Friday, November 16, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: TV anchor Jennifer Livingston on her weight

Our culture spends plenty of time critiquing and commenting on women and their appearance--one reason that many women hesitate to put themselves on stage or on view as speakers. Women speakers already have more to critique when it comes to appearance, because we don't dress in a uniform manner, and do dress differently from men, leaving us open to being noticed more, and more negatively. How you look feels and is personal, and negative chiding about appearance feels like a personal attack. That's why I think what happened to Jennifer Livingston resonated so strongly.

She's a television news anchor, for WKBT in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. When she got a negative, outrageous attack email about her weight from a male viewer earlier this year, she turned to the speaking platform at hand--the television cameras.

It's unusual for news anchors to editorialize or to devote an entire segment to themselves, since their role is to guide viewers through the day's news. But in this case, Livingston's outraged husband and fellow news anchor, Mike Thompson, made the email public on the station's Facebook page. Thousands of "likes" and comments flooded in, as did more emails and messages of support. Not all the comments are favorable, you'll note, but that didn't stop her from delivering a four-minute, 20-second message to viewers on the air, saying right up front that she wanted to address a community issue "that centers around me."

She quoted the message from viewer Kenneth Krause, which said, "your physical condition hasn't improved for many years." He said she was not a "suitable example" for young girls and expressing the hope that she would "reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle." Livingston said in response:
The truth is, I am overweight. But to the person who wrote that letter, do you think I don't know that? That your cruel words are pointing out something that I don't see. You don't know me, so you know nothing about me but what you see on the outside and I am much more than a number on a scale.
She went on to remind viewers that October is a month devoted to the prevention of bullying, and drew a comparison between what happened to her and what happens to children every day in online messages and encounters at school. Livingston's video message reached far beyond the LaCrosse community, getting well over 10 million views on YouTube and an avalanche of national news coverage that had her making appearances on news and entertainment programs. After the coverage, Krause defended his remarks in a statement. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Don't let attackers have the last word: Just as when the word "slut" is used to shame women into silence, fat-shaming attacks on their appearance have the same goal--whether it is to silence an individual in the workplace, or as here, a visible woman with a major public platform. So don't be silenced and play into the tactic. Your voice is the most potent weapon you can use to fight back.
  • Speak for yourself: Livingston does a great job staying focused on "I" statements, which work because no one else can speak for her. If this response only included "you" statements, it would sound too accusatory and unbalanced. Here, she uses the platform to share thoughts that only she can.
  • Broaden the scope of a personal attack: It usually doesn't feel this way, but an attack of this type is rarely about you and more likely about the person making the attack. So call it what it is. By using her situation to call attention to the wider issue of bullying, Livingston gives her audience a direct way to relate to what's happened to her--and takes it beyond weight, so that more people can appreciate what has happened. She's also naming it accurately, without having to stoop to the same type of personal attack meted out to her.
You can see the station's coverage of this episode here, with links to reactions and a news story. What do you think of this famous speech?

Introverted speakers: Check out my November 27 workshop on public speaking and presenting for introverts. Registration closes today.