Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Do you overprepare for speeches?

A woman in one of my recent communications workshops asked, "What do you recommend for me? My problem is that I overprepare for my talks." Her choice of words labeled it a problem (perhaps because others had said that to her), but when I asked why she thinks she does that, she said, "I have to. I'm a perfectionist."

I've heard many women (and, as I think of it, few men) say they overprepare before speeches. My take: For many speakers, it's a form of performance anxiety, stemming from a real or imagined challenger, the sense that they're not really qualified to speak as an authority, or other fears. While I'm all about preparation as the key to giving an eloquent speech, when preparation adds to the pressure you feel, it's time to revise your pre-speaking plans. Here are some tactics to try:

- Remember that most speeches don't succeed due to nuances of content. While you're checking and re-checking your facts ahead of time, remember that your appearance and tone will have a greater impact on the audience than your words. Put another way: You can have the best content ever, but if your delivery or appearance fail to put it over, content won't matter to the audience.

- Redefine what your speech can accomplish. Few speakers are given enough time to display every fact they know--so why feel compelled to memorize them all? Use your remarks to tell your audience the focus and scope: "There are so many issues we could consider, but today I'm going to take a close look at..." When questioners raise other issues, you can acknowledge them--but remind them of today's focus.

- Stop overpreparing to meet your own mark: If it's for you, the perfectionist, keep in mind that you can't win that contest--in a sense, declaring your perfectionism means you'll never be good enough in your own eyes. Try this trick: Deliver your next speech without the extra preparation, and see whether anyone notices, besides yourself. If you do fine without it, why keep doing it?

- Imagine your worst enemy in the audience: If you overprepare because someone might rise to challenge you, use your preparation time to imagine the issues and develop some calm, thoughtful answers. I train speakers to think of the questions they want, the questions they expect and the questions they fear--and the answers for each.

- Put stress relief into your speech preparation: Taking care of the speaker is the speaker's job, so make sure you are well fed, rested and hydrated before you speak. Don't drink stimulants or beverages that will dry out your throat, like caffeine or alcohol. Step into the restroom, hallway or a nearby stairwell to stretch your arms and legs and do some deep breathing beforehand.
If you're an overprepared speaker, consider this: The time you spend going over and over your content could be spent learning new speaker skills, like handling tough questions extemporaneously, gesturing, speaking without slides or text, and more. Leave us a comment to explain why you overprepare, if you do, and what you've done to overcome it.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Queen of quotable prose?

April 25 was the anniversary of William Shakespeare's birth, and The Writer's Almanac paid tribute with this research tidbit that reveals another eloquent woman:
Some scholars have suggested that Shakespeare couldn't have written the plays attributed to him because he had no formal education. A group of scientists recently plugged all his plays into a computer and tried to compare his work to other writers of his day, such as Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and the Earl of Oxford. The only writer they found who frequently used words and phrases similar to Shakespeare's was Queen Elizabeth I, and she was eventually ruled out as well.Shakespeare used one of the largest vocabularies of any English writer, almost 30,000 words, and he was the first writer to invent or record many of our most common turns of phrase, including "foul play," "as luck would have it," "your own flesh and blood," "too much of a good thing," "good riddance," "in one fell swoop," "cruel to be kind," "play fast and loose," "vanish into thin air," "the game is up," "truth will out" and "in the twinkling of an eye."
The reference reminded us of Virginia Woolf's essay (adapted from an eloquent series of lectures, A Room of One's Own, in which she looked at the question of whether women writers could reach the same level of quality as Shakespeare. Her conclusion--centered around a made-up sister for Shakespeare to make her example come alive--was that women of the day, even if so gifted, would have been denied the openings to grow their eloquence as writers. Check out the online version here. (Photo by mharrsch)

Sunday, April 27, 2008

JFK speechwriter interviewed

Eloquent women take notes from all sorts of sources, men included, and so we note that the New York Times Magazine interviews John F. Kennedy's speechwriter Ted Sorensen, today, in part about his forthcoming memoir. He proves as eloquent an interview subject as a speechwriter. Here's Deborah Solomon's question, and his answer, about the power of eloquent speech from a president:
What do you make of Hillary’s comment that Obama’s promises and speeches are “just words”? Kennedy’s rhetoric when he was president turned out to be a key to his success. His mere words about Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba helped resolve the worst crisis the world has ever known without the U.S. having to fire a shot.
Remember those mere words the next time you're preparing a speech. Think about your potential to impact the audience. Is your speech--and its delivery--going to live up to that promise?

(Photo credit: Robert L. Knudsen/National Archives via pingnews.)

