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Conference Speaking: Lessons from the speakers who stand out

Sarah Lloyd-Hughes

A few weeks ago I was at the Women of the Future Summit, surrounded by interesting, intelligent female leaders. Something hit me as I watched the programme unfold:

The speakers who stood out weren’t the women at all, they were the men.

This surprised and frustrated me as it’s the opposite of what I contend in my work – that women make the most inspiring speakers.

My fellow conference-goers agreed. Not that we begrudged the chaps their success, but where were all the outstanding, memorable female leaders? Where were our role models? And if they don’t stand out at a women’s conference, then when will they?

There were 18 female speakers that day and a few weeks later, there are only 3 who I remember; HRH Countess of WessexDr Tara Swart & Unilever’s Aline Santos.

What a waste. What’s going on?

My work and passion is helping senior female leaders to stand out, so here’s my analysis. If these resonate, drop me a note – I’m interested in hearing your experiences and views.


1.      We give too much information

Audiences can only absorb a very limited amount of information by listening to a speech, even if it has slides. Most female speakers don’t get it; we over-credentialise and we drown our audience in too much information.

Your job is not to say everything, but to highlight the 1 or 2 insights that are the most valuable takeaways.

2.      We speak too quickly

Under the pressure of a large audience and a tight timeslot, it’s no wonder we want to avoid wasting the audience’s time.

But as you rush, you diminish the importance of your message.

If you want us to take the time to consider your points important, you need to give us that time as you speak.

3.      We subtly signal uncertainty

The female speakers I observed had a tendency to use diminishing language and body language more than the male speakers.

E.g: saying ‘I think the biggest problem we’re facing is…’ rather than ‘The biggest problem we’re facing is…’

Moderating fillers like: ‘kind of…’, ‘sort of…’, ‘quite’ and ‘like’

Whilst these are not exclusively female tendencies, I see ladies signalling uncertainty more frequently. I noticed that these subtle cues make me more likely to dismiss that speaker’s presence as less credible and their insights as less important.

Read more about 5 undermining tendencies that hold female leaders back here.

4.      We lack leadership presence

Often it’s not what we say, but how we say it that makes the difference.

A male and female speaker both used self-deprecating humour, but with very different outcomes. The male speaker (a former ambassador), used self-deprecation in a way that built his likeability and credibility, whereas the female entrepreneur who tried an ‘I didn’t know what I was doing’ angle to her story unfortunately left us with the impression that she really didn’t know what she was doing.

The difference between the two was the often-highlighted characteristic that many women struggle with – gravitas. Smiling, laughing, lightening, head titling and speaking to the moderator in panel discussions (versus to the whole audience) are all part of this lack of leadership presence.

Those who we think of as credible leaders take themselves seriously and are capable, when needed, of asserting themselves with authority. It’s this quality that female speakers need to take on to get the buy-in of their audiences.

Lessons from the conference speakers who stand out:

So, what do the best speakers do? How can we learn from them? Here’s what the gents and ladies who stood out did:

1.      Know your quotables

In an age of information overload, the power of the tweetable insight is not to be underestimated. Mark Wilson, CEO of Aviva gave a master class in pithy statements that I found myself scribbling down and remembering:

‘No business has ever survived with the purpose to make money. I believe the role of business is to be a good ancestor,’ and ‘A lot of CEOs are Neanderthals’

Quotable statements are your opportunity to package your knowledge as a gift for your audience. They help you make your mark in a panel discussion, or to be remembered long after an event.

2.      Tell a story

HRH Countess of Wessex told a brief, simple story about Nelson Mandela which inspired the audience and could easily be retold afterwards.

Stories, when they’re done right, are memorable, emotional and convincing. If in doubt, tell a story – so long as your story has a clear message that supports your aims.

3.      Use humour to make a point

Humour is a great way to stand out, especially if it’s unexpected. World Pay Vice Chairman, Ron Kalifa gave us a fantastic illustration of the amount of Facebook, Twitter and other messages sent in an ‘internet minute’, slipping in that 500,000 messages were sent on Tinder every minute.

The naughty, playful note hit a chord with the audience – a great moment.

More female leaders I see speaking can afford to be bolder in showing their funny side.

4.      Shake up the energy

In a long day of speakers, the conference speaker who shakes up the energy is often the one who stands out the most. Here’s where we have the chance to come into our own as leaders, by using our own unique style to engage the audience.

At the Women of the Future Summit, it was HRH Countess of Wessex who took the slightly sober start to the programme and made it feel more relaxed and more energised all at once. With HRH it was the confidence to speak to us not from a script, but from a place of treating us as friends, that shook up the atmosphere.

As female leaders we must take charge of our conference speaking opportunities, so that we’re the ones that stand out. This is not a self-centred aim; the more you stand out, the more the causes you’re sticking up for get attention.

If we want more women standing out in leadership positions, role models of all kinds are needed. That’s why this is important.

Doesn’t that start with you and me?

If you resonate with what I’m saying and want to be one of those female leaders who is visible, vocal and capable of bringing about change, I’d love to connect with you.

Drop me a contact note here and it will be passed to me personally. Let’s share and support each other. I’m on a mission to develop 100 leading female voices and I need all sorts of help to make it happen.

Sarah Lloyd-Hughes

The UK’s leading inspiring speaking expert & best-selling author. Sarah Lloyd-Hughes is a multiple-award winning public speaking coach, founder of Ginger and author of “How to be Brilliant at Public Speaking” (Pearson).

Speaking Resources Wall of Women

This showcase of inspiring female speakers is part of Ginger’s work with game changing leaders.

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