When are we taught business skills that equip us for the world of work? Like how to negotiate pay rises, deal with people we clash with in the office, and make sure our voices are heard in what can often be intimidating environments. More often than not, we begin our careers with very little idea on how to conduct ourselves professionally, and muddle along until mistakes prove to be hard lessons learned.
We know that there’s a gender imbalance in the upper echelons of the music industry. There’s also more than enough evidence to suggest there’s historically been a culture of sexism in the way that the women that do work in the business are treated. Hopefully that’s changing, as dated attitudes leave with the older executives who hold them and companies make diversity a priority. But it’s also the responsibility of those who feel marginalised to be confident and take no shit, in as professional a manner as possible.
Someone who knows loads about that is comedian, corporate speaker and executive coach, Deborah Frances-White, and freelance hostage negotiator (yes, that’s her real job), Suzanne Williams. They both offered advice on how to be assertive in work, public speaking and negotiating during a leadership event in London called Include Yourself in May. Read on for the highlights.
What kind of person do you turn into when you don’t feel included: whether that’s in a social gathering or a board meeting. Quiet, intimidated, and certainly not the best version of yourself, right? In an ideal world, we’d forget our pack mentality in the workplace and everyone would feel on equal footing. That’s not the world we live in, and it’s natural to feel isolated and afraid to speak up when outside of a clique.
So unless you’re lucky enough to be in a very progressive professional environment, you must include yourself. The first step to doing that is thinking about the uniqueness that you bring to the table, and then learning techniques that trick yourself into no longer feeling intimidated, says Frances-White. Then, practice being your best self for three months in order for it to become authentic and habitual. Once you’ve worked your way into the ‘pack’, you’ve got the power to include others.
Consider the movements of a gazelle and lion. One is very swift and jumpy, the other strong and calm. “The patriarchal structure of society trains women in being authentic Gazelle-like selfs, but we can train that out,” Frances-White explains. That gazelle-like behaviour can be seen in speaking too fast, apologising when it’s not needed, being unable to stand still and backing away.
If you focus on appearing physically larger by standing up straight and taking up space, breathing deeply, speaking slowly and replacing that inner critic with positive thoughts, your brain will be tricked out of intimidation because your body isn’t doing the things it does when it feels intimidated.
Frances-White adds: “Movements triggered by anxiety are just biochemistry – you can exacerbate the loop, and you can also cut it off.” In other words, if you start shaking, and then worry about shaking while wishing the ground would swallow you up, it’s only going to get worse. If you instead force your body to do what it does when you feel naturally confident, your movements and stature will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Public speaking and presentations
Fear of public speaking is basically the fear of getting eaten, according to Frances-White. It makes sense; standing alone in front of a crowd of beings staring at you does have an element of hunters versus hunted about it. So “when standing, put your weight on your front foot—it’s hard to look scared of people when you’re coming towards them,” Frances-White explains. “The person on stage is naturally a gazelle, but if you have purposeful movements, you become a lion.”
After you’ve established your status as leader-of-the-pack, don’t ruin it by a crap slide. Instead, present like you would tell a story in the pub. Include the worst bits and the best bits, use your emotions, words, face and voice, and leave Powerpoint well alone unless a pictorial element is definitely required (not a stock photo, people are not inspired by stock photos).
Says Frances-White: “Powerpoint sucks all the stories out and replaces them with abstract ideas that nobody can understand, like stats. Using slides or lecterns to hide behind will only make anxiety worse.” For more public speaking tips go here.
When it comes to leadership, people respond to positivity so get good at working out what’s good about those around you. In the words of Frances-White: “Stop being self conscious, when you can be conscious.” So enter a conversation or meeting by expanding on a good point someone else has said, and quell difficult characters by asking their opinion and praising their values. There’s always something someone else knows that you don’t.
Frances-White continues: “All difficult people want is status, so give it to them by being sincere about what a good thing was. That’s the most powerful leadership style. Aggression is not a good leadership style—a leader is someone you want to look at, and a manager is someone you don’t want looking at you.”
Consider how pilots react over the tannoy to delays: positive, calm and jovial. Now think about how taxi drivers react in the face of traffic… “Pilots are rigorously personality trained to make sure passengers feel calm and safe in situations that trigger anxiety, taxi drivers are not. So be a lion flying a plane.”
Asking for a pay rise or extra benefits at work is a pretty terrifying and potentially soul destroying experience. Thankfully, there are lots of tactics to make it less so. Going into a meeting fully prepared is the first step—so know exactly what you want to ask for, which isn’t always money (with a plan B in case that doesn’t work), justify that with what your value is to the business (with facts and data, if applicable), and try and get a sense of what you might be up against so there’s no surprises (does the company have budget?).
Then, pick your moment. Suzanne Williams, whose finely-honed negotiating skills have literally saved lives, says: “This is not an around the water fountain type of conversation. So make an appointment—statistically, Thursday is the best day to ask for a pay rise—get your evidence, check around with local recruiters to see if you’ve got better than the going rate, because you may be onto a good thing and you don’t know it. If not, I’d ask for a tiny bit more than you really want so there’s some wiggle room.”
Avoid comparing yourself with others that might be being paid more, especially when reasoning with a child-like ‘But it isn’t fair!’, don’t get personal and be in control of your own emotions. According to Williams, the other common mistakes to avoid are: “Not knowing what you really want, treating it as a fight, using the blame game, not taking responsibility, not listening and being selective about what you want to hear.
“It’s not a battle, ideally you both want to win. Once you’ve made it personal you are not on the winning side. You shouldn’t really make any threats but you’ve got to be prepared to carry them out if you do. It should be about what’s in it for the company, it’s not about you. The moment you make it about you, ‘need and greed,’ you’ve lost it.”
Frances-White and comedian Athena Kugblenu role-played negotiating for a pay rise as part of this episode of The Guilty Feminist podcast with Williams rating their efforts. I’d highly recommend you listen to the episode in full, which can be purchased for a mere £5. You’ll find more tips on how to be a boss woman in the music industry here.