President of the LBS Debate & Public Speaking Club David Jones (MBA2020) and Treasurer Ashleigh Dyer (MBA2020) outline why they think debating is such a vital skill for aspiring business leaders and share their tips for overcoming gender bias in public speaking.
Why we’re hooked on debating
David: I first got into debating after I went to the wrong room during my undergraduate days at Aberystwyth – and ended up staying because I loved the feeling that came with spending time with smart people and discussing topics like nuclear disarmament, developmental aid and the world of Harry Potter.
Ashleigh: I wanted to improve my speaking skills and feel more comfortable dealing with confrontation. Debating has turned out to be a great learning ground for structuring my ideas, thinking on my feet and speaking persuasively.
What debating teaches you at London Business School
Ashleigh: A debate isn’t a mathematical equation and you won’t win by identifying the objectively ‘correct’ answer. Debates are judged by people, and winning is determined subjectively. Being understood, it turns out, is as much tied to how you say something as to what you say. Some of that nuance is within your conscious control – like picking the best examples to support your arguments. Some of it, though, is inexorably linked to who you are. That’s true in life just as it is in debate, so debating serves as a great practice arena for the LBS community to develop skills to face that reality.
David: I agree with Ashleigh. So much of what we’re taught at LBS is about coming up with the correct answer, but time and time again society shows us that having the correct answer isn’t enough. US politics are a great example: the way you sell your case and target your answer to your audience is often far more important than what you’re actually saying. Unfortunately, Donald Trump seems to have figured this one out.
The reality of gender bias in public speaking
David: Debating has been great for me: I’ve travelled around the world and taught in boardrooms, prisons, classrooms and the Oxford Union. The thing that strikes me is how the default assumption is that of a white man, and that the baseline for judging revolves around what a white middle-class man would do in those circumstances. This then has an impact on judging; my wife and I have been part of public debates for years and I almost always get a better welcome and a more captive audience – even though she’s much smarter and more informed than I am.
LBS is lucky to be so internationally focused, but when we went to a tournament at another business school in 2019, one of our LBS debaters received feedback that he should strive to make his accent more British if he wanted to be better received. This felt like the epitome of what we’d been thinking about – and we’re trying hard to change that by running our own training courses, tournaments and social events with a focus on breaking down these barriers.
Ashleigh: This bias in speaking isn’t just racial or accent-based; feedback for women in public speaking often demonises characteristics that would be accepted – or even celebrated – in a man. We’ve heard stories from our members of being interrupted or talked over in meetings, criticised for sounding ‘shrill’ and not coming across as sufficiently authoritative. It’s sad how much our gender impacts how we’re perceived, even when we’re essentially saying the same thing.
Changing the status quo
David: We want to run a series of events looking at the way common biases appear within speech and what societies can do to change these default assumptions.
Ashleigh: Our first panel will focus on the experiences of women in professional settings. We’re excited to bring in a panel of speakers with a wide range of perspectives and we want this to be the first in a series of discussions around broadening our thinking as a club.
David: The event highlights a weird part of the problem for me: if I look at the guest list, it’s 95% female and that sends a weird message that gender bias is a women’s issue, whereas in reality we all have a part to play in unpicking it.
Helping the LBS community become better communicators
Ashleigh: We’re eager for people to share their experiences with us, suggest questions for the panel and help us develop an understanding of what they’ve seen and heard.
David: We’d also like feedback on what we can do to help. We’ve worked hard to create a constructive environment for the LBS community to practice and improve their abilities in speaking and debate. Our events have covered skillsets from active listening to conveying confidence while presenting. We’ve offered workshops and practice sessions including our most popular course (and what’s often thought of as the most extreme form of public speaking): stand-up comedy! It’s been delightful to see the positive reactions of our peers and classmates, many of whom have shared their own stories of personal development. But we know we can do more.
Ashleigh: This summer we’ll be running a series of workshops specifically focused on overcoming gender bias in speaking. If there’s anything that you would like to see covered, please let us know.
Our advice for students wanting to hone their public speaking skills
David: I’ve noticed that people are always much more confident when they’re acting rather than speaking. There’s a weird comfort in hiding behind someone else’s words, and the fact that you’re ‘in character’ shields you from some of the nerves that come with public speaking. Trying to think of yourself as a confident Gordon Gekko character works brilliantly. If you think of every speech as a performance, you’ll be amazed at the impact it has on your confidence.
Ashleigh: I tend to speak too quickly when I get nervous and I know lots of people who do the same. Never be afraid to take a long pause if you feel yourself speeding up or running out of breath. Maintain eye contact with your audience and resist the urge to look at your hands or the floor. Believe it or not: no one will question the pause, even if it feels like an eternity in the moment!
Interested in our MBA programme? Learn more here.
The panel event looking at gender bias within speech and presentation is happening at 7pm on Tuesday 17 March 2020 in LT18. Tickets can be booked here.