Wednesday, October 9, 2013

When you're tempted to turn down a speaking gig: For women

I was corresponding recently with a reader--one who works as a professional communicator--who shared this: 
I did get a speaking request recently that I turned down. Have you written a post about why women say no? The organization asked me to speak in an area where I did not feel qualified. In hindsight, I'm wondering if I should have pivoted and said 'I would like to speak about A instead of B, if you are still interested, I'd be delighted'.
I can relate, and I suspect many of you can, too. I just finished chairing a conference at which I'd been the previous keynote speaker, but before all that, I said no to the organizer two or three times. Feeling qualified wasn't the problem for me so much as distance, as the conferences were in the UK and Europe. But there's a shared situation here: Whether it's distance or perceived qualifications, the calendar or child care, the press of other business at home and work, perceived good manners or impostor syndrome, some of us are turning down speaking gigs perhaps too quickly. In my case, the keynote speech and the chairmanship that followed were two of my very best speaking experiences in a long career of public speaking. Had I continued to say no, I'd have missed out on those rich and productive experiences and networks, and everything that comes with them.

I'm going to ask you to help by saying "yes" first the next time you are asked to speak. Let's make sure that women saying "no" isn't the reason we see so few women speakers on the program at conferences.

I haven't blogged from this perspective for a simple reason: Too often, women's lack of presence in a sphere of public life is blamed on the women, an easy dodge men can make to excuse underground or coded discrimination. But I also know plenty of qualified women who turn down speaking gigs for reasons that can be surmounted, or at least, reasons that don't stop men from saying "yes" when the invitation comes in. And I want to change that.

Qualifications are among those reasons. Men of my acquaintance rarely turn down invitations to speak, and often seek them actively. Are they always qualified? Absolutely not. Are they all speakers of perfection? Not even close. Do they say "yes" to speaking invitations anyway? You bet they do, and they chase them. Do the audiences love them? Not necessarily, but by the time the audience finds that out, it's too late to do anything about it, except on the feedback forms. Mary Kopczynski looked at this after attending a hedge funds summit where 49 percent of the attendees were women and there was a lone female panelist. The organizers told her that male administrative assistants had volunteered to speak, but almost no women--and the women she spoke with about it, senior and seasoned though they are, pleaded their lack of qualifications.

Kopczynski suggests you rephrase "I'm not qualified" as "Yes," next time, and I agree. I'm not suggesting you attempt to deliver a keynote on theoretical physics when you are a marketing director with no science background. But I wonder whether women speakers have considered what organizers are really looking for? Too often, I think we hear "qualifications" as "the top thinker in this field with all the experience anyone could want, and someone who can answer any question on the topic with ease." If that were the real definition, there would be a lot of conferences going out of business, and silent microphones.

Instead, I hear organizers talk about people who would be a draw--for example, someone who comes from far away and is rarely available. Organizers are keen to find good speakers, speakers who will start and end on time, include time for questions, and who know how to engage the audience, which is why so many of them increasingly look for video of you speaking, or reviews of your talks. They look for variety, believe it or not, and that variety might lie in gender and ethnic diversity, topics, or even the style of speech and speaker. Some conferences look to balance hands-on skills-building with inspirational talks, big-picture lectures and lively ask-the-expert sessions. Trends and data might need balancing with more emotional, expressive talks. Panels need relief with keynotes or TED-style talks, plenary sessions with breakouts. If you're not a prima donna speaker, so much the better. You'll be welcomed as a relief.

Content is important, but your qualifications might have nothing to do with your resume, and everything to do with your location, speaking style, and more. I've even heard a few smart women check out a list of speakers in development and say to themselves, "They don't have enough women on the program. That gives me an advantage."

And to answer my reader's original question, yes, go ahead and pivot to ask whether another topic might work. But be prepared for the organizer to have done her homework and prefer the original topic--in which case, say yes, anyway. Try it. You'll never learn and grow as a speaker if you don't try new things.

Do you turn down speaking gigs because you don't feel qualified? Why? Share your perspective in the comments.

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