Thursday, December 27, 2007

henrietta bell's role gets great review

Washington Post movie critic Stephen Hunter raves here about 'The Great Debaters,' the film that offers a fictionalized account of the Wiley College debate team. Hunter especially notes the performance of Junee Smollet, who plays a character based on Henrietta Bell Wells, the lone woman speaker on the debate team:
...the movie belongs to Smollett. There's such passion and pain in her performance. She plays a woman named Samantha Booke, who wants to be Texas's third practicing African American female lawyer. She's dignified, but her hold on dignity is precious; she's brilliant, but her confidence in her mind is trembly; she's beautiful but won't let it go to her head; she's vulnerable, though she tries to hide it. And she's fantastic, particularly in convincing you how, though assailed by doubts, clouded with emotion and racked with fear, she finds a voice that's musical in its purity. If they should ever make a movie of Anne Moody's great memoir "Coming of Age in Mississippi" (and I hope they do), Smollett is the actress for the lead role.
We're delighted that so many visitors to this blog have come via searches for "Henrietta Bell Wells" in the movie's wake.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

can you cry in public? it depends

That double-edged sword of seeming too feminine and emotional when speaking in public gets aired again today in Associated Press coverage of politicians and whether they can cry in public, even today. Crying in public caused controversy for presidential candidate and Senator Edmund Muskie in 1972 and for Rep. Patricia Schroeder, who shed tears 20 years ago when she announced a decision not to run for the presidency--and is still criticized by women for doing so. Schroeder describes the double standard in the AP article:
'Guys have been tearing up all along and people think it's marvelous,' Schroeder said, pointing to episodes stretching back to Ronald Reagan. But for female candidates, crying clearly is still in the no-fly zone....Clinton may shed no tears on the campaign trail. The same people who complain that she is cold and unemotional would seize on it as a sign of weakness and vulnerability, says Schroeder. 'For some reason,' she says, 'we still are a little nervous for women.'
Other examples in the article include Reagan, President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush and current candidate Mitt Romney, who shed tears twice this week on the campaign trail. Do you agree with Schroeder's view?

swinging a double-edged sword: image

Women who speak publicly wield a number of double-edged swords, challenges unique to the gender in the public arena. We have the ability to wear a more varied wardrobe, rather than a uniform suit; to alter our hair and use makeup to enhance features and focus our appearance; and to use color in our clothing and accessories to draw the eyes of our audiences. The other edge? Those advantages multiply women's opportunties to stumble in public appearances, and the attention these advantages draw isn't always positive, or substantive. Often, it's used against us to silence our voices.

But there's no greater conundrum for eloquent women than the persona they choose to project: Should you be tough and authoritative or feminine and approachable? This week, presidential candidate and Senator Hillary Clinton's running into the familiar other edge of the sword as she rolls out a "likability" campaign in the final weeks before the Iowa caucases. The New York Times looks at the new campaign today:
For much of this year, the Clintons concentrated on arguing that Mrs. Clinton was tougher and better prepared than Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards, a posture intended not only to appeal to voters who wanted a tested leader but also to persuade them that a woman was strong enough to be commander in chief....Inside the campaign, the communications director, Howard Wolfson, has been well known for urging that the humanizing effort start earlier, but the campaign decided to emphasize strength and experience instead. Now some voters and advisers wonder if her camp waited too long to address Mrs. Clinton’s personality.

At several of her campaign events recently, Iowans, even some of her own supporters, publicly asked if she was likable enough to win, and some noted that people found her “cold” and “remote.”
In the Times opinion pages today, Maureen Dowd weighs in on this "rush to judgment," noting:
When men want to put down a powerful woman in a sexist way, they will say she’s a hag or a nag or a witch or angry or hysterical...But some conservative pundits who disagree with a woman on matters of policy jump straight into an attack on the woman’s looks or personal life.
Twenty years ago, Kathleen Hall Jamieson's Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking pinpointed the shift in tactics by male politicians--notably Ronald Reagan--who adapted their public personas to television by employing a more feminine, personal communication style. At the same time, she noted:
...the double bind in which television traps a female politician. The [manly] style traditionally considered credible is no longer suitable to television. But only a person whose credibility is firm can risk adopting a style traditionally considered weak....Two ironies result: only to the extent that they employ a once spurned 'womanly' style can male politicians prosper on radio and television; meanwhile, in their surge toward political equality, women abandoned and must reclaim the 'womanly' style.
Senator Clinton's struggle to do so has been going on for some time, as Dowd points out:
Hillary doesn’t have to worry about her face. She has to worry about her mask. Back in the ’92 race, Clinton pollsters devised strategies to humanize her and make her seem more warm and maternal. Fifteen years later, her campaign is devising strategies to humanize her and make her seem more warm and maternal.

The public still has no idea of what part of her is stage-managed and focus-grouped, and what part is legit. It’s pretty pathetic, at this stage of her career, that she has to wage a major offensive, by helicopter and Web testimonials, to make herself appear warm-blooded.
For politicians--and for public speakers--it's a reminder that women's instincts for personal, warm and intimate communications styles don't need to be put away in favor of strident speaking styles. And audiences have a collective nose for sniffing out inauthentic styles and the underlying discomfort of the speaker. I'm put in mind of my favorite writer, the eloquent Virgina Woolf, who said in A Room of One's Own, "It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly." What are your experiences with this double-edged sword in public speaking?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

you just can't say you won

Today's New York Times looks at Wiley College, home of "The Great Debaters" team described below, and how it has fallen on hard times until the advent of the movie. The article notes a poignant detail left out of the movie:
...even though they beat the reigning champions, the Great Debaters were not allowed to call themselves victors because they did not belong to the debate society, which did not allow blacks until after World War II.
You can go here to see a reprint of a Wiley College photo of some of the original debate team; unfortunately, it does not include the lone female member, Henrietta Bell Wells.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

