During an internship at a large tech company, product designer Roya Ramezani witnessed a common, but confusing phenomenon of the business world: smart, capable and creative women seemed to lose their voices during meetings dominated by men. They wrapped their ideas in weak language or kept their opinions to themselves altogether, expressing them only later over lunch with coworkers.
After talking with a friend who worked at another big tech company, Ramezani learned that the problem persisted there, as well. The more she dug into it, the larger it loomed.
Eventually, the experience inspired Ramezani to create a product line for her School of Visual Arts Master's thesis in order to address what columnist Alexandra Petri calls "Women in Meeting" language - words spoken by a woman that unintentionally undermine her own influence.
Ramezani's Exponent line consists of several devices, including a ball-shaped keyboard, a vibrating ring and a speech coach, all designed to raise a person's awareness of her word bank and break communication habits that can sabotage authority.
By "word bank," Ramezani refers to the vocabulary that a person uses while talking, rather than the much larger store of words she likely possesses. Ramezani's products focus on enriching and expanding that word bank by first raising a person's awareness of the words she uses frequently and then encouraging replacements.
Take Exponent Keyboard, for example, which was inspired by the 1870 writing ball, the first commercially available typewriter invented by Thomas Hansen. Like the original, Exponent Keyboard is round and covered in keys. But these keys are smaller than the original, and better suited for a woman's fine motor skills. It also has 10 extra keys that each represent a strong verb.
A wireless signal connects the keyboard to a computer program that tracks word choices and logs them into a database. Over time, the program learns the user's word bank and then generates suggested verbs - such as claim, disagree, insist, ensure - that pop up on the 10 extra keys. Using all of those verbs each day becomes a kind of game that helps create a new word choice habit. After the new verbs become commonly used, new verbs pop up.
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"It gamifies the process of adapting a new habit," Ramezani told Seeker.
The Exponent Ring is more discrete. A person wears the ring on her finger and then launches the related smartphone app during a meeting, for example, or some other interaction where she wants to monitor her own language. If the microphone on the phone picks up undermining language, such as "just" or "basically" or phrases like "I don't know," the app sends a signal to the ring, causing it to vibrate.
"I'm really excited about the ring," said Ramezani. "It's very simple, low-tech and low-cost, which makes it accessible to a larger audience. The feedback is immediate, in a subtle way."
The app, like all of the devices in this line, is tied to the main database that also tracks the words typed using the Exponent Keyboard. In this way, the platform keep tracks of a person's spoken and written words and displays her progress on a web-based dashboard.
Discussing business in a meeting with a handful of colleagues may be enough to rattle an otherwise confident woman, but what about standing before a large crowd and giving a presentation?
For those instances, Ramezani developed Buddy, a personal speech bot. It helps a person build confidence through constructive rehearsal. A user types the topic of her speech in the Buddy smartphone app. Buddy then scans the internet for the words most used in that topic by professionals. After the person records her speech via the phone's microphone, Buddy provides a ranking on the speech's clarity, on word choice, on pace and articulation. It follows up with suggestions on how to make improvements.
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To make the rehearsal more closely mimic the actual experience of giving a speech in front of a crowd, Ramezani envisions a virtual reality experience, using Google Cardboard for example. The user can pop her phone into the goggles and then practice her presentation before a crowd the size of her choosing. Buddy will be there floating above the crowd, monitoring the presentation and giving feedback along the way.
"All of my products give you qualitative feedback. It leads to behavior change," Ramezani said.
Just about everyone can attest to feeling some anxiety about speaking in front of a crowd and of course it's not just women who sometimes speak softly in the conference room. Plenty of men could use help as well. Ramezani said that although she began this project with women in mind, she thinks its value extends to everyone.
"There is a significant difference between communicating effectively versus just communicating," Ramezani said. "The ultimate goal of my project is improved communication skills for people through understanding the value and impact of their chosen words."
That's one you can take to the word bank.
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