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.