Friday, June 10, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Sheryl Sandberg's Barnard commencement address

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg gave the commencement address this year at Barnard College -- a women's college known for its great commencement addresses about women's issues -- and rocked the house with a speech at once straightforward about barriers to women's progress and encouraging for the graduates.

This speech got lots of play on social media channels, and I think that's in part because of Sandberg's clear and non-anxious way of speaking about the issues women face. Her message reflected that approach, as in these lines where she sums up the challenge women face in the workplace: That you can be competent or likeable, but not both, in the eyes of many. And she's not afraid to cite and sum up research on this score:
...there are external forces out there that are holding you back from really owning your success.  Studies have shown—and yes, I kind of like studies—that success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. This means that as men get more successful and powerful, both men and women like them better. As women get more powerful and successful, everyone, including women, likes them less.
Sandberg also puts a new spin on the discussion of whether women should put themselves in the "slow lane" to juggle family and work, by explaining that she sees many young women starting to opt-out long before they have families, making early career choices based on future scenarios. She challenged the graduates not to slow down just yet, in one of the more pointed and inspiring sections of this speech, by saying:
If several years ago you stopped challenging yourself, you’re going to be bored.  If you work for some guy who you used to sit next to, and really, he should be working for you, you’re going to feel undervalued, and you won’t come back.  So, my heartfelt message to all of you is, and start thinking about this now, do not leave before you leave.  Do not lean back; lean in.  Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That’s the only way, when that day comes, you’ll even have a decision to make.
With this speech, she stomps out hesitancy, and concludes with: "....go home tonight and ask yourselves, “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?”  And then go do it." Here's what you can learn from this already famous speech:
  • Big crowds require big gestures:  Sandberg does the traditional opening for a commencement speech, greeting parents and faculty. But when she acknowledges the class of 2011, she looks straight ahead and opens her arms wide to indicate the full audience of 600 in front of her. Tiny gestures would be missed by this big crowd; the grand gesture implies the grandeur of the moment, and better yet, can be seen by all.
  • Don't forget the personal:  Sandberg takes a moment to acknowledge her college roommate, who's now a member of the Barnard faculty, with a personal message. Without having to put too fine a point on it, she underscored for the graduates two great examples of where they might go--from cap and gown to becoming a faculty member, or perhaps the COO of Facebook.
  • Don't assume all your graduates are in their early 20s:  Recently, a few commenters on the blog have told me how annoying it is to be in mid-life, graduating with a degree, and hear the speaker at commencement make all sorts of breathtaking assumptions about the age of the grads. (Speechwriters, heads-up on this score, please.) Sandberg's speech resonates with all ages, from those yet to make tough work-life decisions to those who already have, and know the wisdom of what she's saying firsthand. Why not take the extra step and make sure your remarks encompass all ages of learners?
  • Use data, clearly: Sandberg excels at this, and rarely uses charts and graphs to get her data across. But more important, her use of data to underscore women's workplace challenges helps take that discussion out of the easy-to-dismiss emotional realm and backs it up with real research--and there's plenty of data backing up her statements. It's also the kind of data that rarely gets shared with young women, in my experience. Yet Sandberg is hardly unemotional in her delivery, striking the right balance and making herself both competent and likeable here.
What do you think of this commencement speech? Leave word in the comments.

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1 comment:

Kristin Arnold said...

Thanks for sharing this. Particularly appropriate as my daughter will be graduating from UVA in a year. I keep thinking times have changed since I graduated from the US Coast Guard Academy (definitely NOT a girl's school!).