Even Olympic athletes have coaches. So it stands to reason that two fairly accomplished academics who have given their fair share of public talks might attend a seminar about how women in particular could improve communication skills, or at least, be aware of how we are often perceived so we can adjust accordingly in an effort to ensure that a message is delivered effectively.
The presenter was a communications expert experienced at training C-suite executives. We were in a predominantly female audience made up of health care providers, researchers and medical educators. There were a few pearls in the talk, such as suggestions on how to take up space when you talk and reminders about women’s strengths in building collaborative teams. But we left disappointed, as the speaker largely just gave a list of oft-repeated pitfalls: be conscious of vocal fry and uptalk; stop needlessly apologizing; and eliminate the pervasive “bobble head” mannerism of silently agreeing with a speaker while they are talking.
However, it was not these messages that irked the most.
That dismal distinction went to a document that the speaker gave out to accompany her talk, focused on the other image-related items we should also do: wear pantyhose; limit “jangly” jewelry; and carry expensive handbags. Not to mention advice about coloring gray hair and avoiding strappy sandals. The recommendations left us feeling that the norm was to blend in—that under no circumstances should we stand out. Rather than appreciating the merits of a diverse workforce, the document seemed to shun it.
After overcoming our irritation about how many of the tips were related to physical appearance, we realized there wasn’t a lot of guidance either in the talk or in the handout about how to distinguish yourself, whether male or female. Yet, to be an effective scientist or leader, you have to be able to communicate about your work, whether in a lecture hall, a meeting room, or a one-on-one conversation. We offer here a few of our own insights that have helped us build the gravitas we need to be effective.
- The most successful leaders have a high EQ (emotional-intelligence quotient) in addition to a high IQ. However, you do not need to be the CEO to use your EQ. Consider whether you are sensitive to how everyone is feeling in the room. Are you aware of the unspoken undertones within a group or organization? We have witnessed a senior faculty member publicly belittling and cutting off a junior faculty member as she asked questions at a seminar. Interrupting the interrupter and publicly insisting on hearing the junior faculty member’s perspective will encourage her to keep sharing her knowledge and engaging in science, rather than muffling her (#LetHerSpeak). Alternatively, you can exhibit your EQ by privately approaching the person who was interrupted and expressing that you are aware of what happened and share in their frustration.
- If you are an introvert and cringe at the idea of sharing in large groups, remember that email is your best friend. Even if you only have the chance to speak with someone for a few minutes at a meeting, a follow-up email is the best way to maintain the relationship. It is less stressful, and you can select your words more carefully. Also keep in mind that age works in your favor. Introducing yourself to younger people at meetings is nearly always welcome. They are likely feeling alone, nervous and uncomfortable, they will always enjoy the recognition, especially in front of their posters. Finally, all the world’s a stage. Force yourself to go to the microphone and introduce yourself to people you don’t know. Give it 15 minutes and then head to the restroom to regroup. Next time will be easier. (These tips were inspired by our colleague Helene Rosenberg, a senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health.
- What you look like is not important as long as you look professional. We cannot recall whether our colleagues carried canvas tote bags or expensive leather handbags. If you’re unsure of the dress code for a meeting, ask ahead.
- Give credit where credit is due. It is generally women who publicly acknowledge the contribution of other women. However, women should not corner the market in public acknowledgments. Shining the spotlight on someone else does not diminish your worthiness. Quite the contrary. It shows that you are able to recognize talent, award it appropriately. During his acceptance remarks, Jeffrey Hall, a 2017 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, acknowledged by name the work of principal investigators (his co-recipients) and those he called “actual investigators,” the students and postdocs in the lab who actually did the work.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that you have to be able to communicate about your work to be an effective scientist or leader. You have to understand and appreciate the various communication styles and know how to compensate for your own individual areas of challenge. Have a toolbox of skills that you practice and perfect that will help you stand out for your achievements and ideas, while recognizing your strength in collaboration and teamwork.