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Cognition

Your Words Matter

Power speaking tips for women.

There’s much talk these days about mobilization, speaking out, stepping into our power. We are frequently confronted with the imperative, Resist. And many of us are.

More of us are speaking up but not all of us are being heard. Why? Why do people listen to some women and not others? What is different about the women who are heard? How do we have to speak (and write) to command attention and respect?

Once we have learned to speak with clarity, we must learn to speak with potency. We may be unconsciously speaking a language of weakness. Our words say one thing, but they carry an undercurrent of, “I’m not too sure if what I’m saying is quite right.” Weak communication skills block our ability to empower ourselves and other women both in business and our political agenda. Follow the tips below to transform weak communications into strong communications.

Avoid Excessive Qualification

Excessive qualification weakens your message, making you sound hesitant and uncertain. Qualifying your words also adds bulk without adding substance. Look for opportunities to remove qualifiers like these from your speech:

a bit

a little

basically

extremely

fairly

highly

just

kind of

mostly

pretty

probably

quite

rather

really

slightly

somewhat

sort of

still

totally

utterly

very

These words are seldom necessary and add nothing to your message except a hint of uncertainty. Consider the following example:

Before:

This rather serious policy issue may possibly cause millions of women to lose access to reproductive services.

A policy issue is either serious or it’s not. What does the word “rather” add here? Nothing. What does the word “possibly” add (other than a hint of wimpiness)? Nothing. The speaker of this sentence already included “may,” which indicates enough uncertainty. There is no need to underscore that uncertainty further. The sentence should be revised as follows:

After:

This serious policy issue may cause millions of women to lose access to reproductive services.

Here’s another example:

Before:

The new version of the health care bill is really kind of problematic. It just may probably affect women’s right to choose.

After:

The new version of the health care bill is problematic. It may affect women’s right to choose.

Stop Hedging

Excess modifiers are a way of “hedging” or expressing uncertainty. As demonstrated above, they weaken a communication and undermine the speaker’s authority. Other hedging phrases that weaken communications include the following:

“In my opinion,”

“Clearly,”

“The point is…”

“I guess…”

“I think…”

“I feel…”

“I suppose…”

“To be honest,”

“I don’t know much about ___, but…”

Hedging not only makes you sound uncertain, it also adds unnecessary words to a message, making it difficult for the listener to discern your true meaning.

What If You Need to Hedge?

Sometimes you want to weaken your statement. If that’s the case, then by all means do so. But do so consciously, not because you are unaware of what underlying message your word choices convey. For example, if you are speaking about supply trends in the housing market, you don’t want to be held to an ironclad prediction on this topic. You do, however, want to communicate your thoughts as strongly and effectively as possible. Consider the following:

Before – Weak:

In my opinion, I think the market supply will improve by summer.

After – Stronger:

Market supply should improve by summer.

Or:

Economists expect market supply to improve by summer.

Here’s another example:

Before –Weak:

We hope to gather more than fifty thousand signatures on the petition.

After – Strong:

We plan to gather more than fifty thousand signatures on the petition.

Even when you have to hedge a statement, make conscious word choices to frame your statement to carry strength and authority. This is an art. Study the messages you receive daily. Which sound authoritative? Which are riddled with uncertainty? Pay attention and note what is effective and what is not.

Avoid Needless “Filtering” and Self-Reference

As feminists, we’re used to injecting ourselves into a situation. Talking about ourselves is key to self-marketing in competitive industries and is absolutely appropriate in many contexts. But in some instances, unconsciously injecting ourselves into our speech weakens our message. Consider the following:

Before:

I believe we need to focus on gender equality in the workforce. I think this is a time for change and I also believe the media is on our side.

After:

We need to focus on gender equality. This is a time for change and the media is on our side.

Do you notice how much more confident, certain, and powerful the revised version reads? By eliminating pointless self-references (“I believe…I think…) we not only have a message that sounds more clear, we have a message that exudes control and command—qualities that raise listeners’ respect and esteem for you—even if unconsciously.

Another example:

Before:

I have a problem with Senator McConnell’s legislative agenda.

After:

Senator McConnell’s legislative agenda is problematic.

The before version suggests whatever is wrong with the legislative agenda is your problem rather than the agenda itself.

Beginning a sentence with “I…” turns you into the subject of the sentence. If what you want to talk about is the legislative agenda, make the agenda the subject of your sentence. In addition, sentences hedged with “I” imply that what comes after “I” is only a matter of perception. As such, these statements are more easily dismissed as “that’s just the way she sees things.” The take-away rule is this: Do not start a sentence with “I” unless you are talking about yourself.

Follow these directives and attention and respect will follow. Subtle changes in messaging will help women everywhere to not only reclaim our power but to wield it.

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