Bimbo Banter

Let’s Acknowledge Women Have More Challenges than Men in Communication

  • Trends
  • September 17, 2019
  • by Merrie Spaeth

Have you ever heard an expert talking about a topic and thought, “That’s right on target but … it’s missing one important component”? 

Doctoral Fellow Dana Kanze’s TED Talk, “The real reason female entrepreneurs get less funding,” shared her analysis of why the amount of venture capital (VC) funding women receive is so disproportionate (2 percent) to their market share as company founders (38 percent of US companies). Her research is fascinating. Let’s examine Kanze’s recommendations and see how they can be improved with some advanced communication techniques.  

Kanze began her research after her own experience raising money. Her first assumption was that women weren’t as good as men at presenting, but when she videoed women participating in a funding competition called TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield (TechCrunch), she found their presentations were just as good as those of men. Next, she looked at whether male VCs appeared more favorable to men and women VCs to women. She found both men and women VCs looked at men differently–and more favorably–than women.  

The differentiation came during the six-minute question-and-answer period following each prospective pitch that involves what’s called “prevention” versus “promotion” questions. “Prevention”-styled questions can be basically framed as “What do you see that could go wrong?” while “promotion” questions sound like “Where do you see huge opportunities for a payoff?” Women were assumed to be more cautious, more conservative, less likely to take risks–and taking risks with the potential for significant gain is what VCs are looking for.  

Even more damaging than the assumptions and how the questions were framed, women tended to adapt to the parameters of the question. Women got “prevention” questions and responded as preventers. Men got “promotion” questions and responded much more expansively. In other words, the questions gave the men another opportunity to promote their idea and their expectation of success.  

So far, so good, and Kanze’s TED Talk deserves your attention beyond my summary here. Her advice to women is to avoid the trap by reframing prevention questions into promotion ones. 

And that’s where I got concerned. Political consultants polluted communication decades ago by telling clients, “Ignore the question and say what you’re there to say.” Modern audiences are keenly tuned in to when someone ignores a question; and we don’t like it. Another popular strategy was to answer the question and “bridge” to your point. We never liked that approach because most of our clients could never get across the bridge. They knew too much about the topic of the question.  

Here’s my formula and strategy for handling the Q&A and for viewing the two parts of the presentation together. Every question deserves an Acknowledgment PhraseSM, a short phrase which says, “I heard you” but is quite different from an answer. People who assign themselves the role of answering a question tend to accept and limit themselves to the framing, words and topic of the question–just as Kanze found with the women in her research.  

We make our living teaching people to ask before any Q&A, “Who do I want to influence? And how do I influence what they hear, believe and remember?” The fascinating thing about acknowledging a question is that no matter how the question is framed, the listener accepts any substitute phrase.  

We use an extensive library of video examples to teach our methodology, and one of my favorite examples of an interviewee acknowledging a question is a clip of a TV anchor who interviewed the jury consultant for O.J. Simpson’s sensational murder trial. The anchor instructed the consultant to answer a string of questions as “true” or “false,” starting with an assumption that they were going to find a jury pool that hadn’t heard about the alleged murders and formed an opinion. Her first response was, “I think that’s an impossibility.” Three more true/false questions followed about whether the defense preferred women to men, younger people to older people and blacks to whites. Her response to each was, “Not necessarily.” We have tested this example before countless focus groups to ask if they felt the jury consultant ignored the question and whether or not they believed she was rude. The virtually unanimous response has been that she responded to the questions politely, and it was perfectly OK for her to choose a phrase other than “true” or “false” to respond to the reporter’s series of questions. 

Every presentation should have a small number of what we call headlines. I like the term “headline” better than key messages, which tend to get very wordy. Basically, these are the verbal soundbites the speaker wants the listener to remember. The Q&A period is an opportunity to reprise the headlines. This approach also forces the presenter to identify the two or three things she wants the listeners–the VCs in this case–to remember. The test I use is to ask, when your listener sees someone who wasn’t present and that person asks what you said, can the listener recall and pass on your main point? Frequently, the clients who come to us for coaching try to cover too much, and their delivery may be energetic, but it lacks clear headlines set off by emphatic pauses, which help drive memory.  

Responses are easiest to hear when they follow a clear and coherent structure. We define this as beginning with a headline followed by informational proof points (facts and statistics making sure that statistics are made verbally visual) and then examples, stories or third-party quotes. There’s a subtle but very important difference. 

As an example, Kanze said that if she were asked a question about how her company can defend her initial tiny market share, she would reply: “We’re playing in such a large and fast-growing market that’s bound to attract new entrants. We plan to take increasing share in this market by leveraging out start-up’s unique assets.” 

She’s right that this effectively reframes the topic. It can be improved with an Acknowledgment PhraseSM like, “Let me put that in perspective,” moving right to the headline, “Our strategy is to build our market share,” followed by a concise proof point, “Let me give you an example,” or even an enhanced proof point, “Let me give you an example I think you’ll find compelling.” 

Having seen countless presentations followed by a Q&A session, I think what’s happening is that as the apparently well-constructed and rehearsed pitch presentation concludes, women snap back into the mindset, “now I’m finished” and they wait for the questions. Even reframing a question still leaves the woman respondent on the topic of the question, though the Q&A session should be designed to reprise and reinforce one or two key headlines from her pitch. In the example here, the issue of market share may not be relevant at all. An even more aggressive response to the same question might be, “Let me put that in perspective. Right now, we’re in first-mover position and we’re confident with additional resources–which is why we’re here pitching you–this is a unique opportunity for those who partner with us.”    

Three cheers for Dana Kanze. May she continue her groundbreaking research and share it with us. And may this research serve as the foundation for women to increase their mastery of evermore advanced communication skills.

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