A woman among "The Great Debaters"

Speechwriting colleague Jeff Porro now has a new movie's story to his credit--and it offers a look at a groundbreaking female debater, Henrietta Bell Wells (UPDATE: Find out more about Henrietta in these additional posts about her.) The forthcoming film The Great Debaters, directed by and starring Denzel Washington, looks at the first black college debate team to participate in and win interracial debates in the 1930s. The Wiley College varsity debate team broke gender as well as racial barriers with professor Melvin Tolson's selection of Wells (then Bell), the team's only woman, depicted as the fictional "Samantha" in the film by Jurnee Smollett. Porro, who interviewed Wells to develop the movie story, said in an interview:
She said when she was a freshman in 1930, Tolson picked her and he said she was the first girl that he ever let try out. She was on the varsity team. She said "He thought I could think on my feet."
The movie looks at a form of debate now considered old-fashioned, Porro says. "What's now the standard in debating is pretty non-interesting for non-experts. The classic debate is not nearly as popular as it used to be, so I'm hoping this movie gives it a rebirth," he says, noting that the style--and Tolson's method--calls for the speaker to "think on your feet and give a well-prepared presentation, rather than just spew out a bunch of facts."

The movie shows the Wiley team winning again and again when pitted against white debating teams, culminating with a major debate at Harvard (one that the university couldn't actually document). The real barrier was broken at a 1930 debate in Chicago, opposite the University of Michigan--the first interracial college debate. Wells told Porro her memories of the event:
She said she felt so small on that big stage in Chicago, but determined that to make it, 'I had to use my common sense." And she recalled that Tolson wanted the debaters to be very proper and formal. He had her wear a dark suit and cut her hair in a boyish bob. My impression from talking to her was he didn't want to give the white audiences any chance to dismiss them, to get rid of any stereotypes they might have. And Tolson insisted there be a chaperone for her. They went to Chicago, they did a tour with Fiske College to Pine Bluff, Ark, and to Houston, which was exciting for Henrietta because that's her hometown.
Porro notes that Wells only debated for that one year, then dropped off the team. "She had to work three the end of the season she stopped debating because she had to be off campus a long time, but she did dramatics and kept up with that. Tolson was involved in that dept as well."

Tolson's teaching and coaching of speakers may seem remarkable to us today, and not just for its societal advances, but its content. In an article about Tolson for the National Council of Teachers of English, David Gold notes that:
At many private, black liberal arts colleges, the classical liberal arts tradition persisted well into the 1920s, with Latin and Greek retained as part of the standard curriculum long after such courses had been dropped from the requirements at elite white schools. Oratory, moved to the periphery of the curriculum elsewhere, continued to play an important role; speechwriting was frequently incorporated into freshman composition courses, and debate and drama were enormously popular campus activities.
Gold goes on to quote Wells--at 95, the last surviving member of the debate team featured in the movie--about Tolson's strict methods:
“You didn’t dare turn in an essay with a spelling mistake,” says Henrietta Bell Wells who listed him as the school’s “crabbiest teacher” in her 1931 yearbook but still counts herself as “a disciple of Mr. Tolson....He would walk in the door. ‘Bell! What is a verb!’ And you’d better know. He was hard on his students. They were scared, but when they got out, they knew English....“You couldn’t shock him,” says Wells, “but he would often shock you.”
Wells went on to become a social worker, and teammate James Farmer, Jr. won fame as the leader of the Freedom Marches during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Porro, who found the Wiley College debaters' story in a magazine article, and recalls, "When I saw the name James Farmer, that made me stop--I had seen him when I was a 17-year-old freshman at Berkeley. It was a demonstr about free speech, and this guy was the most articulate human being I've ever heard. He was like a Shakespearean actor with a deep rolling voice and an eyepatch. So when I read about this story about his being on a team that debated white universities, I knew it had to become a movie." (Photos by David Lee, The Weinstein Company)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

kindle your next speech

My speaker trainings help you learn how to speak eloquently and without notes where possible, but for many speeches, a text is essential...and creates more problems for speakers. Pages get dropped, make noise, look awkward when you're toting them to the lectern and occupy your hands when you might be gesturing. That's why I got excited this weekend reading about the new Amazon Kindle. This new e-reader device is sold out at the moment, so I haven't tried it yet. (I'll review it in a future post, and welcome comments from early adopters below.) But this latest entry into electronic books offers new features that have great potential for speakers. With it, you can:

-Display your speech--not just books with speeches: Its wireless access allows you to email your own documents (think speech text) to your Kindle and display them just as you would books; because the wireless access is built on cellular phone signals, it's available more widely (and it's free).

-No more shuffling pages: The page "turning" controls are large keys on either side, allowing easy movement back and forth; you'll use your thumbs to page through the text. This lets you avoid dropping pages, shuffling noises and carrying your very obvious printed documents to the lectern. (The Amazon Kindle is the size of a small paperback.) Looks to me as if you can page forward with only one thumb or finger, leaving another hand free to gesture.

-See your speech text in sunlight or indoors: No-glare screens that lack a computer backlight make it possible to read your text in any setting.

-Adjust to large-type settings: Six font sizes allow you to create the display you can best see.

I'm looking forward to testing the Kindle with our trainees and for my own upcoming speeches, and will report back here. In the meantime, if you've tried an Amazon Kindle,try using it for displaying your speech text or talking points and give us your feedback in the comments below.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Helen Thomas: it's OK to have a heart

As a former winner of Washington Women in Public Relations' "Washington PR Woman of the Year" award, I got to relax at this annual luncheon today and listen to keynoter Helen Thomas, a 57-year veteran of the White House Press Corps, first woman officer of the National Press Club, winner of the International Women's Media Foundation lifetime achievement award and the first woman member and president of the White House Correspondents' Association. Fearlessness and persistence are this eloquent woman's trademarks, and I was struck with her simple and direct language. As a former journalist and current public relations practitioner, I appreciated her acknowledgement of what the two professions have in common: "Trust and credibility--without these two standards, we cannot operate."

