Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Keeping women off the program: history

Women today in many professions still wonder "what does it take to get on the program?" when most of the speakers at their professional conferences are men. What they may not realize: The history of women as public speakers is a short one, due to the far longer history of extraordinary efforts to keep women away from the lectern and later, the microphone. Here are just three examples from New York Times editorial columnist Gail Collins' book, America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines:
  • The 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London "refused to let the women delegates speak," inspiring delegates Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to start a movement for women's rights;
  • On a book tour of England after Uncle's Tom Cabin was published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe "sat silently in the the 'women's gallery' of the crowded auditoriums, while her husband read her speech from the stage;"
  • "pro-slavery hecklers claimed [Sojourner] Truth was really a man--an accusation frequently thrown at women who spoke in public," and demanded she show her breasts to women in the Indiana audience to prove her gender before she spoke. (She did it to the entire assembly instead.)

In Sojourner Truth's case, the effort to embarrass her didn't keep her from speaking--in fact, she was already before the audience, and used the situation to make her point clearer. Rosa Parks wasn't so lucky. And today, even though social norms have shifted and women are in a better position to speak in public, some of the forces that may keep them from speaking are harder to identify and confront, because they happen behind the scenes or as silent assumptions. It reminds me of an observation I heard from one of the attorneys who teaches at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. She was teaching our group business negotiation skills, but at lunch, was talking about tough international negotiations between partisans with longstanding conflicts. "Which is more difficult to negotiate?" I asked. The answer came quickly: Business settings, because none of the cards are on the table. With historic rifts, the issues are well known and out in the open. Which is better for you as a speaker? What barriers do you see, if any, today? (Photo of British suffragette from the Library of Congress collection on Flickr.)

speaking up in meetings

For many women, public speaking means speaking up in meetings--and I've yet to meet a woman who hasn't encountered problems when she tries to do so. It's not that they lack competence, says Cecilia Ford, author of Women Speaking Up: Getting and Using Turns in Workplace Meetings: In this downloadable sample of the book's opening chapter:
I started out with an interest in finding cases of what women experience as “having our ideas ignored,” but, after visiting and videotaping the first few workplace meetings for the study, I shifted my attention to documenting women’s evident competency in meeting interaction.
Ford does a "conversational analysis" that walks through the dance of discourse in meetings, including how people take turns speaking, use questions to open up the chance to participate or put a challenge on the table, and skills needed when your point flies in the face of the status quo. Make no mistake: This is primarily an academic analysis, not a self-help book, as Ford notes that women "don't need to be fixed" because their skills are undervalued. (And I agree, but for those who've never learned how to negotiate while speaking in meetings, some training, assistance and reinforcement help.) If getting talked over or ignored are common problems in your workplace, perhaps your human resources team will help invest in this book.

Buy Women Speaking Up: Getting and Using Turns in Workplace Meetings

Sunday, January 18, 2009

inaugural speeches of the past

The presidential inauguration this week's awash in speculation over Barack Obama's speech, and yielding more tools for those who write and give speeches. The New York Times offers this interactive timeline with word clouds showing the most-used words in each president's inaugural speech; just move your cursor over the timeline and click on a year to see your favorites.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

fun for speakers: Obama speech generator

While we await Barack Obama's inaugural speech--arguably the most important of his career and certainly an historic moment--have some fun with this Inauguration Speech Generator from atom.com. You fill in a variety of verbs, adjectives and nouns, Mad-lib style, and get a short speech. (Clearly, if one of your speeches results in this formulaic approach, you need to revamp it!) The speech generator may be a comical part of a larger trend noted by Peggy Noonan, a great presidential speechwriter, who says in this week's column:
Everyone wants to be part of it. Mr. Obama's aides and speechwriters have been engulfed with ideas, thoughts and language, as they say, for the speech. An acquaintance of speechwriter Favreau got in a cab, chatted with the driver, and mentioned he knew someone in the new administration. The cabdriver handed him a fully written inaugural address, and asked him to pass it on....the cabdriver, who works a shift, is up at night writing his inaugural address for Mr. Obama, knowing, this being America, the most fluid country in history, a place of unforeseen magic, that he would meet someone who knows someone. We all want to be together, to work together, we all want to be part of the history, of the time. And why not? Join in. Lightning strikes.
Have some fun with this one, and no matter what your party is, pay attention to the speech--it's a golden opportunity to learn from an excellent orator. (Photo of the rehearsal of the Obama inaugural ceremony.)

