (except perhaps in political circles) and that is a loss for society as a whole. 

In an increasingly polarised and adversarial world, we need people with integrity to be vocal bridge builders: to facilitate and mediate through confusing and uncertain times. To converse with curiosity, not fear, doubt, or arrogance and to tell the stories of their own impact without shrinking.  

And that takes work. It requires vulnerability, practice and support, but the result is that you’ll find yourself able to negotiate more effectively, resolve conflict, and build stronger relationships. 

Once you find your voice, it’s a gateway to influence in all areas of your life.

Alex Barker is an author, speaker and coach. She runs Be More Pirate – a book turned social movement / consultancy.

The next course will start at the beginning of April. The full course overview is available here, please email alex@bemorepirate.com if you would like to book a 30 minute chat to see if it’s the right fit for you. 

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