Friday, July 10, 2015

Like, Hire Me? Why the Way We Speak Matters and What We Can Do About it

In the words of Joan Rivers, can we talk?

This week’s print and social media tsunami over whether the way women speak affects how they are perceived made me want to post #SayitLikeYouMeanit all over Twitter (which I actually did a bit of)!  It was instigated by former Google employee Ellen Petry Leanse's commentary for Cosmopolitan over the “permission word” “just,” and a piece in Fortune, “Like, Totally Don’t Talk Like This to Get Ahead in Business,” The coverage has been passionate, dissenting and informative.

The fact is, for better or worse, the way we speak does affect we how we are perceived.  Verbal habits including filler words, up-talk, vocal fry and incessant apologizing (See Amy Schumer’s "I'm Sorry" parody) can weaken our speech, making us sound unsure, and yes, maybe uneducated.  Whether you are giving an oral presentation, interviewing for a summer internship or a job, meeting with a college recruiter, or engaging colleagues at a meeting, sounding self-assured and speaking articulately is paramount to being taken seriously.

The good news is that none of these disfluencies are pathological (although hearing five “likes” in your colleague’s or child's every sentence may seem so).   The way we speak - women and men alike - is behavioral and we could all use a little more awareness and intervention.

As a communications consultant in the mostly-male technology sector, I help business executives communicate their messages articulately and clearly – to “Say it Like They Mean it.”  So, communications trends are always on my radar.  But, how did I get on this soapbox?  How did this issue become my baby?

Well, actually it was my baby!  My very literate and poised teenage daughter started using the verbal tics and fillers, the likes, umms and ahhs, in her own speech.  And, I can blame her peers, but she probably caught many of these verbal habits from me.

The same week I noticed my daughter’s verbal static; a dismayed colleague approached me.  He told me that he has two brilliant, highly educated female co-workers, but that he often cringes hearing them on calls and in meetings.  He has wanted to pull them aside and impress upon them the importance of not peppering their speech with mindless repetition of filler words and the verbal uptalk – the upward glide that ends what should be statements or proclamations in a question mark?  An example? “In today’s meeting, I think, you know, we need to discuss a new strategic direction for our client?” (What is heard?  I’m not self assured and not capable of running this meeting.)

And then there was my gynecology appointment…okay TMI!  But my doctor, a top practitioner in her field, told me emphatically that she too has experienced this, even in the operating room.  She said that fellow women surgeons weaken and clutter their speech to try to gain consensus and likeability.  So the command, “Scalpel” will turn into, “If you don’t mind, could you please hand me the scalpel?”   Not very inspiring in a high-stakes situation!

Bottom line…We need to empower girls and women to find their own authentic voice – free of all those filler words, apologies, vocal fry and up-talk. 

I reached out Marci Macaluso speech-language pathologists (SLP’s) and accent modification expert to learn more.  She said, “We are so busy bonding and wanting to be part of the ‘tribe,’ that we don’t realize how habitual these verbal crutches becomes and how they take over our speech and the way we present ourselves to the world. There are psychological and behavioral issues behind these speech patterns and with speech modification, there are different strategies we can use to successfully reshape these behaviors.”

In other words, how we communicate with our friends will be how we communicate in our professional lives.  And, there are fixes, screenings and tips that we can put into practice (the key word being practice), and you can find many of these on this blog.

The fact is, to “lean in,” to deserve a seat at the proverbial table, everyone could use speaker training. Corporate world or private sector; marketer, retailer, social worker, politician, engineer or doctor – no matter what our chosen profession – to show our best selves, we don’t just need to dress for success.  We need to speak to impress.

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