Friday, August 29, 2008

Geraldine Ferraro's teleprompter wars

The op-ed page in today's New York Times includes short pieces by former Democratic candidates for president or vice-president detailing memories of conventions past. Geraldine Ferraro's details her battle with the teleprompter in preparing her acceptance speech. The problem? She overestimated her skills and underestimated the task. She started with a good goal, checking the venue:
I wanted to scope out the arena, to test the height of the lectern (I’m 5 feet 4 inches tall and needed to be seen above it) and, of course, to practice with the teleprompter.

As a third-term member of Congress from Queens, I had never had the need nor the opportunity to use a teleprompter. It certainly looked easy. I had watched Ronald Reagan and if he could do it, I could do it too.
The rest of the piece gives everyone a good lesson in teleprompter tricks,and a reminder to allow plenty of time to prep, even when you don't think you need to...or especially then.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Rhetorical, and orange, flourishes: Clinton

I quoted NPR's Ron Elving about Michelle Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention, and here he weighs in on Hillary Clinton's speech Tuesday night:
It was the second night in a row the convention headliner had been a woman, and the second night in a row that a woman had delivered just about everything anyone could have asked.
The New York Times joined other media outlets in reading between the lines of this speech, and featured in its coverage what many consider the signal rhetorical touch of the night: Clinton's clever turning of the controversy over her loss back toward her supporters, as in this excerpt:
“I want you to ask yourselves: Were you in this campaign just for me?” Mrs. Clinton said. “Or were you in it for that young marine and others like him? Were you in it for that mom struggling with cancer while raising her kids? Were you in it for that boy and his mom surviving on the minimum wage?”
Clinton, benefiting from years of practice, took control of the room, gesturing easily and only occasionally stepping on her own good lines by moving too fast past them. Perhaps most disappointing, if not surprising, for women: The focus afterward on her choice of an orange pantsuit. Access Hollywood, the entertainment television show, is running a poll at its website on which color viewers would have preferred; right now, orange is leading with more than half the vote. Readers of this blog know I consider wardrobe one of the double-edged swords for women speakers, making them noticeable in useful and not-so-useful ways.

For the record, orange works on a number of levels. Here are just three: Since it is considered a complementary color to the intense blue of the backdrop, it energized her appearance and allowed her to stand out more clearly than a paler or darker color would. (Complementary colors are opposite one another on the color wheel: blue and orange, red and green, etc.) And, as she is pale-skinned, with pale hair, orange works with her own coloring, so she'd look good in it on or off the podium. Finally, unlike red--often chosen as a "power color" or a patriotic one for women speakers--orange won't appear to bleed in the visual on television. (Photo courtesy of the Obama 2008 Flickr photostream)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Michelle Obama 1, teleprompter 0

Would-be speakers and those who train them have two weeks of great "practice" ahead, watching the two U.S. political conventions. The conventions aren't typical venues, by any means--more a public-speaking hothouse. There's a behind-the-scenes shop of speechwriters and trainers working with each person or group that steps forward to speak. Staying on time--and more importantly, on message--means that each speaker is given a speech written for them, and the use of teleprompters and other technology helps keep the show on schedule, if stilted. This morning's analyses are focused on Michelle Obama, once a reluctant campaigner by some accounts, now seen as a speaking powerhouse by some observers. Here's the view of National Public Radio's Ron Elving. He wasn't thrilled by the overdose of message he heard in her speech, but gave her high marks for delivery:

...we heard a litany of Americanisms, the catalog of Kodak moments and Norman Rockwell memories from Michelle Obama....there was so much of it, woven into practically every sentence she spoke, that one senses a return to similar themes in subsequent nights.

The performance was stunning inside the hall. The tall and striking woman made everyone forget she is not a professional speechmaker herself (although she is a Harvard-trained lawyer). She was direct, she was emotional and she was thoroughly in command. You had to wonder what kind of orators these two parents might be raising.

The blog of the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson agreed that "She owned the Democratic National Convention with a performance that was poised, purposeful and proud." He writes about how some see Michelle Obama's confidence as a negative, calling her "mean," and surprisingly, mulls that as a generational or racial bias there--but didn't think of it as a gender issue. (I've trained plenty of women who hesitate to put themselves "forward" in speaking situations due to just such a backlash.)

Aside from the typical factors--audiences want to like potential First Ladies--I think Michelle Obama succeeded on night one of this convention for an apparently unusual skill among the evening's speakers: The ability to avoid getting glued to the teleprompter, looking like a deer in headlights, frozen and unable to gesture with hands or facial expression. As I watched the evening's lineup (with exceptions like Ted Kennedy), I saw speaker after speaker get through remarks without a variance from the script--nor any in expression, vocal tone or gesture.