With an audience of women, she talked about still being outraged that women didn't get a vote in the United States until 1920, but noted that "the outlook is better for us now," with nine women governors, 70 women in Congress, and women as Secretary of State, Speaker of the House of Representatives and "a real woman candidate for President." Thomas noted "it's tough to get out and fight the traditions that men have had," adding that, while it's well established "that the hand that rocks the cradle also can wage war," her advice to all women politicians is "There's nothing wrong with having a heart."

Many Presidents--she's covered them all since John F. Kennedy--would be shocked to hear this aggressive questioner talk about heart, but Thomas noted that "no President has liked the press, going all the way back to George Washington--although I didn't cover him." Gerald Ford said that if God created the world in six days, he wouldn't be able to rest on the seventh until he'd explained it to Helen Thomas, and Fidel Castro noted that the difference between the Cuban and U.S. democracies was that "I don't have to answer questions from Helen Thomas."

Despite the humorous barbs, she persists. Barbara Walters once asked her in an interview whether the men at the White House thought her aggressive; Thomas's answer was simply "I hope so." (But before women entered the White House press corps, the male press aides and journalists had a much cozier arrangement, getting dates for one another in return for coverage or access. Eleanor Roosevelt, the first First Lady to hold press conferences of her own, led the way by opening the sessions only to women reporters--forcing news organizations to hire them, if only for this purpose.)

Wikipedia's "Wikiquote" pages devote space to more bon mots from Helen Thomas here, and here's a story she told at today's luncheon about great speechwriting and Lyndon Baines Johnson: When his speechwriters brought him a script full of quotes from the great 18th century aphorist Voltaire, he reportedly said, "Voltaire? The people I'm going to speak to don't know who Voltaire is," then replaced all references to him with "as my dear old daddy used to say..." For more Thomas tales, read her autobiography Front Row at the White House : My Life and Times.

young women and public speaking

In the past two weeks, I've trained two young women in public speaking and presentations skills, so I couldn't agree more with a column published today in the Charlotte Observer by book dealer Avis O. Gachet: She recommends training for young women in middle school to help overcome hesitancy about public speaking. She thinks early training is needed because:
Producing larger crops of vocal women will make female opinions a normal, not remarkable, occurrence. Also needed are outlets in precinct meetings, church groups and civic organizations -- particularly those that deal with local issues -- where women can voice opinions on issues that touch them.

When women have something worthwhile to say, let them speak up -- forcefully and publicly. More, more, sisters. We will never have true control over our lives until we do -- no matter how painful, no matter how awkward the initial steps.
From my own experience as a speaker and a trainer, it's rare these days to get training early in your career -- yet that's exactly when women can benefit most. Early training helps you build confidence, as many issues seen as insurmountable may have simple solutions. Too many executives, male and female, build up bad habits through lack of training, then seek to correct them later in their careers. Early training benefits your employer and your professional organizations, as well as your own career: It's a promotion-worthy skill at the office, and you can help promote your profession outside your organization using your speaker skills.

I recommend young professionals talk to their professional societies and community or church groups as well as their HR departments and managers. Ask them to arrange group or one-on-one training, or bring them ideas about speakers and trainers who can address the issue for you and your colleagues. When you have a choice about training to pursue, seek out speaker training first, as it's a skill you can use in many venues. Then pursue opportunities to practice by speaking to small groups (even with friends who also want to practice).

losing a lisp or an election?

If you lisp and want a quick vocal lesson on correcting it, listen to NPR's story yesterday by comedian Mo Rocca about his own lisp--and that of presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani. S is the culprit for both speakers, and a speech therapist walks Rocca through the various types of lisps involving an s, then works with him on, yes, the presidential oath of office to correct it. (The oath is full of s-sounds--especially "the Consitution of the United States of America.") The therapist notes that three weeks of concerted effortand training could help either Rocca or Rudy correct his lisp; then the discussion moves to whether you want to lose it.

too many speeches? call in the cavalry

We chuckled at this tidbit in the New York Times Magazine interview of noted scholar Patty Limerick, a University of Colorado at Boulder professor of American history and the chair of the school’s Center of the American West in a recent issue about movies and the West. The interview suggested that she didn't sound like a "big fan of westerns," and her reply was:
It took me a very long time to admit to myself that the main reason I don’t watch many western movies, of the John Wayne kind of western movies, is that I dissolve with desire to have John Wayne take control of my life. I want John Wayne to come to my office and answer the phone and say, “The little lady isn’t making any more speaking engagements, buddy.”
Do you need John Wayne to fight off the requests for speeches? Maybe not, but do consider asking requesters enough questions about the engagement in advance to be sure it's worth the effort you'll be putting into it. What's in it for you? Hold out for more benefits than a ride into the sunset.

what to ask a trainer

Whether you're booking a training for someone on your team, or shopping around for your own training, use these questions to interview your prospects. They work for media trainers as well as presentation or public speaking trainers:
- what's your approach to media training? Trainers have many different styles: Some want you to hammer a message over and over -- no longer considered a best practice in the field for media interviews. Some have no experience as journalists, something we consider a distinct advantage in media training. Some aren't up to speed on new media and answering questions from bloggers. Take the time to hear your prospective trainer's beliefs and approaches. Especially with public speaking trainers, you need to feel comfortable with your instructor.

- can you combine media and presentation training? can you do both? Because media and presentation training share a basic skill set, a good trainer should be able to point out to you which skills work in many settings. However, if you're going to be doing multiple interviews or multiple speeches, consider a separate training for each specific skill.

