Thursday, March 4, 2010

Are you too respectful to be a great speaker?

I'm so glad you all asked me to speak to you today, because I think I may have some insights you might find useful about my experiences as a woman in our industry.

Being a woman in our industry is like being a vacuum cleaner:  It sucks.  Let me tell you why.

Which one of those opening lines would you have chosen, if you were giving a speech or presentation?  Which one do you find more compelling, as an audience member? The first one's full of qualifiers--phrases that water down the impact in case it's offensive to anyone, and it's likewise full of passive verbs.  It takes a long, meandering road to the real content ahead.

The second one's shorter, punchier, more in-your-face and more active in its verbs. In seconds, it tells me where you're headed and takes me right there.  It's bold, and you need to be bold to be an effective speaker.  Respectful and qualified won't help you create that vital connection with your audience, whether you're in a meeting, a presentation or giving a speech.

I had a discussion about this with colleague Frank Blanchard, who watched me lead a workshop for scientists on communicating science to public audiences.  While watching me advise my audience on what has to happen for them to make clear their technical topics, he wrote down, "Be bold."  One problem many scientists encounter:  They're trained to describe to colleagues all the exceptions, competing ideas and potential for error in their statements about their research....but for public audiences, that amount of qualification can divert attention by the time the point rolls around. 

To explain his "be bold" note, Frank pointed me to this blog post,  Why You're Too Qualified and Respectful to Produce Great Content, by Pace Smith on the popular Copyblogger site.  While the advice is for writers, speakers can find a lot that resonates.  Here's what Smith advises, and how I'd interpret her advice for speakers:
  • Don't qualify. Be bold.   Edit your written remarks, and practice your delivery, to omit qualifiers--words like may, might, little, very, kind of, almost, nearly, sometimes, pretty well, maybe.  Figure out a statement you can make, without qualifiers. Then make it, and back it up.  Do you need to shoot for 100 percent accuracy or all the detail? No. You need to make a point.
  • Don't be respectful. Be bold.  If your statements are crafted to avoid offending anyone, it's a losing battle. Some will agree, some will disagree, some won't know what they think until you say more.  You can't possibly avoid offending someone. So say what you think and be ready to discuss it.  Smith uses 3 headlines to show what happens to your language when you're too respectful:  Five Grammatical Errors that May Detract From Your Credibility (respectful version); Five Grammatical Errors that Make You Look Dumb (bold version); and Five Grammatical Errors that May Sometimes Make You Look Dumb to Some People (what she terms the "wet dishrag" version). Which one does your speech sound like?
  • Write for the fence-sitters.   If you can't please everyone, Smith argues, aim your remarks at those who are not yet convinced. It's a great tactic for speakers, because it pushes you to persuade--and persuasion is a critical factor in creating an eloquent speech.  You might even bring along a few nay-sayers as you do it.
Use Smith's three steps to think through your next meeting or presentation.  I can see this being a useful self-coaching process you can use before a conference call or meeting (akin to my recent post on 7 ways to interrupt effectively), or as you are practicing a big presentation or a major speech.  Ask a friend or colleague to listen to you rehearse, counting the qualifiers and respectful statements and reviewing them with you afterward.  Many women have been told their speaking style "isn't respectful" -- I've heard that in relation to eye contact -- but I know bold speaking styles get results, and sometimes, comments about your level of respect are designed to keep you quiet. Keep all that in mind, and boldly go....

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