Friday, September 24, 2010

Help a woman with public speaking: 13 simple things you can do

When people ask me why I put a particular focus on women and public speaking--asking, in essence, "why do women need more or different advice on public speaking?"--the following types of events come to mind:
  • Politico, a powerful website, announced a new opinion section featuring a voice from the left and a voice from the right. The pundits? Two white men. The announcement, referencing an old Saturday Night Live skit, used the word "slut."
  • NPR reported that, while it has plenty of female hosts, women are rarely chosen as commentators (just one of dozens) or as sources in news stories (outnumbered by men about 3 to 1), so that women's voices are rarely heard as authorities on topics of the day.
  • A tech blogger whose conference routinely includes 10 percent or fewer women among its speakers, wrote an inflammatory post that suggested women in tech "stop blaming the men."  He defended that percentage, noting many women turn down the opportunity to speak, or that qualified women just can't be found. One of many women who responded to this diatribe on his site was called a "c***" in the comments.
  • A prominent speaker who wasn't told that a live Twitter feed from the audience would be projected behind her during a keynote learned later that audience members were laughing because men in the audience were tweeting whether they wanted to "do her."  They removed the tweets later, but it gave us an insight into what some men are thinking about instead of a woman speaker's topic.
  • Every day, people spread these 4 common myths about women who speak in public--mostly to make them feel uncomfortable about speaking, and hoping to silence them. If you've ever joked about women talking more than men do, you've passed on one of these myths.
Calling women crude sexual names is another, especially offensive way of trying to silence them.  I have a male professional colleague who likes to walk up to me at conferences and say things (to me, in the hearing of the person talking to me) like, "Let's go have a threesome!" -- and I know full well he does that to embarrass and silence me, so I won't seem so much of a threat to him.  Hearing these other recent examples reminded me that this happens more than we like to think or talk about.  Add to all that a culture in which women generally feel more comfortable speaking privately than publicly (gee, I wonder how that happened?) and get less practice at speaking in public, and you've got the rationale behind this blog.  Women aren't broken or worse at speaking, yet we (men and women) generally view them more negatively than we view men when they speak.  And women bring many advantages to public speaking that they should get the chance to use.

When the recent dust-up over the tech blogger's inflammatory remarks arose a few weeks ago, I held off commenting, in part because I didn't want to drive traffic to his site (one reason I believe he writes posts of this type).   But I had to challenge myself, and I want to challenge you, too:  Instead of blaming women or saying this can't be done, what are some practical and simple things that any of us can do to help a woman with public speaking?  Unlike some observers, I'm not suggesting that only women should do these things.  These are tasks any woman or man can do.  I welcome your additions to this list in the comments:
  1. Talk about this issue--with your friends and colleagues, with your boss, with your professional organizations. Ask what they can do to help. Share this list as a starting point.  When you see people helping to keep women silent, point it out. 
  2. When you organize or moderate a panel, take the time to look for, invite and encourage women speakers to join it. Got an all male panel? Include women.  (This is a problem even in female-dominated professions, by the way.) Get your organization to make this a rule of thumb.
  3. Share speaking resources with women you know.  I always hope you'll recommend The Eloquent Woman or The Eloquent Woman on Facebook, but please also share the many books, blogs, seminars and other resources you find useful with women interested in speaking.
  4. If you're a manager, offer support for speaker training, particularly for younger women on your team. Use a low-cost alternative like Toastmasters, private coaching, or team training for the women on your team. Insist that women working on your team get speaker training. Encourage them to keep trying.
  5. Managers also can make public speaking and presentations skills a professional development goal for female team members, both to indicate their importance and to cause training to happen.
  6. Not a manager? Then ask for presentation and speaker training at work, and ask to make it part of your professional development plan. Suggest group training for you and your colleagues. Feel free to use my memo to the boss for this purpose.
  7. In a meeting, ask a woman what she thinks about the matter at hand. Listen to what she says.  If a woman's having trouble getting a word in edgewise, help her out: "I'd like to hear what Emily has to say on this score" is all it takes.
  8. If a female friend or colleague is speaking, go hear your speaking friend. Congratulate her. Encourage her to do it again. Ask intelligent questions during her presentation. Tell others to go see her.
  9. If you're a woman who speaks on a subject with authority, make yourself known to program organizers, and publiclyWomen are sometimes penalized for putting themselves forward in this way. Do it, anyway. It's okay to "toot your own horn."
  10. Offer to help a friend practice public speaking.  Watch a video playback with her, watch her rehearse, or sit in the audience and offer observations afterward.
  11. Mentor another woman with less speaking experience.  Let her watch you speak, and talk to her afterwards so she has the chance to ask questions.  Help her get speaking gigs and opportunities to practice. Show her how to network in ways that will help her be noticed as a speaker, and talk to her about how to promote her speaking.
  12. Speak up and shut down the myths, mocking, negative talk and sexual slurs that attempt to silence women. A simple "that's unacceptable" should do it; if it doesn't, make a complaint.  Don't let women around you be intimidated into silence.
  13. Before you register for a conference, figure out the proportion of female speakers.  Send a message to the organizers if it's out of whack. Let them know the problem has been noticed--and ask what they're going to do about it.
Please add to this list--and share it with your colleagues. I look forward to your thoughts and ideas.

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