Public Speaking 101 for Women

By Matilda Tavares, Office of Development Communications Posted Thu, 09/14/2017 - 10:00

After getting her start in public speaking, writing speeches for local political campaigns as an undergraduate student, Professor Jacquelyn Horton went on to receive a MA in Communications Studies with an emphasis in gender communications. She has been working as a communication professor and consultant for more than 15 years, coaching students, faculty, and community leaders in the art of public speaking. Here at USF, Professor Horton teaches in the Rhetoric and Language department and has launched and directed the USF Speaking Center, a tutoring and coaching center for public speaking.

Here, Professor Horton talks about gender differences in public speaking and how to become a better public speaker.

  • What would you say are the biggest differences between women and men in public speaking?
    Audience perception. We’re taught to focus on the differences between men and women, but a lot of times we’re doing the same thing, it’s just that an audience perceives a speech differently when it’s a male speaking versus a female. People innately expect men to publicly speak. It’s a type of trait leadership. There is an association of masculinity with leadership and public speaking. On the flip side, women are perceived as being less direct and straightforward. Women have a long history of sitting together and conversing, but our history is not of women standing up and speaking passionately in public forums. It takes time for perceptions to change, and although many changes have occurred there is still so much work to do. Women need to think and prepare strategically, study their audience, and find ways to break through gender expectations when they are public speaking.
  • How do men and women experience public speaking differently?
    Women are harder on themselves than men. We’re taught to be critical of ourselves. Our initial reaction is not to feel confident and then after presenting to think of all the things we did wrong. Women need to remember that they are better at public speaking than they think they are. Believe in yourself. If you have something to say, you have to find a way to say it — with confidence!

  • Is there something, in terms of public speaking, that women have a benefit over men?
    Yes, it’s a matter of needing to know how to harness these skills. Storytelling and moving an audience emotionally come naturally to most women. And, actually, women do a better job at using humor.  Audiences appreciate narratives and stories can impassion people. If there is an opportunity to include a narrative in a speech and presentation, women should do that.

  • Who should women look to as public speaking role models?
    There’s not a lot of public speaking role models for women – and it’s a problem.

    A few female public speakers I teach: Sojourner Truth, Shirley Chisholm, Queen Elizabeth I, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Michelle Obama, Gloria Steinem, and Angela Davis.

    These are few notable female public speakers. When reviewing the speeches by these women you may notice that most of the speech content is about women’s rights and equality issues. That has been a powerful and important message, but I look forward to the day that women are valued for public speaking on all their areas of their expertise, not just their experiences as women. People don’t look at public speaking as a career path, what happens is they become successful in a field and are forced to speak publicly. They have a powerful message that must be shared to help the greater good, and public speaking is a way to get that message out there.

  • What are the best ways to prepare to public speak?
    First of all, accept that you’re going to be nervous. Then do these things:

    Practice, practice, practice. People do not practice their speeches or presentations before performing them, because they are nervous and focused on content. By practicing you can improve your delivery style and work out any content or organizing issues that might add to your anxiety. Practicing means standing up and saying the words out loud, in front of others, and asking for feedback.

    Desensitize yourself to the nerves. This is called “systematic desensitization.” It’s the act of repeatedly putting yourself in the same or similar experiences so that you become comfortable. I tell my coaches and clients to “Give the toast, lead the prayer, and speak up during class!” Create opportunities to “practice” public speaking.

    Visualize yourself doing well! It’s called positive visualization. It’s a way of cognitive restructuring; training your mind to think about public speaking in a different way, in a more positive way.

  • Can you recommend other resources to our readers to continue their learning and growth?

    The USF Speaking Center is available to work with students and I am available to coach faculty and staff on their public speaking. We can continue building our resources here at USF by supporting each other, especially women supporting women. There are also several online resources available. I like using Ted Talks, as they provide examples of leaders in public speaking, but honestly, the best way to learn and grow as a public speaker is to speak publicly. Find opportunities to share your message.

Learn more about USF's Writing and Speaking Centers