Wednesday, February 13, 2008

who does the speaker remind me of?

We're always looking for ways to define eloquence, and the ability to persuade an audience does impact the speaker's perceived eloquence. Now the New York Times reports on recent research about mimicry--the extent to which your audience, whether one person or a large group, responds positively to how similar you are. The article notes:
Artful persuasion depends on eye contact, but not just any kind. If one person prefers brief glances and the other is busy staring deeply, then it may not matter how good the jokes are or how much they both loved “Juno.” Rhythm counts.

Voice cadence does, too. People who speak in loud, animated bursts tend to feed off others who do the same, just as those who are lower key tend to relax in a cool stream of measured tones.
The research reported here doesn't say whether the mimicry must extend to gender--that is, whether women have a tougher time facing a male audience--but does note that gestures, accents and other similarities gain a good response. It cautions, though, that these can go too far, feeling forced or worse, as if you're mocking the people to whom you're speaking. We say, be genuine, but do pay attention to the room. Have you caught yourself in mimicry when speaking in public?(Photo by etech)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

competent or likeable, but not both

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof today offers a look at women rulers and leaders, and uses psychological research findings about public perceptions of male and female leaders to suggest why female leaders in modern democracies have more trouble with public prejudices than did, say, Queen Elizabeth I. He notes: lesson from this research is that promoting their own successes is a helpful strategy for ambitious men. But experiments have demonstrated that when women highlight their accomplishments, that’s a turn-off. And women seem even more offended by self-promoting females than men are....The broader conundrum is that for women, but not for men, there is a tradeoff in qualities associated with top leadership. A woman can be perceived as competent or as likable, but not both.
There's the issue for women who speak in public, be it a meeting or a convention hall: For many, speaking constitutes self-promotion, and that's all the more true the larger your audience gets. And we've already seen that, in negotiations, women accurately sense when their audiences (particularly other women) are likely to receive them negatively, and often choose to silence themselves as a result--not out of poor confidence levels, but from understanding the risks and lack of choices they face with hostile audiences. In our last reader poll, most said "my own fears" were their biggest public speaking barrier, and this column adds more evidence that women's fears about how they'll be received aren't misguided impulses.

The solution, however, doesn't lie in ceding the microphone to others. Kristof includes observations from an MIT economist's studies in India of village councils, one-third of which are required to have female leaders. While the female leaders did a better job, based on objective measures, they were perceived as worse than male leaders when they were first allowed to lead in the 1990s. Subsequent rounds of female leaders drew equal with men in public views, however, and the lead researcher offers this encouragement: "Exposure reduces prejudice." So get out there and start speaking--be it to a small group or a large one.

Read the Kristof column here, and the comments by readers here. Add your comments here--what do you think?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

finding your voice in a big crowd

Super Tuesday's New York Times focused on Hillary Clinton's success in speaking before small groups--roundtables, town hall meetings and the like--in moving, emotional ways that connect with the group, versus her large-rally speeches, seen as less successful. The article, which notes that Clinton will need to connect more with the large crowds ahead in a presidential campaign, uses a rally last week in San Francisco as an example. After a warm and personal introduction by actress Mary Steenburgen, Clinton delivered a fact-filled speech that "sounded like a university lecture." Here's one observer's take, from the article:
“Hillary Clinton can dismiss soaring oratory all she wants, but it works and there is a time and a place for it, such as Friday night in San Francisco,” said Ruth Sherman, a political communications consultant who has been tracking Mrs. Clinton’s speeches. “When she cannot drop her prepared remarks in favor of what the moment dictates, it bespeaks a tin ear, a lack of flexibility and certainly a missed opportunity.”
The article--written by a woman--notes that a plus for Clinton, should she gain the Democratic nomination, is that her male Republican opponents also are not known for soaring rhetoric.

That left me dissatisfied. As a coach of women (and men) who speak publicly, I can't recommend that you hope your competition speaks worse than you do. I wish the coverage had informed readers about what we know about women finding their voices in public: that men talk more than women in public settings, and that women face the double-edged image sword when they connect as women generally prefer to do, building rapport, reflecting emotions and speaking in more personal terms.

More thoughtful were New York University gender scholar Carol Gilligan's observations the day before Super Tuesday, during her appearance on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, a Washington public radio talk show. Gilligan, author of the landmark psychological book on women In a Different Voice, was asked, "What’s jumped out at you about the way gender is used, misused, or ignored by the public, the media, and the candidates in this election?" by the host. She replied:
I think it’s the unspoken subtext. It’s very, very hard to talk about it. And why is that? To me, there is a constant filtering, not so much of Barack Obama, who...gets a pass because of gender, in a certain sense, but with Hillary, that she has a gender resonance to everything she says. So some of her hesitance in terms of speaking is to try to, kind of, figure out how it will be heard through this gender filter and adjust accordingly.

You know, when she said in New Hampshire, basically, thank you, I found resonance here, and now I can speak in my voice, I could hear the physical change in her voice. She was actually speaking to someone, not speaking at them. And I thought, she -- that’s the gender thing, that that gender filter was gone, and she felt she could speak directly as a human being to other human beings.
Gilligan went on to note that W. E. B. Du Bois called this "the peculiar sensation of double consciousness," going on to explain that, as a woman or as an African-American, "you have to hear both how you are heard...and also how you hear yourself. And you have to hold both of those things." Are you speaking in your own voice when you speak publicly? Do you notice the differences Gilligan describes? While it sounds--and is--uncomfortable for many women to grapple with these filters, my feeling is that it's better to understand and acknowledge them, at least to yourself. You'll then be more free to reach your audience as an authentic and understanding speaker.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

using 'women's work' to add eloquence

Susan Cooke Kittredge combines heritage with eloquence -- and uses needlework, specifically mending -- to do so in a "This I Believe" essay broadcast this morning on National Public Radio. (You can read the essay and hear the audio of Kittredge reading it here.) It's an excellent example of an eloquent woman who doesn't shy from describing what's known as 'women's work' to make her points. She sets the analogy early in the short essay:
...I believe in mending. The solace and comfort I feel when I pick up my needle and thread clearly exceeds the mere rescue of a piece of clothing. It is a time to stop, a time to quit running around trying to make figurative ends meet; it is a chance to sew actual rips together. I can't stop the war in Iraq, I can't reverse global warming, I can't solve the problems of my community or the world, but I can mend things at hand. I can darn a pair of socks.
But what takes this essay to eloquence comes later, as Kittredge uses sewing and mending to lead into the description of her grandmother's rape at age 78 by an intruder. She stitches us a progression, from her grandmother's sewing prowess and her own failed attempts, to the rape and her grandmother's subsequent focus on mending, rather than making, clothes, as a way of healing. Kittredge uses her skills as a minister and her heritage as daughter of Alistair Cooke, the noted British broadcaster, no doubt--but it's her willingness to share and describe women's work as a metaphor for women's woes that moves us. While this metaphor has been used before in history, today we see a backlash, a double-edged sword for women seeking to employ the feminine approach in public speaking--a tactic that nonetheless works for men in public view. Yet, as a writer and a speaking coach, I know you're at your most eloquent and most effective when you can speak this way: from the heart, from your experience and from your own viewpoint.