Wednesday, December 19, 2007

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?

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