Thursday, August 5, 2010

Getting would-be candidates to speak up, at #BlogHer

At this year's BlogHer conference, I spent today at a special session jointly presented by BlogHer and The White House Project, designed to help women bloggers think about taking the next step on their issues by running for public office.

I went to this advance session because -- in my view -- public speaking's a major hurdle for any woman candidate.  It's tough to get elected without speaking up and speaking to groups.  And for women, there's the low proportion of female elected officials to contend with. One speaker today recalled watching Chris Matthews during the 2008 presidential campaign say that Hillary Clinton just didn't sound presidential, prompting her to retort to her TV, "Of course not! We haven't had a woman president yet." 

Of course, I went hoping to listen for hesitation specific to speaking.  Is fear of speaking something that keeps women from running for office who otherwise might do so?  The answer is yes and no, based on my sampling of the crowd.  At least one woman I met had made a successful run for school board--but was telling anyone who'd listen that her hesitancy to speak was holding her back.  And one of my table-mates admitted she's mulling a run for local office, but asked, "Can you help me stop shaking when I speak?"  She soldiers through presentations, but finds the physical reaction devastating.  Still other participants were working through a different sort of problem:  Making the leap from advocating for their single issue to representing the issues of constituents they might not agree with.

Today's training, while not focused on speaking, offered some good concrete tips on messaging and a few resources I'd recommend to women who want to try a more active role in civic life, including these:
  • Authenticity may be as important as confidence:  Political strategist Kathryn Poindexter, who also conducts trainings for the White House Project, shared this intriguing observation about speaking in public for candidates:  While many say they can't run because they're not confident, a more difficult problem is the candidate who tries to shape herself into something that she thinks will be electable. It's easier to be authentic than it is to be confident, she said, pinpointing the nexus between the two as being able to "sit with who you are and know that that's enough." 
  • Keep your message simple:  Poindexter also counseled political campaigners to keep their messages honest, simple and in the form of stories.  "Think children's books.  Your message should be as simple as Everybody Poops," she said, noting that voters don't want to hear your full resume, your policy-wonk perspective or everything you know about wastewater treatment. 
  • Get some resources:  The White House Project has trained some 10,000 women considering runs for public office, with a goal to do much more, so check out its workshops.  Former ambassador Linda Tarr-Whelan's book Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World,and White House Project co-founder Marie Wilson's book Closing the Leadership Gap: Add Women, Change Everythingboth offer insights based on data and experience of women candidates in the U.S. and around the world.
Have you run for public office--or are you holding back? Share your perspective in the comments. What would motivate you to run?