Women: Prepare for a CEO Interview by Honing Your Use of Language

female executive handshake
Deedee Myers, Ph.D. Photo
Chief Executive Officer
DDJ Myers, an ALM First Company

6 minutes

Start practicing these techniques months ahead. 

Communication, language, and linguistics styles used by women in CEO interviews have more of a chance of producing a critical assessment or unwanted outcome than those used by men. Preparing for a CEO interview is an ideal time to increase attention to linguistic practices to produce positive assessments from the search committee. I recommend starting months before you walk through the door to the interview!

Communication Style vs. Competency

Communication style in an interview has a heavier weight than experience and education. An impressive and relevant resume helps you to get an invitation to an interview. However, presenting yourself with confidence increases the chance of receiving an offer letter. 

By style of communication, I mean the sociolinguistic practice of how a confident person speaks and is heard. Using the right words is just one component of the language of leadership. Communication styles include timing, pace, tone, inflections, punctuation and pausing. Cultural backgrounds influence the types of stories told and questions asked. Cultural upbringing informs our awareness of context and relevance of the context as we share our responses and ask our questions in the interview.

Context-Setting for a CEO Interview

Interviewing requires a masterful skill in facilitating the nuances of context-setting, establishing the relevance in associating one thing with another, one perspective with another. Too often, women in interviews work hard to connect with the interviewers yet miss the context needed to communicate and connect. One way to understand the context is to distinguish between high-context and low-context communication. Interviews necessitate a high-context setting, leveraging your sense of vision, strategic and critical thinking and execution intermixed with intermittent low-context, direct and to-the-point responses. Awareness of when to shift between high- and low-context settings is an example of attending to nuances. 

Successful interview outcomes for women generate a sense of confidence, trust, and belief in the boardroom. Board members enjoy and appreciate learning from candidates, and great interviews result in sharing assumptions so that the interviewers receive and understand the message. Board members may not remember the exact words used, yet are impressed with the delivery’s tone, mode and pace—and the felt sense of confidence generated. A successful outcome follows demonstrating your authentic core leadership offer with contextual communication.

Uptalking: A Detriment to Confidence

What we learned as young girls may not apply professionally in a CEO role. Communication style and context-setting are two areas of needed awareness. The voice we use is also important, especially in the high-stakes context of crossing the threshold into the interview, where anxiousness is a norm for many candidates. The restiveness includes the fact that women are deeply aware of the conscious and unconscious bias in the workplace and yet are steadfast in their commitment to be successful. Uptalking and overuse of filler words disadvantage the fulfillment of that commitment.

Uptalking, a high-rising inflection at the end of a statement, produces an unintended outcome in an interview, especially when overused. Language is an instrument of leadership. The inflection at the end of a sentence can alter its meaning. For example, a team meeting has continued for a long time, and the leader may say, “It’s time for a break,” with a rising inflection at the end of the sentence; it sounds like a question that confuses or unproductively pauses the meeting. Or, the leader can say, “It’s time for a break” as a fact, effectively producing a pause in the discussion. 

In an interview, speaking with uptalk, “I have a question,” might be heard as requesting permission to ask a question. Most men would confidently ask the question, not ask for permission. Too often, women are held back because of indirectness, downplaying their certainty and minimizing their ambition, ability and perceived capacity to lead transformational change. 

In addition to uptalking, the overuse of filler words distracts from the portrayal of confidence. Filler words are a form of verbal disfluency interrupting the flow of speaking. Fillers are used to avoid awkward pauses and uncomfortable spaces in speaking. Speech disfluencies are typical in everyday speaking. However, unconsciously using “ah,” “like,” “you know” and “um” multiple times in an interview may not produce the desired outcome. “Right” is a newer form of a filler word. Most often, it is unconsciously used to keep the conversation moving forward, yet it might be misunderstood that the listener agrees with the speaker.

Practices for Speaking

In the stress of an interview, women tend to increase uptalk, pitch and pace. This communication style produces difficulty in being heard, listened to and taken seriously. To increase your chances of being offered the CEO role, start a daily practice like one of these weeks before the interview to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and help your body increase its capacity to feel safe and centered. Here are four breathing practices with directions or links. 

  1. Diaphragmatic breathing. This technique lowers the pitch and moderates the pace of speaking, produces relaxation, increases oxygen to the blood, and reduces blood pressure and heart rate. This practice works well enough when walking down the hall or riding in the elevator without placing your hands on your chest and belly. I use this when transitioning between events that require me to be immediately present, open, and connected. 
  2. Yawn sighs and jaw loosening are favorites of mine before an important meeting, courageous conversation or going on stage, producing a more relaxed vocal tract and relaxed-sounding voice. Check out 9 Best Vocal Warm-Ups for Singers | School of Rock
  3. Sip breathing is deeply breathing through an imaginary straw, pausing and slowly exhaling. Try inhaling slowly, filling your lungs to the count of four, and exhaling to the count of four. Sip breathing relaxes the vocal cords and calms the nervous system.
  4. Box breathing is an extension of sip breathing designed to balance your nervous system, expanding the capacity for effective communication and action. Each breath action is to a count of four. Exhale for four counts and hold your lungs empty for four counts. Inhale to a four count and hold your breath for a four count before slowly exhaling to another four count. 

Pick a practice and commit to a daily routine—no fewer than five times a day, ideally five breaths five times a day. Places to practice include:

  • while making your bed or coffee
  • when leaving the house.
  • while walking to your car in the morning.
  • when starting your car.
  • when entering the door to your office.
  • while walking down the hall at work.
  • when coming home to loved ones.

With each breath, remind yourself why you are in this practice: “I am the next CEO,” “I am ready for this role,” or “I am an awesome mom/partner/spouse and a confident CEO.” “I am my true self in all I do.”

Whether preparing for a CEO interview or seeking new leadership skills, embodied generative practices of the language of leadership are instrumental in presenting yourself as a leader. Self-care, attention and awareness of communication, language and linguistics styles are lifelong practices that serve all women in helping them be confident in the world. 

Deedee Myers, PhD, is CEO of DDJ Myers, an ALM First company, Phoenix, a CUESolutions provider and the sponsor of Advancing Women.

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