I have been writing speeches for many years - and you won’t be surprised to hear that the majority of my clients are men. But I’ve also worked with quite a few women in leadership roles. A disproportionate number of them have been country girls who grew up in regional or rural Australia: hardy, self-confident, pragmatic, no-nonsense, good-humoured, women. Each one of them has had to fight harder than any man for the power she has attained and kept (and I have often felt like the over-sensitive inner-city writer in their formidable presence).
Is it different for women giving speeches? Yes it is. I recently had a conversation with a young thought-leader in the new disruptive ‘sharing’ economy. She is in huge demand to speak to corporations and conferences. Unlike my corporate clients, however, she was not a product of seventies feminism and is not naturally self-confident. She has put herself into the public domain because she knows she must be a public figure if she wants to influence the future. As an emerging leader she is adamant that there are still vastly different expectations of women in public speaking. And she is right. Unfortunately.
First of all there are limitations on what women can say. Women can’t boast or swagger. On the other hand, they shouldn’t be too humble and self-deprecating either. Women can’t be funny. They shouldn’t try jokes, and they definitely mustn’t use innuendo or sexualised remarks. No cheeky winks, then. They can’t use too much emotion because that will make them look weak. They can’t use too much reason because then they’ll seem cold and hard. They can’t ever be aggressive. Even being argumentative can be a problem. Boris Johnson can do silly stunts. Harder for a woman.
Then there’s the focus on her appearance. A woman speaker has to know that her ‘sex appeal’ will be carefully appraised. Body language is policed. Women can’t spread their legs or stretch their arms. Even the voice must be tamed. High-pitched voices – normal women’s voices - just aren’t acceptable.
Basically, just think of all the legitimate fears that men have about public speaking then double them. Now you know what it feels like to be an emerging woman leader speaking in public.
So what can women do to break free of these limitations? Well, I think the time to hope that the rules will disappear naturally has well and truly gone. So my advice is not to make the timid compromises necessary to be acceptable. Know that the rules are there, and that they are stupid. And chuck them. Overcome them. Overturn them. If we all stopped playing by the rules, then the rules would quickly crumble. Make your jokes, admit your weaknesses, boast about your accomplishments, wear whatever-the-hell you like, don’t give a damn about a few extra kilos, take up a lot of space, and generally act like you own the joint.
Women need to take their cue from all the fantastic performers who have shown that women in comedy can be funny, smart and silly; fat, thin and in-between; political, switched-on and argumentative – women like Tina Fey and Amy Schumer and Rebel Wilson. The time is ripe for women leaders with the confidence to own their own voices wholeheartedly.
I want to see more women walking up to the podium, taking up the space, grabbing the moment, and having their say. When Anna Bligh was Premier of Queensland she found herself one summer having to manage the most extraordinary sequence of natural disasters – floods, hurricanes, more floods. She made it her business to brief the media and the public every few hours about the rapidly changing situation. She would appear on television with a barely ironed shirt, no makeup, and roughly brushed hair. She was too busy leading to worry about that stuff.
Rosie Batty became Australian of the Year in 2015. Out of profound personal tragedy – the murder of her son by her former partner - she became a powerful advocate for better approaches to the problem of domestic violence. These women had the courage to let go of ego self-preservation in pursuit of greater causes.
If you want to lead, you have to persuade. If you want to persuade, then you will need to give speeches. I want to see more women with the impulse to lead, and the courage it undoubtedly requires of them to do it. I admire people who want to be leaders and I take great pride in helping the good ones. May more of them be women!