Sunday, September 28, 2008

wherefore art thou, women on stage?

I often come across women speakers of all ages who don't know that the history of women and public speaking is a short one because of the long history of forbidding women to speak in public. And last night, I got to see that history in action at a performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC--because the play was staged as it would have been in Shakespeare's day, with an all-male cast. This article on the practice explains: Shakespeare’s day, no women appeared on stage. All of his great female roles, from Juliet to Viola to Cleopatra, were originally played by young men. Female actors were denounced as “monsters,” and a visiting French company that included women was booed off the stage in 1629.
The practice didn't end until the 1660s, so that none of Shakespeare's original productions featured women--despite the fact that Juliet, as the theatre's program notes "is often cited as one of the greatest parts ever written for a woman." (Today, of course, an all-male cast raises eyebrows for different reasons and in a different context.) In fact, this production notes that Shakespeare's eloquent poetry about the love between Romeo and Juliet had to carry even more power to be convincing with the audience when two men play the roles--and contrasts with the masculine-dominated world portrayed in the play.

Why does a modern woman concerned with public speaking care? It's just another historical example of the hurdles women have faced in attempting to express themselves in public, taboos that still resonate at some level with some people. Understanding and remembering these historical situations can help you understand negative feedback you may get--and help you turn current speaking situations to your advantage. (Photo of James Davis as Juliet from the Shakespeare Theatre. Go here to read an interview with Director David Muse.)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

"hot" rhetoric: antimetabole

Since when are figures of speech hot? Public radio's show On The Media says the antimetabole (pronounced an-tee-meh-TAB-oh-lee) is the hottest figure of speech in this year's election campaign. Or is it just overused? You be the judge. The antimetabole's name may not be familiar to you, but the form surely is. Here are the examples OTM quotes from women speakers in the current campaign:
Sarah Palin: In politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers. And then there are some, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change.

Hillary Clinton: In the end, the true test is not the speeches a president delivers. It's whether he delivers on his speeches.
The interview notes a danger for Clinton's use of the form in the above example, as she was criticizing her opponent for fine public speaking...and using an elaborate rhetorical device to do so. Similarly, the interview strikes a cautionary note about overusing antimetabole when it isn't called for. But overall, it helps candidates define what they are and what their opponents aren't, and echoes John F. Kennedy, who loved the form. American Rhetoric's "rhetorical figures in sound" section offers few examples of women using antimetabole but I know you'll be helping to make up for that soon. Go here to listen to the OTM interview; a transcript will be posted in the same place on Monday, September 22.

convention: missing words of black women

UPDATED: I'm remiss in not bringing to your attention sooner this On The Media radio program (transcript here), which asks a great question: at the historic Democratic convention that nominated a black man for president, where were the references to the noted black women who inspired prior conventions--Fannie Lou Hamer, Barbara Jordan, and Shirley Chisholm, herself a presidential candidate?

The program interviewed Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University, who does a great job summarizing the significance of those three women and their roles at conventions past: Hamer, who spoke movingly to the credentials committee about having been beaten for just trying to register to vote; Jordan, the first black keynote speaker to address a convention in prime time; and Chisholm, whose run for president in the 1970s immediately followed the change in voting age, a hopeful signal that newly minted young voters might want a different kind of candidate.

When asked about the indirect reference to Martin Luther King in Obama's acceptance speech--he was referred to as a young preacher, but not by name--Harris-Lacewell put it in perspective:
I do think there’s a problem when you invoke Kennedy by name but not King by name and where you can talk about the historic moment that is Hillary Clinton’s campaign but you don't mention Shirley Chisholm. We've got to have a better historical memory as a country that allows all of the players to be there and all of us to have a place at the kind of table of American history.
To find out more about black women who've made significant public speeches, check out this post on a book and recording of famous black speeches and this post on Barbara Jordan's speaking skills--she routinely ranks among the top political speakers.
UPDATE: Today's New York Times op-ed page has a column by Brent Staples on language and race that's relevant here. It speaks to the historic and current risks of eloquence for black speakers:
Forms of eloquence and assertiveness that were viewed as laudable among whites were seen as positively mutinous when practiced by people of color...It's a reminder of the power of speech, and, I hope, an encouragement to keep speaking publicly for all of us.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Tell Me More dishes fashion on the trail

On today's Tell Me More show on NPR, three women discuss the scrutiny of the fashions worn by the wives of the presidential candidates, Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain, and by Republic vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Both guests, former Congresswoman Marjorie Margolies and Wall Street Journal fashion reporter Teri Agins agree with my view that this isn't anything new--that women always have and always will draw more attention because of their clothes. Agins noted that the political fishbowl is, in a sense, a type of red-carpet experience we're all watching with interest--and that's true for speakers, too. They also noted that, even in the corporate world, women don't need to wear masculinized clothes that mimic men's styles anymore, so there's a certain power in dressing with comfort and femininity.