- how do you price your training? Ask about group and individual rates, and be ready to discuss any special needs or goals you have. Group trainings are less expensive per participant, but mean less practice time for individuals, and some special needs are best corrected one-on-one.

- do you use video and audio recording? Effective training can be done without cameras, and may be less expensive; it's a fine option if you don't anticipate many television interviews. At the same time, seeing or hearing yourself on tape, while uncomfortable, offers the best feedback to help you learn both public speaking and media interviews. But don't assume cameras will be used--ask.

- will you offer a discount if I book more than one session?Always worth asking, followed by "how would two sessions change the training?"

- who else have you trained? may I speak with them? The best trainings happen one-on-one, so most trainers don't allow observers -- and some clients require confidentiality agreements from their trainers. But you should be able to talk to other referres, ideally someone in your profession or situation.

- what does your training cover? The answer will vary depending on the number of trainees and the amount of time, but you should get a fulsome list of skills to be learned during the session.

- how do you handle these special issues I have? A good trainer will admit when a specific issue -- such as a speech impediment -- is beyond her abilities, but should be able to bring in a specific type of coach to augment the training.

- how long are the trainings? what time of day do you recommend for training? We recommend no more than a half-day at a time, and prefer to train in the morning, for the same reason: Your energy. Training's intensive, especially one-on-one. Be sure you don't lose the learning because you're tired.

- what's your own experience as a speaker and trainer?Feel free to ask us how we learned the ropes. If you can, go see your trainer speak in front of a group.

- where do you conduct the training? Trainings shouldn't happen in your own office, where you can be interrupted and distracted. But they may take place in a conference room you provide, a hotel room, a television studio, or the trainer's own facility.

- for group trainings, are there guidelines on participation? See our post on the don't get caught blog about why we prefer training groups of peers, rather than supervisors and subordinates.

- what will I need to do to prepare?You may need to provide a biography, messages you're already using in interviews and a list of your goals for the training. Your trainer should do independent research as well, looking at coverage of your topics and you, in order to help you develop effective messages and anticipate questions. Or, if you have a specific presentation prepared, ask whether you need to bring that on your laptop or a thumb drive.

- what materials or resources do I get to reinforce my learning? Do you get take-away materials? Online resources? Follow-up consultations? Our clients have access to two blogs with ongoing, updated resources, tips and ideas to reinforce training.
We're always happy to answer questions like these to make your training a better experience. Email Denise Graveline at

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Barbara Jordan: 'I never had to apologize'

Search on women and public speaking -- or ask your network about eloquent women, as we did recently on Linked In -- and Barbara Jordan's name always seems to come up more than once. For many who heard her in the 1960s and 70s, it's her voice that still resonates--and her ability to put simply some of the most complex ideas in democracy.
She's another barrier-breaker: the first African-American since Reconstruction to be elected to the Texas Senate, the first female African-American from the South to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and the first woman--and African-American--to deliver a keynote address to the Democratic national convention.

But this was no shy role model for women in public speaking. The citation for a late-career award from West Point noted her early interest in public speaking:
Deciding early in life to be something out of the ordinary, she honed her gift for public speaking in high school and later at Texas Southern University, where she won national recognition in competitive debate and oratory. After graduating magna cum laude, she enrolled in the Boston University School of Law.
Many feel her finest speech happened on July 25, 1974, as her opening statement to the House Judiciary Committee's proceedings on the impeachment of Richard Nixon. With speed, eloquence and just a touch of humor, she opened with an acknowledgement that a black woman member of the House of Representatives might have a grievance with the Constitution she was about to uphold--and solved that issue neatly for the audience, establishing her authority to question the President under the law, never once mentioning her gender or race, but letting the televised image speak for itself:
Earlier today we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, "We, the people". It is a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed, on the seventeenth of September in 1787, I was not included in that "We, the people". I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision I have finally been included in "We, the people".

Today I am an inquisitor. I believe hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.
An oral history interview with Jordan by the LBJ Presidential Library lets her describe that subtle approach: "You don't have to focus on that [race] specifically nor stridently, you just have to be there. And when you are there, black people are represented." Jordan also notes that "wherever I travel no one has forgotten that speech." Televised in prime time and watched by millions, it prompted an enormous public reaction, swaying many citizens about the case for impeachment--and offering what many considered the best civics lessons they'd ever had on the Constitution. It ranks number 13 in the top 100 American political speeches -- and Jordan, one of a handful of women on that list, is the highest-ranked woman political speaker, the only woman in the top 10 and on a par with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy in placing twice in the top 15.

The same oral history discovers that her confidence came from an independence instilled in her by her grandfather:

I never had to apologize for whatever I was doing. I was not self-effacing. Now, some people may say that that's bad, but I always figured that if he said that I was to be my own person, that I could just go out there and be it, which I did do. So I didn't look back and I didn't look around for excuses for non-achievement. I just decided that what one wants to do, one proceeds to do it.... That doesn't work for everybody...I have to remind myself that it worked for me, but it does not work for everybody.
Earlier this year, her speeches were collected in Barbara Jordan: Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder (Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Series), edited by her friend Max Sherman and published by the University of Texas Press. Sherman notes that, in an interview shortly before her death, she was asked to define ethics and did so in an eloquent--and utterly simple way:
Ethical behavior means being honest, telling the truth, and doing what you said you would do.
The book also includes some of the speeches on a DVD; you can see an interview with Sherman and an excerpt from the DVD here. The university includes an archive of text, audio and video of Jordan speeches here. The texts are moving, but the audio's even more so. If you remember Jordan's speeches, tell us what made them memorable to you; if you're new to her speaking, listen, read and react in the comments below. (Photo credit: Larry Murphy, University of Texas at Austin News and Information Service.)