Monday, April 21, 2008

in which we find another women's network

A hat tip to Joyce Boadt, whose Women and Hi Tech Discussion Group blog has posted a link to The Eloquent Woman. Joyce is posting discussion topics on LinkedIn, asking for resources, and we responded. UPDATE: Now you can check out the discussion topic on women and leadership skills, which references public speaking skills for women. If you have a women's network looking for public speaking and presentation skill advice, please feel free to post a link to our blog or go here on to download a free "blidget" -- a window that you can post on your website or blog to offer your readers our content for free. (If you're a Facebook user, search for our Facebook application under "The Eloquent Woman" and add it to your page.)

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

EW interview: Elizabeth Travis, PhD

Elizabeth Travis, Ph.D., is the first associate vice president for women faculty programs at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. She leads an effort to "recruit, retain, and develop women faculty, a vital issue among academic medical institutions, where women remain underrepresented on the faculty and heavily concentrated at entry-level ranks." A professor in radiation oncology and pulmonary medicine, Travis notes that gender demographics at her institution do not differ greatly from national studies showing that 32 percent of all medical school faculty are women, but women represent just 10 percent of deans, department and division chairs. The Eloquent Woman blog interviewed her about the advancement of executive women in medicine and science, the role public speaking plays, and her advice to women speakers.

How did your program come about? This institution has a long-standing interest in the issue of women in medicine. Our goal is to recruit, promote, and retain; we say “do not lose a woman from the institution.” My whole career has been here. There’s a small cadre of women who’ve stayed here throughout our careers, and we finally said,’This is not our day job,’ and the administration agreed it was time to make a clear commitment.

Why this program now? This is a trend in a lot of academic health centers. Review committees are looking at leadership, and asking “where are the women?” Our program might differ: I have three full-time staff, I’m an associate vice president, and I still have a lab. I report directly to the provost, and I talk to the president.

When women physicians and scientists think about where they want to go, we want them to think of M.D. Anderson. There’s not a pipeline issue: Fifty percent of the medical school graduates are women. There’s nothing wrong with the women--we don’t need to fix the women. They may need a little more confidence; everyone can use mentoring. What they could use is more mentoring and more advocacy.

What do you mean by advocacy? It’s a little more informal. When you’re putting symposia together, maybe you put a junior faculty member in--you don’t just pick your best friends which everyone tends to do. You have to be constantly challenging yourself.

How does that play out in speaking opportunities? I organized an international meeting a year ago as a program chair and I said to my committee “Do not bring me a symposium without at least one woman speaker.” There was the usual rolling of the eyes and comments like “Don’t we want the best?” That’s used frequently to challenge women. I said “You have just insulted every woman in this organization.” One man was so keen to do this, he had a symposium with all women faculty speaking—it takes that kind of effort.

Who mentored you? The one I remember the most was during my post-doc. He mentored me through my science. We went to meetings and he’d drag you along. He’d say “Come along and meet someone in the field.” He was so highly regarded that he was bringing you forward. That spoke volumes to people.

What can women in the pipeline do? Women are less comfortable speaking. I notice how many men speak and how many women don’t. I call on women specifically if I’m chairing a meeting. But women can take the initiative, too. We do some sessions with coaches here on finding your voice, how to make you point, what this does for your career. That’s one area where women can use some help.

I sit on an advisory board at another institute with a lot of junior women, and I recommended some voice coaching for some of them. Their voices were quivering and they sounded uncomfortable--that immediately detracts from what you’re saying. I think talking in public is like a performance. That’s one of the things we can do for women: Training their voices, training them how to take command from the podium.

What do you do before speaking? After more than 25 years of public speaking, I have a little routine. I sit by myself, I get in the zone and I want to command the stage.

Were you ever nervous as a speaker? You bet! You’re always making sure you have your points down. I have to be clear that I know the points I want to make, and keep focused on that track. Sometimes my hand using the pointer shakes, so I learned to balance my elbow on my hip so that won’t happen.

Do you have other tips? You have to be comfortable in your skin and what you have on your skin. You can’t be worried about what you’re wearing. I have certain suits for my talks that are comfortable, professional, presentable. I love jewelry, but I tone it down when I give a talk. You don’t want the audience focused on what you’re wearing.

Have you ever felt a backlash? In a meeting, women are frequently not called on, or what they say is attributed to the man who speaks immediately after them. Most of what I do is talk about my science, so they may have quibbles about my interpretation, but the data are what the data are. Now that I’m in a different role, speaking about the issue of women in science and medicine, there’s sometimes pushback on that. Sometimes, with great difficulty, I have to take a deep breath, and respond, but I still bristle. If I’m going into a situation where I’m going to be challenged, I think about what I’m going to say.