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  • Writer's pictureLucy Dinsmore

Sounding Like a Leader

Earlier in April, Women in Horticulture had the opportunity to hear the revered Dr. Laura Sicola speak on the topic Vocal Empowerment for Women in Leadership. This event was generously supported by Winterthur and the Longwood Fellows Program, in order for everyone to attend free of charge. Dr. Sicola grabbed our attention right from the start, and held it firmly for the next 60 minutes.

She began her captivating lecture with a great slide of two images. On one side of the screen was a doormat, and on the other side was the Wicked Witch of the West with a snarling canine's face transposed over hers. It was an analogy to the ways women are viewed in the workplace (and beyond), based on their communication styles. The Doormat vs. The Witch/Bitch. Dr. Sicola explained that there are often discrepancies in how we want to come across to our audience, how we actually come across, and how others see us. With tools for stronger communication, we can get our messages across while sounding like leaders and avoid the extreme stereotypes of doormats and witches.

Dr. Sicola give us an overview of the key parts to successfully communicating a message. The visual she used was an equilateral triangle whose three points represented the 1) Verbal, 2) Vocal, and 3) Visual components of a message. The Verbal is what you say; the Vocal is how you say it; and the Visual is your body language. When all these factors are IN alignment, our message has credibility without distractions, and can make us sound like leaders. If these 3 points are OUT of alignment when we're communicating, we could be sending mixed messages to our receiver. When OUT of alignment, our visual cues may account for 55% of the message, our vocal cues 38%, and our verbal cues only 7% of our message. So, basically no one is hearing 'what' we're saying. In this way, our message lacks credibility, and we lose all sense of leadership.

Verbal - The 'What' You Say

What we say includes so much more than what's on our PowerPoint notes. It's the organization of our words, the use of "fillers," and how our message is framed. Oftentimes, women frame their statements as questions, rather than declarations. And we do this for good reason - so as not to come across as the dreaded workplace witch. Here's an example: At a staff meeting where you want to introduce a new idea, you could say, "Can we look at it this way?" Or, you could say, "Let's look at this option." When we phrase it as a question, it shows that we're seeking permission from our coworkers. Whereas, when we phrase it as a declaration, we're taking ownership of that statement.

Oh, the dreaded filler words - so, um, uh, like, aaaand, but, er, ah, ok, I mean, you know?We all use them, and they sure can make us sound dumb. Have you ever had someone count the number of times you say 'like' or 'um?' My brother once told me he said 'uh' 48 times during a 5-minute grad school presentation. 48 times! Would you want that person giving a formal report to the Board of your organization? Probably not. Filler words are just ways we fill space, instead of using pauses.

Dr. Sicola also showed us the importance of how we organize our thoughts and words. Get to the point. The higher up the organization chart, the shorter the attention span. So, modify your message based on who you're talking to. If it's the Executive Director, then get to the point - ain't nobody got time for that! If it's your coworker or intern, you can maybe take a little more time. But don't let people get lost in the maze of your words, and don't data dump on someone who really just wants to know the facts. If you make it simple to understand, you'll sound brilliant.

And the cartoon says, "That's an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it." Sound familiar?

Vocal - The 'How' You Say it

How we deliver a message might come with some baggage. It might come with nerves, speed, pauses (or no pauses), vocal fry, and strange intonation, and we might not even realize we're doing it. We all want a captivated audience, right? We don't want a captive audience, however.

Nerves and caffeine are not a good mix when it comes to presentations. We end up sounding like one long run-on sentence without any punctuation. Like an awful email that's 7 lines long without punctuation or capitalization. We all have to breathe, so add a period, a microsecond, and inhale. Dr. Sicola emphasized owning your space and silence. Pause instead of using a filler word. Breathe, and then move on to your next point.

Ok, here's a scenario you can maybe able to relate to: You're at a staff meeting, where you've just presented an idea. You pause to let it sink in, and somehow the meeting gets off track as your male colleague interjects his thoughts. And you let him. Well, take your platform back! Dr. Sicola told us to, 'Go get your ball back if someone steels it!' She suggested using that person's name, like "Jack....," and repeating it until you've got the floor back. She also suggested standing up for your female colleagues, too. That way, you're not being passive, nor are you being nasty.

Oh, the many ways we fidget: finger picking, stupid dinosaur hands, and the wacky waving inflatable arm-flailing tube man!

Visual - Body Language

Have you heard the acronym P.E.G.S.? We hadn't, but learned it stood for the following:

Posture / Movement - When presenting to an audience, do you look like a human metronome, rocking side to side?

Eyes / Eyebrows - Does your pondering cause your brows to furrow, and therefore make you look mad, scaring people off?

Gestures - Do you fidget? Pick your fingers?

Smile / Facial Expressions - They should match the tone of your words. How does it look if you're congratulating your staff on a job well done without smiling? Confusing, right? People are more ready to accept what you're saying if your mood is up or enthusiastic.

Lastly, remember that your audience is not looking to criticize you. We tend to imagine the worst before getting up in front of a group. Perhaps an audience member might be thinking, 'Boy, I really hope she doesn't stink.' Well, no one is thinking that! They're usually instead thinking, 'I can't wait to learn something from her.' So, remind yourself that.

Cat Meholic introduces Dr. Laura Sicola

This event had an important message and a great audience of over 35 people. We thank Winterthur for graciously hosting and helping to sponsor the event, along with the Longwood Fellows. A big thank you to Cat Meholic for organizing, and to Dr. Laura Sicola for showing us what leaders look and sound like, and how we can get there.

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