Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A real life story: When we ask cancer patients to become public speakers, too

Helen Pedersen
I get a lot of mail here at The Eloquent Woman, but perhaps no missive so unusual as a request that came in some time ago from a speaker coach seeking help: She'd just been asked to help a dear friend who was dying of cancer to prepare a speech about her life and illness. In addition to becoming an activity that engaged readers of this blog, it gave me a new perspective on something I've seen many times in my communications career: The process of asking grateful cancer patients to become public speakers on behalf of research and care fundraising for the disease that may eventually represent the end of their stories.

In this case, the patient was extra fortunate: She had a good friend who coaches speakers. While we withheld names to protect their privacy, now it can be told that the speaker coach was Claire Duffy of Australia, and her friend was physician Helen Pedersen, who died May 21. In that first email, Claire shared her professional and personal dilemma and asked me to ask you for help:
I've done tough things before, and if she weren't my friend I could laugh. Black humour, irreverence...they are all tools to help make an unbearable subject bearable. But my sadness and our attachment are blocking my ability to think clearly about how to help her prepare - let alone write the script
So I posted "How do I help a dying friend with a speech about her life?" relaying Claire's request for help from readers of this blog. Preparing a speech for a friend who's dying: 7 ideas and resources collects the responses, all from women speaker coaches in The Eloquent Woman community. Some famous, some not so well-known, some fictional, these speeches are the kind of collection I never imagined creating and that Claire never imagined needing, I'm sure. But now I'm glad they're here.

Claire writes here about the speech that resulted, titled "Not dead yet. What are you going to do?" I think it's fitting and important that she made sure to include and publish the full text of Pederson's final speech, since not publishing our speeches is one way women speakers are effectively silencing ourselves. (Find out more about why and how you should publish your speeches here.) Really, there's no better tribute than her own words, and no better way to add to our collection. The speaking gig came about as part of a cancer fundraiser, and was made difficult by the patient-speaker herself, as Claire relates:
Helen dreaded public speaking. It wasn’t an easy job for either of us. 
Her first draft opened with excuses about the unseemliness of drawing attention to herself. She blamed her Presbyterian missionary grandparents. I blamed her. Self-promotion was not among her many gifts.  But at the end of our second run through, on stage in an empty hall, she straightened up, tidied her notes, and said “I can do this." And she could.
Claire wrote last week to share news of Helen's death and to send a message to my readers. Here it is:
It's been over two years since I asked for The Eloquent Woman's help on a speech by my terminally ill friend, Helen. Preparing that first speech was hard for each of us, but it set us up wonderfully, me for two more years of friendship, her for a new 'career' speaking about cancer. I am so grateful to you and your readers for your assistance, support and kindness, we couldn't have done it without you. Thank you.
One reason I'm glad that Claire reached out to us for help is that the resulting collection of advice and speeches--as well as Helen's speech--might help someone else in the same position. Let's do this to honor Helen, and her coach friend Claire: If you work with a volunteer group, fundraising office, university cancer lab, medical institution or other organization involved in cancer research or patient care, please do share these posts with the organization, so they can be shared with other patients who are challenged to speak in public at a similar difficult time. We ask much of these articulate and grateful patients when we ask them to speak in public. Let's share some of the wonderful support generated by Helen's efforts as a speaker at the end of her story with those who are just beginning to tell theirs.

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