Thursday, May 5, 2016

Why memorizing your high-stakes speech frees you: Sen. Amy Klobuchar

How important is it, really, to memorize your speech...especially if you will have access to a teleprompter? Just ask U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar.

Back when she was a county prosecutor in Minnesota, Klobuchar was tapped to speak at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the highlight of which was Barack Obama's stirring keynote speech. For her rather less important three-minute speech in the middle of afternoon 3 of the convention, Klobuchar was given a set of rules. She'd be using a teleprompter, and under no circumstances could she make any jokes about then-President George W. Bush. So, given that first proviso, she decided she didn't need to memorize her short speech.

That's when her mentor, former Vice President Walter Mondale, stepped in. Klobuchar related the tale on episode 39 of The Axe Files, David Axelrod's new podcast:
Klobuchar: That was my first national convention and I’m ready to go out there the day before I give my 3-minute speech for John Kerry. I was a prosecutor at the time and he says to me, “Well, have you memorized the speech?” and I go, “Well, no, there’s you know, there’s teleprompters” And he said, “Don’t trust a teleprompter.“ "That is how Carter said Hubert Horatio Hornblower [instead of Hubert Horatio Humphrey] at that the Carter convention." 
And I said, all right. It seemed outdated. I’m up there on the stage. Patrick Leahy’s speaking, the teleprompter goes dark. And I’m standing there, I look in the front row and there, waiting for me to speak, is Walter Mondale and I’ve never seen a more “I told you so” look in my life.
I get up to the stage, I give my speech. I don’t use the teleprompter at all, it came up in the middle and, because I memorized it like he said. And it went really well. And the organizers had told me that I couldn’t even use a little joke about George Bush where I said something about…

Axelrod: Yes, I remember that convention.

Klobuchar: Yeah

Axelrod: I was there with Obama. He spoke there, too.

Klobuchar: Right. Well, really? In any case, maybe little more notable than my 3 minutes but…

Axelrod: But he also memorized his speech.

Klobuchar: That’s right. But anyway, I had a joke, a Barbara Jordan quote, about how what America wants is something as good as its country and a promise as good as its country. And I said, I’d like to end with something famous from someone from Texas and I paused...not George Bush. And they prohibited me from using that joke. And after the teleprompter went dead, I’m like…

Axelrod: So did you use it? Did you ad-lib? 
Klobuchar: Yes, I did. I completely ad-libbed because I decided if they were having technological problems…
Too often, I see speakers look at memorizing your speech as something awful--limiting, structured, nervous-making. But Klobuchar learned to see it as freeing her from that nervousness, or the prospect of technological failure...and then freed herself from one of the other rules, while she was at it. I think it's telling, too, that Obama used the same insurance policy on his more prominent speech. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Eloquent Woman's weekly speaker toolkit

If you want to keep up with my wide-ranging reading list about women and speaking in real time, follow The Eloquent Woman on Facebook where these links are posted all week long--or just head here on Mondays, where I summarize them all for you. Either way, you'll be expanding your understanding of women and speaking:

Friday, April 29, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Harriet Tubman's fable on colonizing slaves

In the run-up to the American Civil War and the discussion of whether to free the slaves, one proposal that gained some traction was repatriation or colonization--that is, sending black Americans, enslaved and free people alike, back to Africa. And in 1859, Harriet Tubman, the former slave who helped many other slaves escape on the Underground Railroad, used a speech to share her own views on the issue. It happened at a meeting of the New England Colored Citizens' Convention, where the audience had voted to condemn the proposed repatriation.

As the Boston abolitionist paper The Liberator reported, Tubman used a simple fable to counter the argument for sending black Americans back to Africa. She:
...told the story of a man who sowed onions and garlic on his land to increase his dairy productions; but he soon found the butter was strong and would not sell, and so he concluded to sow clover instead. But he soon found the wind had blown the onions and garlic all over his field. Just so, she said, the white people had got the "nigger" here to do their drudgery, and now they were trying to root 'em out and send 'em to Africa. "But," she said, "they can't do it; we're rooted here, and they can't pull us up."
A male proponent of "civilization," as it also was called, jumped on stage to challenge her remarks--a 19th century version of Kanye's "Imma let you finish" interruption of Taylor Swift, perhaps--but the audience wasn't having it. Tubman's story stuck, and got their applause.

In Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, historian Kate Clifford Larson shares that story and also notes that Tubman was smart politically, and important as a storyteller representing black women at a time when they were rare on the speaking stage:
A great storyteller she was...She moved her audiences deeply. Plainly dressed, very short and petite, quite black-skinned, and missing front teeth, Tubman physically made a stark contrast to Sojourner Truth, one of the most famous former slave women then speaking on the antislavery lecture circuit, who was nearly six feet tall....Like Truth, however, Tubman shocked her audiences with stories of slavery and the injustices of life as a black woman. Black men dominated the antislavery lecture circuit. Tubman and Truth stood for millions of slave women whose lives were marred by emotional and physical abuse at the hands of white men.
Larson's biography of Tubman shares many insights about her public speaking--a skill of Tubman's we have largely forgotten in simplifying her memory and story. To be a woman of color who spoke in public in her time was rare, and challenge after challenge faced her as a speaker. Like Sojourner Truth, she was accused of being a man in part due to her speaking skills. In speeches like this one, she often was not introduced by her real or full name, to build up the mystery and excitement, but also taking away her identity in public, sometimes in the name of protecting her safety. Her words were often rewritten for her by biographers and reporters. Because Tubman herself could not read or write, her spoken word was both powerful and ephemeral. As Larson noted, men more often got the speaking turns on the lecture circuit, despite her unusual story and appeal. Speaking also was essential in her career, a way for Tubman to raise funds and earn an income to support her work and her family.

Today, Tubman's enjoying a revival of interest, thanks to actor Viola Davis quoting her in a 2015 Emmy Awards acceptance speech, and the recent announcement that Tubman's image will appear on the $20 bill in the U.S. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Authenticity counts: It's one thing to listen to, say, a white man talk about colonizing black Americans, and quite another to have a former slave, now a free woman, share her point of view. In this debate, authenticity held the same power it does today for a speaker. With "we're rooted here, and they can't pull us up," Tubman speaks for herself and her people in a way that can't be imitated.
  • Fables and parables work for a reason: These metaphor stories, used for centuries with illiterate audiences, are easy to understand and to remember. A short fable or parable can work far better--and faster--than a long-winded, detailed argument.
  • Choose your metaphor to do many jobs: In addition to the neat package a fable offers the speaker, this one also has the advantage of being based in nature, underscoring the idea that remaining in the U.S. was a natural course of action, as opposed to a contrived solution. Make your metaphors work by testing them first, to be sure they are accomplishing everything you need done in your speech.
A caution to women speakers wishing to quote Tubman: Do your research. Like other famous folk, many quotes are attributed to her without any evidence that she actually said them.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Dial it back, speakers: When you *don't* need extra emphasis

When coaching speakers at TEDMED or for TEDx conferences, I often find myself asking them to take off a few layers of emphasis. As my fellow TEDMED coach Peter Botting likes to say, "Your delivery is like writing with all caps, bold, italic, and underscore all at the same time!"

What does that look and sound like? It varies depending on the speech and the speaker, but generally, it's a case of being too intense and too adamant in delivery--almost as if the speaker thinks the story lacks drama or might not catch the audience's attention. So she may add a lot more or less volume, punch key words, gesture more, wrinkle her forehead, nod her head, and move around, all at the same time.

It's true that, in public speaking, you have many options for emphasis, and there's nothing wrong with any one of these options. Members of the audience do look to the speaker to signal what we might appropriately feel at any given moment, so an expressionless delivery is not the goal. But you don't need to use the tools of emphasis all at once, and you should choose each one with care. Here, more is not necessarily better. In fact, researchers say our brains are finely tuned to sense emotion from the sound of your voice, even before the words are understood. In other words, your recipients are much more likely to sense your tone without any extra push from you.

Some speakers, particularly those who haven't spoken in a large hall or theater, or those who've relied on drama coaches for their prep, make the mistake of thinking they need their TED talk to be heard at the back of the hall, and vocalize loudly. But most of the time, you'll have a microphone and the sound engineer will be in charge of making sure you're heard. So you can whisper, if you want long as it's not in combination with all those other forms of emphasis. A talk is not a dramatic soliloquy, so don't approach it as one. Just tell us your story.

