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How to get heard in meetings: deep breaths, superhero poses and owning ‘bossy’

Sitting in an almost empty studio, I am slowly reciting details of my weekend to a drama teacher while picking up cups from a table in front of me and putting them down again – one object a word. It’s slow going, but that’s the point. I’m trying to slow down, speak clearly, maintain eye contact.

Surprisingly, it works. Repeating myself afterwards – minus the cups – I sound even more convincing about the specifics of my fish-and-chip dinner than I did the first time round.

The cups device is just one of the many exercises taught in City Academy’s How to Get Heard in Meetings course, which, while open to anyone, is being marketed as an especially female-friendly way to apply performance techniques to everyday scenarios.

Women have long struggled to make themselves heard in the workplace. In 2014, Harvard Business Review reported that “we have consistently heard women say that they feel less effective in meetings than they do in other business situations. Some say that their voices are ignored or drowned out. Others tell us that they can’t find a way into the conversation … In fact, several men reported seeing a female colleague get rattled or remain silent even when she was the expert at the table.”

Last year, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant wrote about the reasons why women often stay quiet at work, noting that “when a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea. As a result, women often decide that saying less is more.”

Course tutor, Cat Clancy, has worked as an actor. As well as teaching weekly classes, she also goes into businesses to relay how stage skills might be put to use in a more corporate theatre. But today, I’m subject to a one-on-one experience. It’s intense – and that’s before she gets the video camera out.

Watching yourself on screen is, of course, excruciating. But it’s an easy to way to see where you’re going wrong and why even those who make a conscious effort to speak in meetings often feel that their ideas and opinions are dismissed. I stumble over my words. My ability to maintain eye contact is, apparently, horrendous. I squirm in my seat, twirl my hair and, no matter how wildly I gesticulate, my words sound vague. Clancy’s advice might seem obvious (especially for a course that costs £295) – breathing from your stomach, not shoulders, and warming up your voice ahead of public speaking is the stuff of GCSE drama – but it’s putting it into practice that is tricky. Sadly, says Clancy, there’s no easy solution; you need to build these things into your routine. Make it a habit.

Some of the tasks are easy to do at your desk. Imagining you’re holding two bags of shopping and letting your arms sink down with the weight in each hand is a good way to relieve shoulder tension, for example. Others are less subtle: taking deep breaths while standing in a “superhero pose” (fists clenched, arms above your head) is a good way to limber up your ribcage. Clancy suggests nipping to the loo for this one.

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Incorporating this type of meeting prep is perhaps easier if your line of work sees you routinely called into an Apprentice-style boardroom – and, indeed, this may well be the case for the majority of those who have already taken the course. Law, finance and the IT sector are the worst culprits when it comes to women feeling like they are not being heard, says Clancy.

But if, like me, your work meetings tend to involve swivelling a chair around to face colleagues, none of whom happen to be wearing suits, and sharing a bag of sweets while you mull over ideas, then it might all be rather less applicable. Back in the office, I attempt to put my point across using some of my newly learned techniques and am swiftly interrupted by my editor. Who is a woman. I wonder whether the difficulties felt by some women might be down to workplace culture, rather than gender? “Maybe you work with enlightened men,” Clancy says.

Even so, she argues, the area in which women are most at a disadvantage is linguistics. Gender linguistics dictate that women downplay certainty, apologise more and value building rapport with colleagues over establishing their place in a hierarchy, among other traits that are ultimately unhelpful for getting your point across. It was a point recently highlighted in the Washington Post by Alexandra Petri, who rewrote a series of famous quotes, translating them into the style in which women supposedly speak in meetings. For example, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” became: “I’m sorry, I just had this idea – it’s probably crazy, but – look, just as long as we’re throwing things out here — I had sort of an idea or vision about maybe the future?” But while the article was widely shared, it did seem to imply that women make ineffective leaders.

Cat Clancy.
Cat Clancy.

Clancy, meanwhile, quotes sociolinguistics professor Debra Tannen’s bestselling book You Just Don’t Understand, which also highlights gender differences in communication.

“She argues that everyone is unique, and nothing is good or bad,” says Clancy. “The difficulty comes if you’re in a workplace where there’s a dominant style that is a big clash with your own. Sometimes, for example, because women are less interested in claiming individual credit, they could come across as underconfident.”

It’s worth noting that a course that reiterates supposed male or female stereotypes could create self-perpetuating behaviour, within meetings and elsewhere, even if it shows attendees how linguistics, as well as body language, pace and tone, could be used to one’s advantage.

But this, argues Clancy, is the real crux of the course. Taking a more tactful, even apologetic stance within the workplace isn’t an inherently bad approach; we can’t all be Alan Sugar (thank goodness). But it’s “having that awareness – doing those things consciously” that can have an impact on making your point heard.

Of course, the criticism often levelled at women who do speak up is that they are bossy. Last year’s Ban Bossycampaign, backed by Sandberg and supported by women including Jane Lynch, Diane von Fürstenberg and Condoleezza Rice, sought to ban the word “bossy”, on the grounds that it discourages girls (and, eventually, women) from speaking up, or taking on leadership roles. Clancy’s solution is not to ban bossy, so much as rebrand it.

“I think that if it’s authentic, then you won’t come across as bossy,” she says. And so, she asks me to roleplay a scenario in which I speak to a writer about why their copy is late and demand to know when they expect to file; I definitely feel bossy. “It’s when people are uncomfortable with asserting themselves and they force it, that’s when it can tip over into aggression. You have to own it,” she says.

Clancy herself is testament to “owning it”: she speaks in a calm, measured way, never umm-ing and ahh-ing, or trailing off mid-sentence, she does not slouch or fidget, and all with apparent ease. It’s only when she demonstrates the what-not-to-do version with alarming accuracy that I wonder if her role as tutor, or today as an interviewee, might be another character, too. Her demeanour is perfect for teaching and, yes, for meetings – yet I can’t help but think that she is more talented an actor than most of us will ever be, and that acting – especially, acting more like men – may not be the best way to bring change to a workplace culture that makes women, in particular, feel as if they are not being heard. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to pose like a superhero in the loos.

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