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Monday, October 29, 2007

get our eloquent blidget

In the column at right, you'll see our newest feature: Click on the black button and you'll be able to add a live feed from The Eloquent Woman blog to your blog or website. Your viewers will see a "widget," a window with updated copy and images from this blog; they can click on any link to see the full posts here at EW. Or go here to and download it yourself. You can customize the color and size to better match your website. Get the Eloquent Woman on your site today--we look forward to seeing how you use this new feature!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

eloquent courage: Sahar Issa

Today's New York Times editorial gives us in full remarks made yesterday by Sahar Issa, one of six Iraqi women working in the McClatchy Newspapers Baghdad bureau, after the group received the International Women's Media Foundation "courage in journalism awards." Because they (and perhaps their families) would be killed if they were known to be working as journalists, they work undercover, pretending to be ordinary citizens. Issa spoke for the group:
We live double lives. None of our friends or relatives know what we do. My children must lie about my profession. They cannot under any circumstance boast of my accomplishments, and neither can I. Every morning, as I leave my home, I look back with a heavy heart, for I may not see it again — today may be the day that the eyes of an enemy will see me for what I am, a journalist, rather than the appropriately bewildered elderly lady who goes to look after ailing parents, across the river every day. Not for a moment can I let down my guard.
Issa's remarks go on to explain why she persists: "It’s because I’m tired of being branded a terrorist: tired that a human life lost in my county is no loss at all." The conclusion to her remarks offers a powerful, eloquent expression of hope laced with realism. This award was presented without any photographs taken--the publication of any image of these women would endanger them and their families. Go here to find the McClatchy Baghdad reporters' blog, to which this group continues, to get a day-to-day picture of how they live and work.

Monday, October 22, 2007

speechwriter secrets: storytelling

How do you tell a story? That's especially important for speakers -- whether you're at a cocktail party, in a meeting, or in front of an auditorium full of listeners. If you're a parent, says speechwriter Jeff Porro, you've already got the technique down. We've asked Jeff to contribute to our "speechwriter secrets" feature, a periodic look at how to improve your public speaking with tips from those who write speeches for the best speakers. Here's his take on storytelling:
- Start with something you know your audience understands. For speeches, that means starting your story with a reference that will mean something to the group you're addressing. Enviros will know about the Endangered Species Act; patient advocates might not, for example.

- Set up a conflict quickly. Stories with conflict draw in kids and audiences, too.

- Stock the story with obvious heroes and villains. In a speech, setting up heroes and villains not only entertains, it also helps to win the audience over to your point of view.

- Don't forget the sticking point. If you're using the speech to make an argument, you need one telling fact or detail that will resonate with the audience, and stick with them. "This research will help 100 million Americans struggling with incurable medical conditions...."Invasive species are destroying a million acres of our national wildlife refuges every year".... Etc.

- A happy ending: You always have one for your kids, of course. It's a little trickier in a call-to-action speech. You want the audience to believe there CAN be a happy ending, but only if they do what you want them to do: lobby for more money for national parks, support a certain kind of cancer research, or even vote for a candidate.

what it means to be eloquent

Puzzling out what it means to be eloquent means fitting together and pulling apart many pieces. The American Heritage Dictionary definition divides eloquence in two parts: "persuasive, powerful discourse" or a speech or look that's "vividly or movingly expressive." Roget's Thesaurus gives us three more takes: "exceedingly dignified," "fluently persuasive and forceful," and "effectively conveying meaning, feeling or mood."

So the books suggest there's more than language to it--while fluent's required, the speaker must persuade or convey meaning effectively. Power's involved, to move the audience or create a vivid picture for them. And feeling's suggested, on the part of both audience and speaker. In our discussion on LinkedIn asking for examples of eloquent woman and the qualities that make them so, respondents noted the following qualities:
- Authenticity, exemplified by Doris Kearns Goodwin. "She completely captured her audience, despite the fact that she read from notes, spoke fairly quickly and in a quiet voice...because she knew exactly what she wanted to say, had an interesting topic, and knew how to be herself in that venue." Another respondent agreed: "[she]doesn't seem dynamic; actually, reads from notes and too fast at times. But the cumulative effect is emotional and inspiring, and in the end she gets standing ovations. That's magic."

- Passion with precision, exemplified by Claire Fraser Liggett, former head of The Institute of Genomic Research, now at the University of Maryland. A respondent said she is "most passionate about the importance of research and genomics to human health...especially for the poorest nations. She conveyed in a most clear and compelling manner the complexities of microbial genomics and what it potentially means to society."

- Fast on your feet, with wit, exemplified by Margaret Thatcher. Our respondent said: "Eloquence is contrived in a pre-written, rehearsed speech. I think the best example is someone who can be convincing, witty, and concise on the fly...[in Parliament Question Time] I never saw anything as awesome and amusing as The Iron Lady convincingly responding to direct attacks on her policies and her character with precision, wit, and clarity."
What do you think it means to be eloquent? Join the discussion here!

Monday, October 15, 2007

The current First Lady speaks out

First Lady Laura Bush is the subject of a profile in today's New York Times that notes "in the twilight of her husband’s presidency, the woman who once made George W. Bush promise she would never have to give a speech is stepping out in a new and unusually substantive way." The article calls her "the administration's leading voice" on the political struggle in Myanmar, and notes that she called the UN Secretary-General on the matter. earlier this year, to the surprise of some. Her reaction?
“I think that this is sort of one of those myths,” she told reporters after the call to the secretary general, sounding surprised at the stir she created, “that I was baking cookies and then they fell off the cookie sheet and I called Ban Ki-moon.”
Even though the article takes time to note the varied roles played by first ladies -- and the sometimes controversial reactions to those roles -- you'll get a better flavor of the public ambivalence about the "first spouse" role by reading the comments posted on the Times site here. There's no shortage of views: By 7:30 Eastern time this morning more than 30 people had weighed in. How much of that is due to ambivalence about women speaking in public? To politics? To views about her husband? Weigh in here and let us know what you think.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Who's the most eloquent woman speaker?