Friday, January 16, 2009

when women address women's issues

Sometimes when you're speaking, a question is more than just a question...and you can speak volumes by just standing up. I was reminded of this yesterday while speaking to the Tech Council of Maryland about using social media as a professional networking tool. I encouraged the audience to share their questions upfront (see some video questions here), promising to answer them later in the session and on my other blog. One woman executive wanted us to address security issues and specifically "are you afraid of people stalking you?" My fellow panelist was a man who later touched back on that issue, saying "I'm not afraid of being stalked." So I jumped in to say, "I want to address that on behalf of women, because that very well may be an issue for them, if not for you." (My answer was encouraging of using available privacy and security controls on social media sites and even reporting bad behavior to the site management.) After the session, another colleague told me privately about her own experience of having been stalked...so the question, and the answer, helped more than the asker. Just a reminder to myself, as well as you, that women with speaking roles can help the audience by making sure their questions really do get addressed.

New Yahoo! CEO's first speech dissected

This morning's New York Times looks at Carol Bartz, newly appointed CEO of Yahoo!, and her first appearance before investors and reporters earlier this week, and immediately notes comparisons with her predecessor, who was male and soft-spoken. Terming her speech "decisive," the Times noted her direct style is a plus:
Ms. Bartz is likely to shake up Yahoo with a mix of candor and toughness, which many insiders say Yahoo has badly needed.
Even after she became a CEO at Autodesk, which makes design software, Bartz experienced subtle and not-so-subtle digs as a senior woman. The article notes a situation she faced that many women can relate to:
In an article she wrote for Forbes in 1997, Ms. Bartz recounted a meeting of technology executives, which included Bill Gates, with senators in Washington. “A senator turned to me and asked, ‘So how are we going to start the meeting?’ He thought I must be the moderator. It’s annoying. I don’t have time to change these guys, but when it’s ridiculous, I call them on it.”
And that happened when she was a CEO. I'll enjoy watching this no-nonsense style as Bartz moves forward. (Photo of Bartz at an employee meeting by yodelanecdotal from Flickr.)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

more on using powerpoint: experts speak

Olivia Mitchell at the Speaking About Presenting blog has now summarized the more than 40 blog posts (and some email contributions) she received from presentation experts on how they'd change or improve use of PowerPoint in 2009. (The group includes a summary of my recent post on the topic.) There's also a page of quicklinks to all the feedback--a rich resource if you're using slides in your presentations!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

when women deter the progress of women

Have you ever been intimidated, bullied or otherwise thwarted by another woman--and surprised by it? That phenomenon is examined in an essay in today's New York Times, by Peggy Klaus, a leadership coach, who says:
...a pink elephant is lurking in the room, and we pretend it’s not there. For years, I have heard behind closed doors from women — young and old, up and down the ladder — that we can be our own worst enemies at work....while women have come a long way in removing workplace barriers, one of the last remaining obstacles is how they treat one another. Instead of helping to build one another’s careers, they sometimes derail them — for example, by limiting access to important meetings and committees; withholding information, assignments and promotions; or blocking the way to mentors and higher-ups.
And while the essay doesn't touch on speaking, per se, it reflects issues many of my clients note when thinking through the barriers they face in achieving their public speaking goals. I'm guessing they won't be surprised by this. What are your experiences?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Speaker lessons on labor's front lines, 1936

Thanks to MIWomensForum on Twitter, here is a wonderful story about how women put public speaking training to use in an early auto industry strike. Appearing on Women's eNews, the article by historian Louise Berkinow recounts how "The Women's Auxiliary took their rolling pins to the front lines of the Flint sit-down strike" on December 30, 1936. The strike was a 44-day sit-in by auto workers at the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan, spurred by the firing of workers trying to start a labor union. On learning that some women were trying to get their striking husbands to come home, activist women started a "Women's Auxiliary" to educate the others about how to support the strike:
The Women's Auxiliary set up a first aid station, a day care center and a feeding operation that on some days delivered three meals a day to a crowd of strikers that numbered, at times, 2,000 men...The women walked the picket lines, distributed literature and offered public speaking classes to women who faced questions from press or public.
Later, women took to the lines with rolling pins (and other implements) to defend the strikers.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