I also often work with speakers whose stories are by definition stories that wrench the gut, bring tears to the eyes, provoke out-loud laughing, or convey the gravity of the topic. In those cases, little, if any, emphasis is needed. If your talk is about such a topic, a deft hand with the emphasis will serve you well as the audience experiences the full weight of your words. Most of the time, these topics speak for themselves, conjuring so much emotion in the audience that the speaker need not gild the lily, so to speak, with additional emphasis. If you're not sure, get some independent feedback about your topic and how you've framed it. Your story may have all its emphasis built in, and then you don't need to work so hard to put it across.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by TEDxBeirut)

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Eloquent Woman's weekly speaker toolkit

If you want to keep up with my wide-ranging reading list about women and speaking in real time, follow The Eloquent Woman on Facebook where these links are posted all week long--or just head here on Mondays, where I summarize them all for you. Either way, you'll be expanding your understanding of women and speaking:

Friday, April 22, 2016

For #EarthDay, 9 famous speeches by women on the environment

Today, we celebrate Earth Day, and it's no surprise that women have shaped so much of the public speaking about environmental issues, given that women are more affected by climate change and related environmental impacts than men. I've pulled these nine speeches from The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Speeches by Women to showcase their messages about the environment, from pesticides and wildlife conservation to economic arguments for dealing with climate change.

Fittingly for a global issue, this is a global array of speakers, with women from China, France, India, Kenya, the Marshall Islands, the United States and the United Kingdom represented, and all of their messages ring true today. Click through to see video of most of these speeches, along with what you can learn from them as a speaker. I'm a proud former Deputy Associate Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in charge of communications, education and public affairs, so it's a particular pleasure for me to share this collection with you:
  1. Rachel Carson's "A New Chapter to Silent Spring" was a 1963 speech to the Garden Club of America, taking her clarion call about the effects of pesticides on human health and the environment right to the people. Her conviction about her message helped her overcome her public speaking fears and changed our environment for the better.
  2. Severn Suzuki's 1992 UN Earth Summit speech was delivered when she was just 12 years old, and she wisely kept her message in the voice of a child. "If you don't know how to fix it, please stop breaking it!" she urged the delegates.
  3. Jane Goodall's "What separates us from the chimpanzees" uses unusual tactics, from sound "props" to Shakespearian influences, to put her message of wildlife conservation across. Another scared speaker, she learned from experience the value of speaking to live audiences to get her environmental message across.
  4. Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai's hummingbird fable was a simple tale she used to convince audiences ranging from poor women in Kenya to powerful world leaders that a small volunteer effort could do much to protect important ecosystems. In her case, a campaign to reforest Kenya led to the planting of 30 million trees--and a Nobel Prize.
  5. Christine Lagarde's speech on "dynamic resilience" led the World Economic Forum in 2013. Titled "A new global economy for a new generation," the International Monetary Fund's managing director put the assembled financial titans on notice that climate change and its effects had to be central to their efforts to reshape the world's economy.
  6. Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner opened the 2014 UN Climate Summit after winning a competition to be the citizen voice at the session. She combined a short appeal to the audience with a dramatic poem based on her experiences in the Marshall Islands, creating vivid imagery to get the deliberations off to an emotional start.
  7. Katharine Hayhoe's "elevator speech" on climate change is less than 90 seconds. But in that time, the climate scientist and evangelical Christian shares how you should do it, then shows you how it's done.
  8. Vandana Shiva at the 2014 Food Matters conference is a good speaking example from this popular and well-paid speaker activist who campaigns against the use of genetically modified organisms in food. But her use of spurious data has scientists concerned about her message.
  9. Chai Jing's 'Under the Dome' documentary shares her TED-style presentation about China's pollution problems. The video went beyond viral--then was censored by the Chinese government. 
Got a panel coming up? Whether you're a conference organizer, speaker, or moderator, you'll have a better panel--and a sparkling discussion--if you plan with The Eloquent Woman's Guide to Moderating Panels. At just $3.99 in all ebook formats, it's like having a coach with whom you can prepare and bring on stage with you.