Has this situation ever happened to you? You show up to make an investor pitch and realize all the faces sitting across from you are male. Or, you meet with a group of other startup execs and find you’re the only woman in the bunch.
The demographics are changing, but slowly. We look forward to the day when a room full of female entrepreneurs will be the norm, not the exception. In the meantime, though, consider how you can use your position as one of the few women in the room to your advantage.
Use the principles of marketing and branding to position yourself as an executive. Marketing is about differentiation. Branding helps you stand out from the crowd. Here’s the good news. As a female entrepreneur or startup executive you already stand out. The question is how to leverage that differentiation so that you stand out in the right ways and not for the wrong reasons.
Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
Know your stuff
Be knowledgeable about your offerings, the market in which you play, your target customers, and what competitors are doing. Know how you bring value to your audience and position your company accordingly. Prepare three to five key messages for each presentation that you’d like to impress on your audience when you leave. Consider the questions you are likely to be asked and have an answer prepared for each.
Cultivate a strong personal brand
Entrepreneurs are the personal embodiment of their companies. That’s why it’s so important that everything about you conveys the image you want to portray about your organization. From what you wear to how you present your pitch, your audiences will be focused on you as the real-life representation of your company. Think about what your personal brand should be and be consistent in presenting yourself as the leader of your organization.
Be sure you are heard
Many female executives have told me that were at one time mistaken for a secretary or assistant. Own your presence. Be clear that you are the executive. Beware of any hidden issues or barriers that you feel may be preventing you for getting your message across.
if you don’t feel like you are being heard, stop and figure out what’s going on. Are you speaking clearly and effectively? Are you addressing the key questions and issues on the minds of your audience? Are they distracted by other events or interactions? How can you get their full attention?
Before ending the meeting, ask if there is anything that would prevent the process from moving forward. This will give you the opportunity to get any hidden issues voiced and on the table where they can be addressed.
When you are making a presentation, be succinct and to the point. Say what you need to say then stop. Don’t fill space with excess wandering. Rehearse your presentation prior to a pitch.
Use silence. Take a breath. You don’t need to dominate the conversation. Sometimes more can be gained by talking as little as possible and giving the other parties the time and space to express themselves.
Keep the conversation on track. If the group starts to go off on a tangent, gently bring them back to the topic at hand. Stop detours before they start, but do it gently.
Learn how to use humor effectively
Humor can defuse a situation and put people at ease. Or it can expose you to a bad situation. Use humor appropriately, but avoid telling jokes. What seems funny in other contexts or on the Web, may not translate into a business situation.
Never, ever make disparaging comments about a racial, religious, ethnic or other type of group. These types of comments are just not funny.
If someone in the meeting uses humor, respond and laugh. Always stay above the fray. Don’t be put off by profane language, but avoid using it yourself.
Be on your game
You’ll need to consciously overcome many of the mannerisms that hold women back. For example, women are more likely to end sentences with an upward tone, making even declarative statements seem like a question. This appears as if the speaker is looking for confirmation from the audience, rather than making a strong statement. Ask a friend or colleague to listen to your conversations and cue you to be more declarative if you fall into this habit.
You’ll need to be better prepared and more on your game than the men in the room. But don’t try to be more male than the men. Use your intuition. Employ your listening skills. Smile. Be in the moment. Practice—with role plays. Know what you want to accomplish and have goals.
Many of us fall prey to the imposter syndrome. We feel that sooner or later someone will figure out that we aren’t as good as we profess to be—that we are imposters. Some days you may question what it is you’re doing in that room, or whether you really belong there. This is a normal reaction that affects both male and female executives.
Don’t let this get to you. In particular, don’t allow anyone to let you think you are not as important as others because you are a female entrepreneur. Start with the assumption that you are there to succeed and that the people in the room with you are there to help you achieve that success.
Most importantly, be confident. You’ve got to believe in yourself before any one else will believe in you. And you are the best woman in the room to make that happen.
Linda Popky is an award winning strategic marketing expert who is the president of Silicon Valley-based strategic marketing firm Leverage2Market Associates. She is the author of the new book Marketing Above the Noise: Achieve Strategic Advantage with Marketing that Matters. She can be reached at leverage2market.com or @mktgabove.