Obama, in contrast, managed to sound conversational, relaxed and still in command of her abilities to look around, smile, shrug her shoulders, and gesture. I realized that speakers have a great opportunity this week and next to learn how to avoid the teleprompter version of "lectern lock," a common issue in which nervous speakers grab the lectern and never let go. The teleprompter version involves locking your eyes on the machine, and forgetting to move the rest of you. Note that Obama kept her arms in the perfect position both to gesture and to avoid lectern lock, bent at the elbow and ready to move in any direction. It's a basic speaker trick that manages to make the speaker look relaxed, ready and genuine...and a speaking approach that works far better than the old-school stemwinder thumping stump speeches you'll hear this week.

Go here to see video from the campaign about Michelle Obama, and here to see speeches on video. (Photo from the Barack Obama campaign photostream on Flickr.)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

engage your audience with new media

Last week, I spoke to the Washington chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators about social networking, blogging and other so-called "new" media tools for communicators. From the start, this speaking engagement posed a number of challenges. It was the dreaded after-dinner talk, meaning I needed to be super-engaging. The crowd was due to number close to 100, ensuring extra work to keep that size crowd engaged. The venue didn't allow for Internet access, eliminating the chance for live demonstrations of any of my examples. So my biggest challenge would be using old-fashioned tools--slides, a mic and my live speaking skills--to describe a new frontier of communications.

The premise for the talk--that professional communicators lag behind audiences in use of new media tools, and need to catch up--prompted me to rethink my own approach as a speaker, and to interject some new-media tools into the actual presentation. The idea that communicators should follow the audience led me to these changes in what I'd normally do as a speaker--changes I recommend you try in your next speech:

  • Open with the audience's questions. I did this for two reasons. First, I wanted to underscore the point of my speech, which recommended looking to the audience for direction when choosing new-media tools -- and it struck me that I needed to walk-the-talk on that score. Today's audiences are used to voting on the outcomes of reality shows and publishing their comments on blogs, so it's safe to assume they have things they want to share and say. The second reason was far more practical: In a crowd of professional communicators, with some participants just starting to use social networking and blogs and others well advanced, it's nearly impossible to gauge the level of detail needed. The organization elicited questions from registrants in advance, and I noted those, but opened it to any other inputs before I began. By the time we went around the room, I was able to get a sense of the room--and to let questioners know which of their topics would be addressed in my presentation.

  • Create an electronic handout: The group's administrator asked whether I had a handout or wanted my slides reproduced for the participants as a takeaway. And I said no, because I planned to craft a blog post that would serve as an electronic "handout." Much of the presentation included examples of websites where blogging and social networking were used for corporate and organizational communications--so what better way to share links than a blog? Because I let the group know about it in advance, they included a link to the "handout" when they emailed participants to get their evaluations. I also announced it at the talk, and offered to send the link to anyone who gave me a business card. (Lesson one in using new-media tools for communicators: You have to promote them as you would any other communications tool.) It works for my business, too, driving interested traffic to my blog.

How did it work for the speaker? I admit this technique--giving over your talk, at least initially, to the audience--won't sound appealing to the faint of heart. But I'd still recommend it. It ensures you get firsthand information about what the audience wants to hear, energizes the listeners and demonstrates that their views will be heard. No need to wonder what they want to hear: By the time I started the "real" talk, I knew my presentation would cover topics the audience preferred. Reviews, official and unconventional (see below) were excellent.

This is one situation where it pays to keep your own remarks brief, to allow for more questions; you'll also need to stop the questions after a reasonable amount of time to start your own talk. Did I also close with questions and answers? Absolutely, knowing that my topic would kick up more questions than I could possibly answer. I also used some tools I'd use in any talk, moving into the audience during both question time and my own presentation, which helped to keep the large audience visually and personally engaged. And, having read up on my attendees in advance, I asked one attendee to elaborate on my example concerning his employer, acknowledging and gaining his firsthand experience all at once.