Margolies also heads Women's Campaign International, which trains women to be advocates and to run for public office, which includes training them to wear appropriate clothes in appropriate settings--for example, many of the women WCI trains wear something different in their home villages than they do in the cities. Margolies stressed the importance of finding appropriate outfits, noting, "most people remember what you wear and your tone over what you say."

Host Michel Martin asked the guests for their fashion advice for women on the campaign trail. Wear color and a good neckline, and look feminine were Agins's tips. Margolies: Dress simply and appropriately, and make yourself look serious and supportive. (Photo courtesy of the Obama campaign photostream on

Friday, September 5, 2008

Noonan to speakers: Make 'em laugh

One of the most eloquent women--and writers--in our time is Peggy Noonan, now an author and columnist, but known as one of the best presidential speechwriters. In her column yesterday, opining on what John McCain should do in his acceptance speech at the convention, Noonan offered an eloquent piece of advice that women speakers can take advantage of: Make your audience laugh:
A voter laughing is half yours, and just received a line he can repeat next weekend over a beer at the barbecue or online at Starbucks. Here is a fact of American politics: If you make us laugh we spread your line for free.
I do not understand the absence of humor, that powerful weapon, that rhetorical cannon, in this year's campaign. There are a lot of things to say here but let me tell you the first I think of. America is a huge and lonely country. We are vast, stretch coast to coast, live in self-sufficient pods; modern culture tends us toward the atomic, the fractured and broken up. When two people meet, as they come to know each other as neighbors or colleagues, one of the great easers, one of the great ways of making a simple small human connection is: shared laughter. We are a political nation. We talk politics. So fill that area with humor: sly humor, teasing humor, humor that speaks a great truth or makes a sharp point.
It's advice that women speakers are well-equipped to try, as Noonan suggests the intimate connection that can be made with an audience member by making them laugh, or bringing a smile forward. It's a wonderful way to make a tense audience loosen up--think of Ronald Reagan's "there you go again" line when he was attacked in debates, which made everyone smile at its non-anxious humor. And it bespeaks confidence on the speaker's part. Try some eloquent humor in your next speech and let me know how it goes.

about those convention teleprompters

So many people have Googled their way to this blog to ask whether speakers used teleprompters at the two political conventions that I think it's worth a short discussion. The answer is yes: Speakers expect to use teleprompters at conventions, where the hall--and the television audience beyond it--is huge. And while most people giving a speech don't use teleprompters, there's no shame in doing so. The primary advantage? You can read your speech without looking down and away from the cameras.

Teleprompters don't relieve you of the need to practice your speech and they don't guarantee smooth delivery. Practice still makes, well, almost perfect. But teleprompters primarily help you look active and engaged with the audience, instead of your text. They don't have much to do with making the speaker more eloquent.

Here's what former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote in her Wall Street Journal column yesterday, for example, about whether John McCain should use a teleprompter:
I am told alternately that he has given up on the teleprompter and will go straight from text, and that he will use a teleprompter. I assume the latter is true. If it is it will be interesting to see if he has mastered it. That will tell us if he practiced the speech...If he's reading from text, well, it is not true that this is impossible in the media age. People didn't use teleprompters until 30 years ago. But when McCain reads straight from text we tend to see a lot of the top of his head, with the soft white hair and the pink brow glistening under the lights. Which tends to accentuate his age. So how he does the speech is of more than academic interest.
In fact, both McCain and Sarah Palin, his running mate, used both text and teleprompter, a confusing mix--I'd recommend one or the other. And in Michelle Obama's case, interviews with her after the speech revealed that her speech was not too different from her stump speech, which means she's well-practiced in its delivery and comfortable with it. Again, the teleprompter isn't the key to smooth delivery.

Readers have been asking questions like "where are the teleprompters?" and the answer usually is "out of camera range" and "near or below the camera." In this photo, a teleprompter at the 2004 Republican convention in New York is located below a bank of cameras. (Photo by vidiot from Flickr)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

practice with the candidates: video tool

If you're using the political conventions to pick up speaker tips, you can use an interactive tool on the New York Times's website to practice along with the candidates. Shown here in a screen shot, today you can watch video of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, for example, while a transcript of her actual remarks scrolls in time with the video. (And while the candidates and their surrogates are tightly scripted at the conventions, if you only read Palin's prepared remarks, you'd miss one of her best off-the-cuff lines, comparing hockey moms to pit bulls, with lipstick.) You also can click on section headers at right to advance the video and the transcript to a particular section.