We've started a discussion on LinkedIn about the most eloquent woman you've heard or seen speak; you can see it here. The nominees so far range from Palestinian scholar and spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi to the late U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, and include poets, politicians, leaders of small nonprofits and schoolteachers. You can join the discussion on this site by adding your comments to this post. We're excited about the range and number of responses we've been getting--and we're especially interested in learning about specific speeches and the qualities you think made the speaker eloquent. The feedback we gather will be reported on this blog, and we'll use your suggestions to research and write about effective methods and inspiring role models.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

First Lady of firsts: Eleanor Roosevelt

A hat tip to The Writer's Almanac for reminding us that today is the birthday of Eleanor Roosevelt, born Anna Eleanor Roosevelt in 1884 and shown here in a school portrait taken in 1898, at age 14. She was shy, insecure and thought to be unattractive. Pushed into public speaking when her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was elected President,she took great pains with writing her speeches and delivering them -- and, as a result, became one of the foremost voices of the 20th century. From the FDR Library and Archive comes this note about her public speaking:
Eleanor Roosevelt was in real demand as a speaker and lecturer, both in person and through the media of radio and television. She was a prolific writer with many articles and books to her credit including a multi-volume autobiography. In late 1935, she began a syndicated column, "My Day," which she continued until shortly before her death. She also wrote monthly question and answer columns for the Ladies Home Journal (1941-49) and McCalls (1949-62).
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's essay about Roosevelt in The "TIME 100" list of the most important people of the 20th century puts a finer point on her accomplishments in public speaking:
She gave a voice to people who did not have access to power. She was the first woman to speak in front of a national convention, to write a syndicated column, to earn money as a lecturer, to be a radio commentator and to hold regular press conferences.
Goodwin notes that when Eleanor came outside to tell reporters of her husband's death, she told them "the story is over," as if she could never give them anything else to cover on her own. In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth. It was in this era that she led the United Nations efforts to develop a human rights declaration, and published, wrote and spoke most prolifically. (Here, she's seen on the set of Meet the Press in 1956.) Her face and voice could not have been better known, and today she is seen as the most influential First Lady the United States has ever seen, changing the role completely.

The new book Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphoristsincludes several "essential aphorisms" of Eleanor Roosevelt's, with phrases so eloquent most of us have appropriated them for everyday use, such as:
Do what you feel in your heart to be right -- for you'll be criticized anyway. You'll be damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, "I have lived through this before. I can take the next thing that comes along." You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

A woman is like a tea bag -- only in hot water do you realize how strong she is.
Photos courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

New interview series with woman CEOs

Don't get caught president Denise Graveline will help the National Capital Chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners to kick off a new series of interviews with women CEOs on Wednesday, November 7. The "CEO Insights" interview series will feature Julie Lenzer Kirk of Path Forward International. Kirk is the former CEO and President of Applied Creative Technologies, Inc. (ACT), an IT solutions firm which she founded in 1995, taking it from her basement to a multimillion-dollar company with Fortune 100 clients. She's also the author of the just-published book, The ParentPreneur Edge: What Parenting Teaches About Building a Successful Business. The one-on-one interview program will be preceded and followed by networking and a reception, with registration starting at 5:15 p.m. on November 7 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC. For more for more details, go here.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Wear blue for your audience--and video

For your next speech, presentation, or media interview, take a cue from the curtains you see behind nearly every press conference, and wear blue near your face. News shows and newsmaking organizations have made the blue-curtain background ubiquitous to help the viewing audience, because this shade of blue:
  • flatters virtually every skin color;
  • focuses attention where you want it,on your face; and 
  • for those with light hair (blonde or red), white hair, or no hair, adds the visual emphasis and focus that darker hair provides for others.
For preference, try a shade of blueshown here in several examples. Because women have more options in terms of suit colors, they might choose a French blue sweater, scarf or jacket. Can't find a shirt or blouse that's precisely this shade of blue? Go ahead and wear a lighter shade of blue. This works well not only in a television or video close-up, but when you're at the lectern or on stage as well.
 called "French blue,"

rather give that speech after all?

We've been guilty of repeating the myth that people fear public speaking more than anything else, but checked to get the data -- and in fact, snakes are feared more than public speaking, by 56 percent of those surveyed compared to 40 percent who fear public speaking, according to a 2001 Gallup poll. (The snakes have been winning this contest since 1998, according to Gallup.) In fact, fear of public speaking decreased from 45 percent in 1998 to 40 percent in the more recent poll. However, women were more likely than men to fear public speaking (44 percent of women compared to 37 of men surveyed). Still, those surveyed feared public speaking more than many other uncomfortable situations, including (in descending order) heights, being closed in a small space, spiders and insects, needles and shots, mice, flying on an airplane, dogs, thunder and lightning, crowds, going to the doctor and the dark. We can't teach you about those fears, but we can coach and train you to be a more confident and effective public speaker. Check out our collection of tips on this blog about public speaking here, and learn more about our training services here.

need a candidate for a good opening line?

When we tell folks that our company name, don't get caught, refers to not getting caught unprepared, we have in mind moments like the ones we heard when NPR gave airtime to coverage of the 2008 presidential candidates who flocked to speak to the 1,000 members of the International Association of Firefighters, meeting here in Washington. "Over the course of a long day, it wasn't all serious," reported Don Gonyea, who captured two gaffes from the candidate pool. Interestingly, both occurred in the moments during the speakers' introductory words -- in our experience, the first moment when speakers are tempted to go off script, but shouldn't. Some examples from the story:

- Kansas Republican Senator Sam Brownback's introduction aimed for a joke that, well, misfired: "I hope there are no fires breaking out anywhere across the country with all you guys here." He did his own first responding and quickly regrouped to say "I'm sure people are covering."

