Friday, March 28, 2014

Notes from #fwneloquent, my workshop for the Fabian Women's Network

One participant noted that, in addition to a room
packed with women, there were "a lot of blokes"
I'm still smiling about my session this week with the Fabian Women's Network, which invited me to speak in London at Parliament. More than 80 women filled a committee room in the Palace of Westminster on 27 March, and this post will share with them--and with you--some of the resources and inspiration I mentioned during the talk.

I knew that a crowd that big would have lots of questions, so part of my opening was to elicit questions at the beginning, rather than the end, of my talk. It's a great tactic to engage the audience immediately, since most people come to a talk not just to listen and clap, but to participate. I asked the group whether anyone had come that night without a question in mind, and just one raised her hand--and she had already asked an early question. It turns out that the Fabian Women are not shy, and my talk was peppered with audience questions throughout, just as I had hoped. Here are some posts from the blog that more deeply address some of the themes that arose in this workshop:
  • Questions:  In addition to showing the group what it's like to take questions at the beginning, we later discussed how many speakers fear Q&A. I have 17 reasons to welcome audience questions to keep in mind. I was asked about the opposite problem, no questions, and told the group that after I wrote Speakers ask: What if nobody asks a question? 6 options, I heard from one reader on Twitter who prompted another post, @DrSalGainsbury asks, "No, seriously. What if the room is silent during Q&A?" The first post deals with ways to prepare for no questions, the second with on-the-spot fixes. When we talked about structuring a speech, I urged them to deal with too much content by leaving some well-known and expected topics for the question time, as in my post Got lots to say? Save it for the Q&A. Among other things, that tactic ensures you'll get questions and know the answers.
  • Controversy: I am no stranger to handling controversial topics and questions, and we discussed some of the tactics in 6 ways to talk about a contentious topic. Inviting audience questions early is a great way to calm and disarm an audience, even if they continue to disagree with you. Also useful are my tips on 4 ways to handle a heckler.
  • Fear and wobbles in public speaking: I shared my two stealth tactics for calming the fight-or-flight syndrome nearly everyone feels to some extent before speaking, or as they first face the audience. One is smiling, and you'll find data and rationale for that tactic in 7 secret advantages of the speaker who smiles, including a TED talk on the topic. I also shared (and asked the group to try) Amy Cuddy's researched "power poses," and her TED talk on that topic is at the link. Regarding wobbles, I say, correct yourself if necessary and keep going. Where many speakers get stuck is when they hit a bump in the speech and begin to apologize. Just keep going. It's fine to pause and it's fine to correct yourself, but don't let that stop you from finishing. And of course, practice is the great antidote to forgetting what you got up to say in the first place.
  • Structuring a talk: I am a big advocate of the centuries-old rule of three, and suggested that one simple structure for a talk--whether in a written speech or delivered extemporaneously--would be a strong start, a core with three key points, and a strong close. There's more on omitting information in What to leave out: Lessons from the Gettysburg Address, and a look at how oral storytelling and fairy tales helped the rule of three become something easy for both speaker and audience to recall and repeat. Cate Huston, one of last night's attendees, shared how she uses the rule of three in her guest post on this blog, Presenting gives me nightmares, but I still do it. Here's how.
  • Specific issues for women in public speaking: I shared with the group my contention that women may report fearing public speaking more not necessarily because of garden-variety nervousness, but because they can anticipate at some level that they will be ignored, talked over or undermined for doing so. There's much more on that topic on this blog, but some reads related to our discussion include a post on credibility and the feminine rhetorical style, Mary Beard's recent talk on "The Public Voice of Women,"  and misogony as a global barrier to women speakers. And we didn't discuss the impact of women's wardrobes on their credibility as speakers, but I'd recommend the group look at Theresa May and Hillary Clinton: Do we watch their words or their wardrobes? to learn more--this is a key issue for women in public life.
  • Speaking authentically: More than one participant indicated that her accent or some other aspect of her self--her ethnicity, skin color, voice and more--made it difficult for audiences to accept her. Should anything change about how she speaks? I said no, preferring instead that these women speakers persist. It takes time to change attitudes, and some research indicates that women candidates who keep showing up eventually win audience approval. It doesn't feel great to sense the audience's hostility, but I think that when women try to be something they're not, they're even more likely to fail as speakers. Let's show the world the real diversity of women's voices. To illustrate how important it is to find your own voice as a woman speaker, I turned again to a story about Bill Clinton, who delivered what is widely acknowledged as one of the worst keynote speeches at a Democratic National Convention. How did he recover? With a speaker coach and a lot of practice to get to his authentic style, one that's far easier to maintain--and one that need not make him feel like an impostor. The same tactic will work for you.
I have to say that my favorite part of the evening involved asking members of the group to come up at various points to read quotes from famous speeches by women, mostly making points about women and speaking or demonstrating tactics we were discussing. (Here's one participant reading at left, in a photo that shows you the scope of the room.) Each woman took a few moments to read and prepare herself while I set the context for the quote. With each quote drawn from a speech featured on this blog, we heard wisdom from Ursula K. Leguin on speaking women as volcanoes erupting...from Lady Bird Johnson while dealing with a hostile audience...from former Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard on misogyny in that chamber...Caroline Criado-Perez on not staying silent when attacked for speaking up...and Member of Parliament Tanni Grey-Thompson on speaking with passion about her disability. Grey-Thompson saw our live tweets and jumped in to ask "which speech?" Always nice when that happens. The speeches are at the links in this paragraph, and as with every speech in our Famous Speech Friday series, video, audio and text are included where available, along with what you can learn from the famous speech by a woman. Of course, I hope the Fabian Women will explore all the famous speeches by women in The Eloquent Woman Index!

Finally, I urged the group to join the UK Speechwriters Guild and see whether they can attend the group's conference in Oxford on 3 and 4 April, next week. My day-long workshop on women and speaking is 2 April in a pre-conference session.

You'll find another good recap of the London event in this Storify of the many tweets shared by the participants. I thank the organizers, Charlotte Proudman and Paulina Jakubec, for the invitation, arrangements and excellent hosting.

On May 15, I'll be convening another session of Be The Eloquent Woman in Washington, DC. It's a subversive new workshop that helps women executives and public officials learn how women speakers are perceived and how to turn those expectations on their heads with confidence, content and credibility. You can grab a sweet discount by registering by April 11. Go here to read how the first workshop went and what participants had to say.

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