There's um-thing about her (and all of us)

Another female candidate for higher office is getting criticized for, among other things, her speaking skills, and today Maureen Dowd comes to Caroline Kennedy's defense in the New York Times:

I know about “you knows.” I use that verbal crutch myself, a bad habit that develops from shyness and reticence about public speaking.
Dowd goes on to discuss the issues raised about the Kennedy dynasty, her experience and more, but comes back to her speaking skills and notes:
People complain that the 51-year-old Harvard and Columbia Law School grad and author is not a glib, professional pol who knows how to artfully market herself, and is someone who hasn’t spent her life glad-handing, backstabbing and logrolling. I say, thank God.
Dowd's lending her voice (and platform) to defend Kennedy and does so in the same frustrated manner that millions of women do when they feel shut out of--or shut up in--public speaking situations from meetings to conventions. I hear it in hallways, on Twitter, and from my friends and training clients in private. At the same time, citizens have few other ways to evaluate political figures than to parse their speaking skills...and their opponents, particularly when faced with a political dynasty, may have few other chinks in the armor to attack. And, of course, most people define eloquence as the ability to speak extemporaneously in roll-off-the-tongue, smooth-sounding sentences--words that go beyond basics to flourishes and turns of phrase that make us pause and listen, and that move us to a place beyond our daily lives.

I'll be exploring the historic reasons that women have had few--and hard-won--opportunities to speak in public throughout history, even in our time, in other posts. But, putting that aside for a moment, let's look at the supposed stumbling block: using "you know," another version of "um." According to Um. . .: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, these types of verbal blunders make up 5% to 8% of everyone's daily speech--that's everyone, not just those in the spotlight. "You know" may be, as Dowd suggests, a sign of hesitancy, but it also serves as "um" does, as a pause to think of what to say when you don't know what to say. Ums and their near equivalents can increase when your hands are immobilized (clasped, gripping a lectern or just in your pockets) and in general, suggest a need to anticipate questions and prepare answers--nothing more sinister, stupid or suggestive. (Photo of Kennedy by Kate Sherrill on Flickr)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

making excuses for poor speaking?

Do you work on making excuses ahead of time for why you might fail as a speaker--or set yourself up to do so with self-sabotaging behavior, like not getting enough sleep before a major speech, or leaving your notes at home? You might have plenty of company, according to an article in today's New York Times that notes "Some Protect the Ego by Working on Excuses Early." But one advantage for women speakers is reported from recent findings:
The urge to shoot one’s own foot seems to be stronger in men than in women. In surveys, Dr. Hirt and others have measured the tendency by asking people to rate how well a series of 25 statements describes their own behavior — for example, “I try not to get too intensely involved in competitive activities so it won’t hurt too much if I lose or do poorly.” Men tend to score higher on these measures and, in lab studies, to handicap themselves more severely.
Psychologists interviewed in the article note that handicapping your performance is another double-edged sword: While it may protect your ego when you reflect on problematic performance, it also may become an excuse you rely on in future situations, dampening your motivation to improve. Take the time to examine your excuses--whether in advance of a speaking engagement or after the fact--to learn whether you're using them to hold yourself back. Replacing excuses with motivation in your speech preparation might be the ticket to breaking through as a better, more confident speaker.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

How to use PowerPoint in 2009

Olivia Mitchell of the Speaking About Presenting blog sent me this provocative post by Laura Bergells on the Maniactive blog: It notes the backlash against bullet-filled PowerPoint slides, which led to simple art-filled slides. Neither approach works for audiences, Bergells notes, proposing there is (or should be) another backlash against the simplified slide. In fact, she calls the use of simple art and pictures--designed to evoke emotional responses--"propaganda." Sounds like everyone agrees that, if you must use them, they should have the pop and fizz of a good champagne. But what does that mean PowerPoint slides should look like in 2009? Mitchell asks.