- "The day's oddest moment," according to Gonyea, belonged to New York Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton's opening remarks. "Thanks so much, and thanks for last night, too," she said. (She was referring to a reception the evening before.) As the largely male audience laughed, she realized her gaffe and laughed, too.

Gonyea's take? The candidates are "still working out their material." Ours? They recovered quickly and genially -- always a good look to laugh at yourself -- but you should work out your opening, no matter how casual, and stick to your plan. First impressions still count, and we can help you work on yours to create a strong start to your next speech. Check out the full Morning Edition story here.

a goldmine of women's speeches

Looking for inspiration from a gifted woman speaker? Check out Gifts of Speech, a database of women's speeches that goes back to the 19th century. You can search speeches by the name of the speaker as well as by the year in which the speech occurred; additional databases include Nobel lectures and the top 100 speeches. You'll find Congressional testimony, commencement talks and large-group public addresses.

how women size up audiences

A recent Washington Post article summarizing research on gender differences in negotiations -- specifically, how and whether men and women ask for raises -- offers an interesting insight for any woman facing an audience. The article notes that economics and psychology researchers:
....found that men and women get very different responses when they initiate negotiations. Although it may well be true that women often hurt themselves by not trying to negotiate, this study found that women's reluctance was based on an entirely reasonable and accurate view of how they were likely to be treated if they did. Both men and women were more likely to subtly penalize women who asked for more -- the perception was that women who asked for more were "less nice".
Hannah Riley Bowles, one of the study authors, underscores that the women in the study had sized up their audiences and tailored their approach as a result, despite the downside to not getting a raise:
"This isn't about fixing the women," Bowles said. "It isn't about telling women, 'You need self-confidence or training.' They are responding to incentives within the social environment."
You can go here to read an online chat with the Post reporter, Shankar Vedantam, and economist Linda Babcock, of the Program for Research and Outreach on Gender Equity in Society at Carnegie Mellon University. Babcock also has co-authored Women Don't Ask, a book on gender and negotiation.

the origins of eloquence in a gesture

...can be found in an upturned palm, we learned earlier this year in John Tierney's charming report in the New York Times. Emory University researchers studied chimpanzees and bonobos, which use the palm-up gesture consciously to ask for food and "more abstract forms of help, creating a new kind of signal that some researchers believe was the origin of human language," Tierney writes. Today, he notes, we use it to ask for food, objects, money, divine help, cooperation, pardon, acceptance and other nuanced concepts. It emanates, he writes, from the "crouch display" that animals use when confronted with a threat; its opposite, the "high-stand display," belongs to an aggressor. Here's how it evolved:
The human remnant of the crouch display is a shrug of the shoulders, which lowers the head and rotates the forearms outwards so that the palms face up. Conversely, the high-stand display persists in humans as a rotation of the forearms and palms in the opposite direction, producing the domineering palm-down gesture used by a boss slapping the conference table or an orator commanding quiet from his audience.
Emory's primatologists "note that gestures are controlled by the same part of the brain that controls speech. But it is also possible, they said that gestures and speech evolved jointly to create language," the article notes. And that lets you use simple gestures, like the upturned palm, to express more complex ideas with metaphors, emotion and sympathy.

In our "Eloquent Woman" focus groups earlier this month, participants alternately bemoaned and praised similar behavior in women speakers -- particularly at the start of a presentation, when many apologize (for being late, for the room conditions, for replacing another speaker), or spend much of their time thanking and acknowledging others. Our participants described this as women seeking to include and connect with the audience, and even as a way to seem less threatening -- a verbal version of the crouch display? Perhaps so, but it's a tactic now used by very prominent male politicians, as Tierney notes in his "TierneyLab" discussion area (click here for the discussion on the palms-up gesture). He writes:
Skilled politicians instinctively woo audiences with the upraised palms that made Mr. Clinton and Ronald Reagan seem so genial and helpful (or contrite, when the occasion demanded). Veteran politicans know to avoid palm-down gestures unless they’re attacking enemies or trying to look strong (like Richard Nixon desperately flashing his victory signs as his presidency was collapsing).
Kathleen Hall Jamieson's book, Eloquence in an Electronic Age, takes a long look at Ronald Reagan's "self-disclosive, narrative, personal, "womanly" style," and notes:
The broadcast age has rendered the combative, data-driven, impersonal "male" style obsolete. Two ironies result: only to the extent that they employ a once spurned "womanly" style can male politicians prosper on radio and television; meanwhile, in their surge toward political equality, women abandoned and must now reclaim the "womanly" style.
Leave us your comments here, or join the discussion over at TierneyLab--palms up, of course.

learning from 'the last lecture'

For those of you who have trouble starting a talk, the idea of a last lecture may sound like your heart's desire. It's part of a trend on college campuses, says today's Wall Street Journal:
Schools such as Stanford and the University of Alabama have mounted "Last Lecture Series," in which top professors are asked to think deeply about what matters to them and to give hypothetical final talks. For the audience, the question to be mulled is this: What wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance?
But with its focus on 46-year-old Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch, who's dying of pancreatic cancer, that question sharpens--and informs--the challenge.