This strikes me as a useful training tool: If you liked a particular look, gesture, type of emphasis, or rhetoric--or the combination of all those factors--during a speech, you can replay it and try it out for yourself, with the script running teleprompter-like in front of you. And its accessibility on the web means you can do that kind of practice at home, at the office, in a hotel room or most other locations. Look here for the Sarah Palin speech; here for Hillary Clinton's speech; and here for Michelle Obama's speech in this format. Leave a comment to let me know your thoughts on this as a practice tool!

Palin: Toned down and revved up

Earlier this year, I noted the double-edged sword of image for female political candidates, particularly in regard to their speaking style. Here again is an excerpt from Kathleen Hall Jamieson's Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking, about:
...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.
Last night's speech by Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin gives us another view of that struggle. Her rhetoric defines her as a "hockey mom" to evoke a decidedly feminine image. The campaign, apparently wanting to underscore the novelty of a female running mate, features this ridiculous photograph of Palin's high heels prominently on its website, as if perhaps footwear or a shapely calf might drive more votes. But Palin's speaking style last night was decidedly old-school, aggressive and more traditionally masculine in tone--at a time when her own credibility and suitability for the role is widely debated. The hard-driving, loud and emphatic speaking style may prove to be a risk in another way: As Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Clinton found, the effort to appear credible and competitive in a male-dominated field may rob Palin of an advantage noted by Jamieson, the 'womanly' and personal style that helps speakers connect to audiences, particularly on television, which can mimic the one-on-one situations in which women excel at communicating.

Or at least, that may be true for television viewers, or for an audience less dominated by men--attendees at this convention are 68 percent male, an increase over the previous convention. The hall was certainly revved up, and as happened to Clinton, Palin stepped on some of her own lines, letting them get swallowed by the chanting crowd.

But observers are already saying the speech may have been the easiest task she faces. Here, the New York Times weighs in:
From here, Ms. Palin moves into a national campaign where she will have to appeal to audiences that are not necessarily primed to adore her. She will have to navigate far less controlled campaign settings that will test not only her political skills but also her knowledge of foreign and domestic policy. And she must convince the country she is prepared to be vice president at a time when the definition of that job has been elevated to the status of governing partner — something voters might have been reminded of Wednesday by images of Vice President Dick Cheney embarking on a mission to war-torn Georgia.
In an earlier speech in Ohio, Palin said:
Well, it's always, though, safer in politics to avoid risk, to just kind of go along with the status quo. But I didn't get into government to do the safe and easy things. A ship in harbor is safe, but that's not why the ship is built.
But that's just what she did with her choice of wardrobe. Surprisingly for a former broadcaster, Palin chose a neutral palette, with a gray blazer and black skirt. The RNC's choice of a black background for its speakers, with a large-screen streaming video of landscapes of the United States, didn't help. Even though all eyes were on Palin in the hall, it was Cindy McCain's vivid green dress that stood out in the television footage.

Buy Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

wordle your speeches

The New York Times introduced me recently to the Many Eyes site, a new site that helps you create unusual visualizations of data--a treasure trove for those speakers who need charts and graphs that don't look like standard-issue bars and cones. One tool on the site that's equally useful for speakers: Wordle, which lets you create innovative word "clouds" that give prominent placement and size to words used more frequently. (The image here is a Wordle of recent posts on this blog--you can tell I've been writing about the political convention speeches.) You can let the program decide for you or tweak fonts, sizes or even which words are included.

Speakers and speechwriters can use this several ways:

  • Analyze your own speeches: Cut and paste text, or enter the URL to a link to your speech, and Wordle will show you just how much you repeat certain terms. How much weight are you giving to particular topics, themes or vocabulary? Are you using repetition strategically--or unintentionally?
  • Check out previous speeches: If you're a speechwriter, the same resource lets you visually and quickly compare which words and terms your speaker uses most...or not at all. If someone's writing speeches for you, point them here to analyze your recent talks. Booking a speaker and want to know what she will emphasize? Wordle a few recent texts of speeches to find out.
  • Learn from great speeches of the past: Want to know what made Eleanor Roosevelt's speeches sing? Got your hands on a compelling transcript? Enter some historic texts into Wordle to gain perspective.
  • Share your themes: Just as I've done here, Wordle lets a speaker have a compelling, short image to summarize a talk or presentation. Now that's some abstract! Under its Creative Commons license, you can share the image (with credit, as I've done below) or post it to the gallery on the Wordle website; link codes are provided so you can share it with attendees and others on your own website, blog, Twitter feed and more.

If you've done a Wordle analysis of a recent speech and want to share the link, post it in the comments, below. I'm looking forward to sharing more of these clever visual looks at speeches with you in the months to come. (Image courtesy of