I'm no advocate of slides, which tend to serve as projected cue cards even the audience can follow. I'd much prefer to see speakers build their skills to engage audiences with language, gestures, movement and even physical props, rather than as passive narrators of PowerPoint. Bergells notes:
When it comes to experiencing a PowerPoint presentation, there's only so much your brain can process. You can either listen to a presenter speak, or you can try to read what you seen on the screen. If you try to do both at the same time, you absorb less. And you become irritated with the presenter.
At the same time, she points out, audiences are becoming more skeptical and want more information--in part, because they're used to getting it from social media:
Social media has also made "talking back" popular. People are becoming accustomed to criticizing presentation techniques and content on Twitter backchannels. They're creating and commenting on blogs, and voting on Digg or StumbleUpon. Today's audience isn't quietly and politely absorbing canned corporate and political propaganda: they're getting accustomed to talking back and creating their own content.

So where does that leave us? I say if you must use PowerPoint, in 2009, use it to further the discussion with your audience. I've started using social media techniques in my own speaking by opening with audience questions, recording their questions on video and posting them on my blogs. That's not just for the sake of a trendy technology, but to engage the audience--and it works, allowing not just for involvement but to lead to the more thoughtful, difficult and intellectually challenging conversations audiences want. In that scenario, speakers in 2009 could use PowerPoint to:

  • Ask questions of the audience: Instead of loading your slides with bullets or pictures, try posing relevant--and thorny--questions about your issue. Use the slide to guide, even encourage discussion.
  • Play advance feedback back to the audience: If your conference organizers ask the audience to submit advance questions, get them ahead of time and share them on a slide or series of slides--no better way to let the audience know you've heard their feedback, and a great guide to a discussion.
  • Add to the slide in real time: Ask the audience to call out points and amend your slide on the fly, so their input is reflected. Or start a list on the slide and turn to the audience to add to the points you've made.

That seems to me to solve the problem of what to watch: Audience members, seeing their issues and questions on the slides, can fully engage with both slides and speaker. Then, once you've put the audience front and center, you can put up slides with some answers: data, ideas, examples.

once upon a time: the eloquent calendar

You may be mulling the passage of time or the significance of the date on this New Year's Day, so it's the perfect time to consider how special dates and times can add eloquence to your next speech. In some measure, eloquence transports the listener from her seat to greater, grander thoughts and places--and moving your listeners through space and time can be one of the most effective ways to make a strong impression. Here are some ways eloquent speakers can turn the calendar and the clock into tools that take your listeners someplace memorable:

  • Define the larger issues that result in your being here today: I recently had the chance to see the White House's copy of the Gettysburg Address--in Lincoln's own handwriting--in this special exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. This entire short speech endures today in large part because of its sense of time: It encapsulates the past in describing what the founders did, notes the significance of the day on which "we are met on a great battlefield of that war," and looks to the future in which government "of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth." (The exhibit link includes access to an electronic file of the short speech for you to study.) Lincoln drew a verbal timeline that lets any listener understand how their presence on that day fit into the nation's history and its future.

  • Make the date resonate: If your role as a speaker occurs on a special anniversary, find out what else happened in that year to add historic context to your audience's celebration. Is it the 50th anniversary of a local professional chapter? Then find out what else happened in that profession 50 years ago. Is a special person's service being honored at a retirement or awards ceremony? Describe the technology that was in use when she began her career, or how many women graduated from her college department at the start of her career versus how many today. Pulling those present back into the past helps them place the anniversary--and its significance--in history.

  • Go 'beyond the moment:' Use the occasion to ask big questions and demand big answers from your audience--even if your rhetorical questions go unanswered for the moment. Sometimes posing the questions for the audience is the most moving: In effect, you're giving voice to what they're wondering, allowing all points of view to come forward. Push listeners past the anniversary, hour or day in question and inspire them to make it worthy of reflection at a future point. For inspiration, look at this interview with the contemporary poet Elizabeth Alexander, who's been chosen to create an "occasional poem" for the inauguration of Barack Obama January 20th. She notes she hopes to "to create something that has integrity and life that goes beyond the moment."

How will you make the time and date ring out with eloquence in your next speech? (Photo of Elizabeth Alexander by caribbeanfreephoto on Flickr.)