You can watch a video of Pausch's last lecture via the link above, or read the book, also titled The Last Lecture. It's an affectionate romp through disappointments and dreams in his life and career, and it offers reminders for those of us who still have speeches to give:
  • Share with the audience exactly where you stand today: You may have changed your mind about a major policy, be celebrating a special birthday or have been dreading the speech. But sharing this morning's thinking with your audiences gives your speech a freshness missing from many lectures. It's what they came to find out.
  • Get out into the audience: Walking off the stage and into the audience is still the best way to engage them. Hand things out or pass them around. Pausch, who recounted fulfilling his childhood dream of winning giant stuffed animals at carnival games of skill, had the toys brought out and distributed them to audience members.
  • Move: After showing x-rays of his tumors, Pausch does one-handed pushups on stage to make a point about his health. It's a gripping moment, powered by movement.
  • Don't avoid the emotional or the personal: In the course of his last lecture, Pausch showed photos of his bosses and students; gave a birthday cake to his wife; and shared how his mother described him as "a doctor, but not the kind who helps people." It's these gestures that best connect you to the audience. Once discouraged and dismissed as a technique women brought to public speaking, top speakers today understand that audiences of all types, from television to the lecture hall, value personal connection.

who talks more: men or women?

Linguist Deborah Tannen, who distinguishes between men's "report-talk" (talk to convey information) and women's "rapport talk" (talk to build relationships) gives us her talk-take on the recent journal Science article that measured the number of words spoken by men and women, in an opinion column earlier this year in the Washington Post. The research concludes that reports of women overtaking men by over-talking are greatly exaggerated (though the study, done on college students, has some limitations in generalizing to the public at large).

We agree with Tannen that the circumstances of increased talking represent a significant gender difference in public speaking: Women speak more in personal situations, men more in public venues. As Tannen summarizes: "Studies that find men talking more are usually carried out in formal experiments or public contexts such as meetings." Her article notes studies in which there's: overall pattern of men speaking more. That's a conclusion women often come to when men hold forth at meetings, in social groups or when delivering one-on-one lectures. All of us -- women and men -- tend to notice others talking more in situations where we talk less.

Counting may be a start -- or a stop along the way -- to understanding gender differences. But it's understanding when we tend to talk and what we're doing with words that yields insights we can count on.

When do you tend to talk, and when do you tend to remain silent? What do you use your speaking opportunities to do: report or build rapport? It's a good speech-preparation exercise and something you may want to journal about or discuss with a trusted advisor, to make yourself aware of your choices when speaking opportunities arise.

executive women's speaker secrets

...will be divulged next March 10 from 12 noon to 2pm at the Executive Women's Forum at the Tower Club in Tysons Corner, Virginia. Don't get caught president Denise Graveline and speechwriter Jeff Porro will give participants strategies to "Take Your Next Speech from Good to Great." Stay tuned for registration details to come later this year. In the meantime, we've developed "Eloquent Woman" workshops we can bring to your workplace, annual conference or retreat for groups of 10 women. To find out more, email us at

Lady Bird: from shy to shining

During funeral services for Lady Bird Johnson, we reflected that few today recall her shy start as a public speaker. Robert Caro, prolific biographer of the late U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, her husband, describes in Means of Ascent (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 2) just how her shyness got in the way of her public speaking early on:

So deep was her shyness that, as a high school senior, she prayed that if she finished first or second in her class, she would get smallpox so that she wouldn't have to be valedictorian or salutatorian and have to make a speech at graduation.
She put the responsibility for her avoidance of that speech in the hands of a higher power, but circumstances forced her to face -- and speak to -- the public. Eventually, she became the first of the First Ladies with her own press secretary, made hundreds of public appearances and wound up giving as many as 16 commencement speeches, if only to accept her own honorary degrees.

On the LBJ Library website, you can read a biography of Lady Bird Johnson; read and listen to quotations from her speeches, interviews and conversations with her husband; and read the eulogy to her written by PBS journalist Bill Moyers, a former special assistant to President Johnson. He divulges a tip she gave him about speaking early in his career:

She was shy, and in the presence of powerful men, she usually kept her counsel. Sensing that I was shy, too, and aware I had no experience to enforce any opinions, she said: “Don't worry. If you are unsure of what to say, just ask questions, and I promise you that when they leave, they will think you were the smartest one on the room, just for listening to them. Word will get around,” she said.
Despite all that shyness, Moyers singles out Lady Bird Johnson's courage as a public speaker during a 1964 campaign whistle stop tour of Southern states, just after her husband had signed the Civil Rights Act. He notes that in the face of jeers, protests and name-calling:

She never flinches. Up to forty times a day from the platform of the caboose she will speak, sometimes raising a single white-gloved hand to punctuate her words — always the lady. When the insults grew so raucous in South Carolina, she tells the crowd the ugly words were coming "not from the good people of South Carolina but from the state of confusion." In Columbia she answers hecklers with what one observer called "a maternal bark." And she says, "This is a country of many viewpoints. I respect your right to express your own. Now is my turn to express mine."

In these two anecdotes, Moyers captures several smart tactics employed by this eloquent woman:

  • Ask questions. More than a stall tactic for the shy speaker, asking questions of your audience--whether it's one person or 500--will help you to better understand your hearers. You'll be less likely to make a misstep with the help of this "market research." It builds your confidence, and theirs in you. And it's a great attention-getter.
  • Word will get around. Whether you're quiet or loquacious, people are watching. Your reputation rests on moments when you're resting, as well as when you're actively speaking.
  • Speak calmly and for yourself. Lady Bird Johnson was spit on, yelled at, had things thrown at her, heard her children insulted, and still remained calm in front of the angriest of audiences. In some cases, she confused and silenced the protesters who were seeking to embarrass her, simply by acting as she planned, rather than reacting. And she spoke for herself: In disagreeing with the protesters, she used "I" statements, saying, "I respect your right" to disagree, but insisting on her own right to express her views.

Have you ever sabotaged your chance to speak publicly? Or, if you're shy to speak, what do you do to build confidence? Let us know in the comments.

Photographs of Lady Bird Johnson at her 1934 college graduation and on the 1964 whistle stop tour courtesy of the LBJ Library.