You are brilliant.

Your ideas? Incredible. Your questions? Insightful. Your critiques of the status quo? Right on.

I keep meeting brilliant women like you, with powerful ideas to contribute, important businesses and organizations to build, provocative questions to share. But so often, the way they communicate fails to command power.They equivocate, apologize, and look away as they speak.

I do this too. We are subtly undermining ourselves with their words. As a result, our ideas aren’t having the impact they could.

Here are eight ways you might be undermining yourself with your words–and eight ways to stop:

1. Drop the “just:” “I’m just wondering …” “I just think …” “I just want to add …” “Just” demeans what you have to say. “Just” shrinks your power. It’s time to say goodbye to the justs.

2. While you are at it, drop the “actually.” “I actually have a question.” ” I actually want to add something.” “Actually” communicates a sense of surprise that you have something to say. Of course you want to add something. Of course you have questions. There’s nothing surprising about it.

3. Don’t tell us why what you are about to say is likely to be wrong. We are still starting sentences with, “I haven’t researched this much but …” “I’m just thinking off the top of my head but …” “You’ve clearly been studying this longer than I have, but …”

We do this for lots of reasons. We don’t want to appear arrogant. We aren’t totally sure about what we are saying. Or we fear being wrong, and so we buffer the sting of a critical response by saying up front, “I’m not totally standing behind what I’m about to say, but …” Then, no one has the chance to say back, “Well, I know you strongly believe this, but I entirely disagree.”

No matter what the reason, doing this takes away from the power of your voice. Time to change the habit.

4. Don’t tell us you are going to “just take a minute” to say something. Often, in presentations or meetings, I hear women say, “I’d like to ask you to take just a minute to consider this idea” or “Now, I’m going to take just a few minutes to tell you about our product.” Think about how much stronger it sounds to simply say, “I’d like to tell you about our product.”

Go ahead and only take a minute, if that’s appropriate, but skip using the phrase “just a minute” in a talk or presentation. It sounds apologetic and implies that you don’t think what you are about to say is worthy of time and attention.

5. Don’t make your sentences sound like questions. Women often raise the pitch of their voice at the end of a sentence, making it sound like a question. Listen to your own language and that of women around you, and you are likely to notice this everywhere. Unsurprisingly, speaking a statement like a question diminishes its power. Make statements sound like statements; drop the tone lower at the end.

6. Don’t substitute a question for a statement. You might think you are “suggesting” increasing the marketing budget by asking, “What about increasing the marketing budget?” in a meeting, but your colleagues aren’t likely to hear an opinion (and certainly not a well thought-out opinion) in your question. When you have something to say, don’t couch it in a question.

Sometimes, of course, there are strategic reasons to use a question rather than a statement: to gently introduce an idea to a group that is likely to be resistant to it, for example. But women often turn to questions rather than statements because we are avoiding conflict, avoiding visibility, avoiding claiming power. We use questions because we have old stories about it being dangerous or inappropriate to state our ideas definitively, and we can’t see how sharing our perspective boldly and directly could actually hugely benefit our careers. Time to let the old stories go.

7. Punctuate and Pause. Imagine sitting across a table listening to a woman share this: “We are working hard on this, because we want to get the business up in running by 2012, specifically April 2012, which is the target date, and we are very optimistic that with the right financing we can get there, and so that is why I’ve been approaching different investors every day…”

You know this type of communication: clauses get piled on top of one another, the speaker interrupting their own thoughts with digressions.

When we don’t feel we have the right to take up space in a meeting or conversation, or when we are nervous, we tend to rush, and never leave a moment without words. Brief pauses between your sentences connote confidence and a sense of comfort in the role of speaker. They allow the listener to absorb what you are saying and give you a moment to gather a deep breath and collect your thoughts.

How does it feel, in contrast, to imagine listening to this: “We are working hard on this. We want to get the business up and running by April 2012. We are very optimistic that with the right financing we can get there. I am approaching different investors every day.”

All that has changed is punctuation, but speaker number two sounds calmer and more on top of her plan. Punctuate and pause.

8. Keep being yourself. Women have unique ways of communicating — ways that tend to be more collaborative, consensus-building, and inviting. These new habits are not about adopting an authoritative communication style that doesn’t sit right with you in your heart; They are about giving up the self-diminishing patterns that stem from being afraid of power or from believing what our inner critics have to say, and as a result, sharing our ideas tentatively.

So, how do you begin changing your speech? Start by increasing your awareness of the unhelpful speech patterns you currently use and be mindful of your intention to speak differently.

I love speaking trainer Jeanne Marie Grumet’s recommendation to take these changes one at a time. Focus on one that stands out to you. For example, for a few weeks you might just work on noticing when you use a question when you really have a statement or opinion to share and work on changing that. Then you might shift to noticing your “justs” and eliminating them.

The world needs your ideas. It’s time to start sharing them fully, loudly, boldly, slowly — without diminishment or apology.


P.S. Over the years, my thinking on this topic has become more layered and nuanced. For the next step, check out my longer and more recent essay on women & communication here.


photo credit: Camille Orgel

We are on a mission to help you realize your playing big dream.
Dive into our resources here: