Is Presenter Training Biased Against Females?

I am an old, white, cisgender male. A product of my culture, my upbringing, and my practical work/life experiences. Why start with an introduction like that? Because I am going to delve into a controversial topic and my identity is naturally going to color the way I think about it.

I just finished a presentation training session with a wonderful client. We ran through some practice presentations and group feedback discussions. In this particular session, all the participants were female.

One of them exhibited a common speaking habit… Frequent upward inflections at the ends of conceptual phrases or complete sentences. Linguists refer to this under a variety of labels. You might see references to High Rising Terminal (HRT), upspeak, uptalk, rising inflection, upward inflection, or High Rising Intonation (HRI).

The woman in question was preparing to speak on stage at an industry professional conference. I had a choice to make… Should I mention her intonation tendency and recommend modifying it for a more declarative tonality, or should I let it slide?

Several years ago, I would have recommended a more declarative style without another thought. I was trained to believe (and thus DO believe) that upward inflections can result in a perceived lack of confidence and authority from a speaker. The perception can be exacerbated (unfair as it may be) when males listen to female speakers.

But nowadays the issue is not so cut and dry. Linguistics professional Amanda Montell is among a group of people working to “decriminalize” upspeak and other increasingly common speech patterns that have long been labeled as incorrect, especially for female speakers. Ms. Montell wrote a deliberately confrontational book called “Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language” in which she effectively says that men should stop trying to make younger women speak in a more traditional older male style. She particularly calls out attempts to stop upspeak, vocal fry, and “like” as a conversational filler.

This one’s tough for me. If I argue the point, is that another piece of evidence pointing to a knee-jerk age/gender bias that refuses to recognize a different, valid style from people who fall into a different demographic than mine? Possibly. I may not be able to break myself out of that viewpoint.

But I think it’s worth at least considering “the reality of perception.” Presentation is not just simple transmittal of facts. White papers, charts, and reference books can take care of that. A significant component of effective presentation is performative. You make choices designed to influence an audience’s attention, agreement, and action. So many things contribute: vocabulary, facial expressions, body language, tempo, tonality, supporting visuals, and more. Experienced presenters don’t just think about what they want to say – They think about how the audience will perceive them and emotionally or intellectually take in the message.

Your audience may be unjustified in their perceptions. But that doesn’t mean the perceptions don’t exist. If your presentation style introduces doubt in the minds of your audience or distracts them from listening to and assimilating the message you want to deliver, they may be in the wrong. But that’s small consolation after your presentation fails to achieve its desired goals.

You can’t change all those perceptions at once. You don’t have control over all those accumulated biases and backgrounds out there. You only have control over one person… YOU. Which puts the onus back on you to understand how you are perceived and work on eliminating the things making you less effective at your task.

There is a glib piece of advice given to marketers, salespeople, authors, and speakers… “Know your audience.” We may not agree with the way they think. We may not like the way they think. But if we can UNDERSTAND the way they think, we can communicate with and influence them more effectively.

For now, I will leave it to Ms. Montell and others to change public perceptions across the populace at large. In the meantime, watch out for rising terminal intonation as something that could potentially undermine your effectiveness. If this is even more important for females presenting to males, let’s acknowledge the unfairness but still account for the reality.

As with all presentation habits, the goal is not to eliminate them completely and sound robotic. The goal is to reduce their frequency and prominence to the point where audiences ignore them and concentrate on your message rather than your behavior patterns. I believe in this for all presenters – male and female, young and old.