A few years ago, I found myself in the elevator with the CEO of the large company I worked for. We had a lively conversation on the ride down, and just as I was internally congratulating myself for having made a good impression, she turned to me and asked how my internship was going. At the time, I was a director who oversaw a dozen staffers.
It wasn’t the first time someone misjudged my age — and failed to take me seriously as a result. I’ve always looked young; and, while it definitely has its perks, it has also been an obstacle on my career path. I once went to a job interview only to have the hiring manager ask, slack-jawed, if I’d really been in the industry for six years because I looked like a college kid.
And I know it’s not just me whose aptitude has been judged based on appearance alone. Others may feel unfairly stymied at work because they have a soft or high voice or because they’re older than their bosses. Fortunately, there are strategies to combat unfavorable perceptions so you can be judged on your skills and not your superficial attributes.
Um, You Frequently Use, Like, Fillers, You Know?
Verbal tics can send the message that you’re unsure of yourself and indecisive — and women are more prone to them than men. Because they tend to occur outside of your conscious awareness, try recording yourself in a variety of circumstances (talking on the phone or in a meeting, giving a presentation, etc.) to find out if you pepper your speech with uhs, likes or a nervous laugh.
Then train yourself to be comfortable with quiet. “People use fillers to avoid silence and engage the person they’re talking to,” says Christine Jahnke, speech coach and author of “The Well-Spoken Woman: Your Guide to Looking and Sounding Your Best.” “But the most compelling speakers have mastered the art of the pause.” (“I have a dream,” anyone?) Practice inserting two-second pauses into everyday conversation. “It will seem like a lifetime, but remember that the other person is busy absorbing the meaning of what you just said and won’t even notice the silence,” promises Jahnke, who has worked with everyone from Michelle Obama and Al Franken to numerous TED Talk presenters. “Use those few seconds to take a deep breath and think about what you’re going to say before the words tumble out of your mouth.” Over time, you’ll develop muscle memory, and lulls in the conversation will feel natural — not stress-inducing.
You Look Like a High Schooler
While it’s always nice to get carded at a bar, a youthful appearance also has drawbacks. People might question your experience level, and it can be difficult to assert your influence as a manager. “Frequent comments about your age can even undercut your own sense of authority,” says Dianna Booher, author of “Creating Personal Presence: Look, Talk, Think, and Act Like a Leader.” “You might begin to act shy — pulling inward, cowering or leaning back,” which only enhances the perception that you lack confidence.
Body language is your most powerful tool to eliminate doubts about your capabilities and harness an in-command attitude. Booher suggests standing on the balls of your feet and leaning slightly forward, maybe even bouncing a bit as though you were excited. (If you play sports, this is the “ready position.”) Also, use expansive gestures that extend from your shoulders and sweep outward. “Small, tight movements that stem from your wrists or elbows and circle toward your body make you look smaller and childlike,” explains Booher.
And the next time anyone makes an inappropriate comment about your youthful appearance, try this snappy comeback: `I’m fortunate. I know I’m going to love this when I’m 60.’ “Remember that the older you get, the more it will benefit you,” says Booher.
You Have a High-Pitched Voice
Many women grapple with a high-pitched voice, which can make you come across as subordinate or nervous. “Women tend to naturally have a shriller tone because our vocal chords are shorter than men’s,” explains Jahnke. Again, record yourself to get an accurate assessment of your voice (if possible, use a real camcorder rather than a phone, which can make you sound tinny), or ask a trusted friend or colleague for honest feedback. To develop a deep, confident resonance, a la Rachel Maddow, slow your pace and lower your voice. “Conversational rate is 140 words a minute. If you’re speaking faster, you’re not getting as much oxygen and your voice will rise,” says Jahnke.
Stress also exacerbates an ear-splitting pitch. “When the muscles in your neck and throat are tense, your vocal cords tighten up and rub together,” adds Booher. Run your hands down the back of your neck and shoulders to relax them. Then, take deep breaths from your diaphragm, which will send more air through your vocal chords and push them apart so they’re not vibrating against each other. “Stand up and put your hands right under your ribcage. You should feel your ribs and lungs expand when you breathe,” says Booher. “The effect will be a richer, fuller voice that projects authority.”
You’re Vertically Challenged
Short women run the risk of being overlooked or dismissed — but even if you don't have inches to spare, you can still assert a powerful presence. “How you carry yourself makes all the difference in the world,” says Jahnke. “Try the ‘Champion Stance’: Stand straight, shoulders back and down, chin ever so slightly raised.” Research from Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy found when participants spent just two minutes practicing a “power pose,” like the champion stance or “Wonder Woman” (hands on your hips, feet apart), levels of the stress hormone cortisol dropped by 25 percent, and testosterone (which boosts confidence) rose 20 percent. They also performed much better in a high-stress job interview.
A few wardrobe tricks will also visually elongate your frame and lend you an in-charge vibe. “Wear one solid color to create a longer line — patterns and multiple colors chop your body up into pieces,” says Jahnke. “And stick to dark, rich tones — deep purple, teal, royal blue, dark red or orange.”
You’re the Newbie
A new person in the workplace has two obstacles to overcome: No. 1: the anxiety of having to prove yourself in an unfamiliar situation to people you don’t know. “Remind yourself that your boss hired you because she saw your potential and values your experience,” says Jahnke. And even though it might take a bit of time to find your sea legs, the fact that you’re coming onto the scene with fresh eyes can give you a boost over staffers who have been there for a million years and are running largely on autopilot.
The second challenge is getting co-workers to accept you. “Start by asking questions, instead of making statements,” says Booher. Use phrasing like, “What’s the thinking behind this process?” and preface suggestions with a line like, “Maybe I’m missing something here, but would it work if we did xyz instead?”
You’re Older Than Your Boss
More seasoned workers might be unfairly pegged as inflexible, unable to keep up with a fast-paced environment and uninterested in learning new things — but research from the AARP has found that older employees are actually more motivated and productive than their younger counterparts. To combat the idea that you’re over the hill, emphasize your age in a positive way. One of Booher’s clients nailed a job interview by saying, “I know I’m probably older than your other applicants, but if you want someone with mature judgment, real world experience and a great work ethic, then I’m your candidate.” “It’s also important to get other people to go on the record for you,” says Booher. Ask colleagues to endorse you on LinkedIn, and whenever someone gives you a compliment, ask if they’d put it in an email and CC your boss.
You Have a Soft Voice
Being soft spoken can be misinterpreted as having a lack of confidence. And while people might tell you to just speak up, if you’re a soft talker, you know it’s not that easy. Simply amping the volume makes it sounds like you’re yelling … not exactly the mood you want to cultivate. “The key is to learn how to project,” says Booher. “Pick out an object about 15 feet across the room, and aim your voice in that direction.” You’ll speak more boldly and clearly, minus the aggressive edge.
Ultimately though, some people are physically unable to magnify their voice. “If you’re going to be speaking in a large conference room or to a big audience, request a microphone,” says Jahnke. Opt for a subtle, lavalier-style mic that attaches to the lapel of your jacket or neckline of your dress.