For the audience? Well, in keeping with the night's topic, I gained several new Facebook friends and LinkedIn contacts and Twitter followers from the audience, ensuring that we can continue to network. A few also chose to post comments on the don't get caught news & info blog on related posts, here and here. The evaluations gave the approach high marks, and my web traffic, followup emails and other contacts from the audience tell me they're still engaged. I also think it's hard to beat the hands-on nature of what we did--people got so enthused that they helped shoot the video and used the camera to pose extra questions. I had a crowd of commenters and questioners gathered around me at the end of the talk, and a pile of their business cards, with several from new potential clients. (Photo of one of my questioners captured from the Flip video camera footage, a neat additional feature of the camera.)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

more on Brownie Wise: video

If you liked our post about Brownie Wise, the woman who came up with the idea of "the Tupperware party" in-home presentations to sell plastic containers, check out this video of author Bob Kealing at a reading and talk about his book Tupperware Unsealed: Brownie Wise, Earl Tupper, and the Home Party Pioneers. He pursued Wise's story, and describes more of it in the video, noting that Wise's move into management put her in a rare position: In 1950, fewer than five percent of women worked in management jobs. A nice feature of this video: The audience includes some folks who worked at Tupperware and knew Brownie Wise, and the author points them out as they come into the story. Want another blast from the past? Watch this video of a 1961 Tupperware commercial about the parties. Once again, thanks to reader Mark Sofman for sending this along to share with TEW readers.

Buy Tupperware Unsealed: Brownie Wise, Earl Tupper, and the Home Party Pioneers

Friday, August 8, 2008

practicing figures of speech online

Many seeking to learn how to be eloquent turn to longstanding rhetorical devices, the tricks of the trade of eloquent speakers--if they know where to find them. For those who didn't study rhetoric, there's a great online resource at the American Rhetoric website: rhetorical figures of speech in sound. You'll find a box with 40 figures of speech listed; click on any of them to find it defined, illustrated with an excerpt from a famous speech and with an audio excerpt, key to hearing effective delivery. Anaphora -- the repetition of the first few words of a phrase in successive phrases -- is defined with this Adlai Stevenson convention speech outtake:
"That my heart has been troubled, that I have not sought this nomination, that I could not seek it in good conscience, that I would not seek it in honest self-appraisal, is not to say that I value it the less. Rather, it is that I revere the office of the Presidency of the United States."
In the same set of examples is a Hillary Clinton convention speech outtake from 1996:
"To raise a happy, healthy, and hopeful child, it takes a family; it takes teachers; it takes clergy; it takes business people; it takes community leaders; it takes those who protect our health and safety. It takes all of us."
The example adds a note asking whether you notice the alliteration in this quote, as it's another rhetorical device.

Why use these speaker tricks? Rhetorical devices don't just sound eloquent, but serve a purpose for both speaker and audience. They help you emphasize your points and build persuasive arguments, and, perhaps more important, they can help the speaker remember a speech without notes--and make it memorable for the listener as well. In the Clinton example above, the speaker already knows that each item in her list will start with "it takes," so she can focus on remembering each group mentioned--family, teachers, and so on. Audience members will hear those groups the better because, after the first two mentions, they, too, know to expect "it takes." And saying it over and over emphasizes what it takes.

I'd recommend this resource for beginning speakers looking to build a set of speaking (and speechwriting) skills--and for experienced speakers who want to fine-tune or upgrade their presentations. Don't forget to use the audio component: It lets you practice along with some of the greatest speakers in history.

Friday, August 1, 2008

signed, sealed, delivered: Brownie Wise

A hat tip to reader Mark Sofman, who pointed us to a new book that tells the story of the woman whose presentation skills formed the basis of Tupperware's success. Brownie Wise's story is told in the new history Tupperware Unsealed: Brownie Wise, Earl Tupper, and the Home Party Pioneers, in which author Bob Kealing describes how Wise, an executive secretary who'd been supplementing her income selling home products, created the Tupperware party, where women sold the containers in their homes. Here's how the Wall Street Journal review summarized it:
Tupperware had languished on retail shelves because shoppers weren't sure how it worked: Someone needed to show them how...Wise ordered a small supply and found that housewives loved the colorful, unbreakable bowls that kept food fresh...Wise's parties, and those of a handful of other dealers across the county, were such a success that they became the company's defining strategy.
Wise went on to create a national dealer distribution system, and became the first woman with her image on the cover of Business Week. But Tupper, the product's creator, resented her achievements, even asking her to be more deferential to him. She resisted, was fired and edited out of the company history. WSJ reviewer Mark Lasswell notes that a speaking engagement added a poignant note to the end of her life:
She died at age 79 in 1992, three years after she had finally been invited to speak at the company where her contributions had long gone unacknowledged. As Mr. Kealing reports -- in a book that certainly does her justice -- Brownie Wise, feisty to the end, didn't take her former employer up on the invitation.
I love the idea of paying tribute to Wise, who was savvy enough to use a speaking venue--small, personal group interactions in a "party" atmosphere--that suits women's instincts to speak one-on-one or in small groups. Check out this long-overdue history of an inspiring speaker.

Buy Tupperware Unsealed: Brownie Wise, Earl Tupper, and the Home Party Pioneers