Wednesday, April 9, 2014

London notebook: Inspirations on women and speaking


Columns, a closet, committee rooms, a conversation, confidence. What do they have in common? They all were inspirations on my recent trip to London in the week before I headed to Oxford to debut the UK version of my Be The Eloquent Woman workshop at the UK Speechwriters Guild/European Speechwriters Network conference.

I gathered ideas enough to blog for weeks to come in both cities, but want to share some insights about the London portion of my trip today. You'll see the companion Oxford notebook on the blog tomorrow. Here's what I noticed:

The columns
Barrister Charlotte Proudman, pictured with me above, gave me a long tour of Parliament before my workshop with the Fabian Women's Network in the House of Commons. She co-chairs the public speaking and debates committee of the network with Paulina Jakubec.

To my surprise, women and speaking figure even in the architecture: A Parliament policeman pointed out the gargoyles of men and women in the hallway linking the central lobby to the committee rooms. The men are pictured speaking, and the women are gagged, supposedly a protest by the sculptor about the silencing of women's voices. We snapped a picture so you can see for yourself. I welcome any information you can share about them, and have some research in motion so I can write more about this on the blog. It was just the first instance of an experience I'd have again and again on this trip, talking about how women can subvert expectations of themselves as public speakers under the gaze of portraits depicting a long history of patriarchy. I'd advertised my workshops for women speakers as subversive, and this underscored how true that is.

On our tour, we sat in the galleries of both houses of Parliament while they were in session and heard several members of those august bodies displaying speaking tactics that I would be disavowing later on that evening. And I stood in Westminster Hall, a portion of the complex dating back to the 11th century, on the spots where Nelson Mandela and Queen Elizabeth stood to address both houses. The shoe was on the other foot, here: In Washington, we also might take visitors to sit in the gallery of the congressional House or Senate, and put them on the step of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. Turnabout is indeed fair play, and these rituals don't get old for me.

The closet
Proudman wrangled for us a look at the Chapel of St. Mary in the parliamentary crypt, where the late Member of Parliament Tony Benn had lain in repose only the day before. Just outside the chapel, I had the chance to stand in the closet where suffragette Emily Wilding Davison had locked herself during the 1911 census, so that her address would read "The House of Commons." It was Benn who erected a plaque to commemorate this act of defiance--and to read it, you have to get inside the closet. There's poetic justice in that.

Benn was a noted speaker, as described in this article on Tony Benn and the living art of rhetoric. In describing the plaques he had put up for Davison and others, he explained his effort as countering the images of patriarchy: "If one walks around this place, one sees statues of people, not one of whom believed in democracy, votes for women or anything else. We have to be sure that we are a workshop and not a museum."

The committee room
We did our part to turn Parliament into a workshop rather than a museum that evening. Eighty-five women crowded into a committee room in the House of Commons for my workshop with the Fabian Women's Network, with the topic Succeeding as a public speaker. The indefatigable Felicity Slater and others live-tweeted the proceedings, and you can get a sense of the topics we covered in my post with notes from the session, including a link to the Storify I created of the audience tweets.

You can see from the photo at right that the committee room--with rows of seats facing each other on either side of a long aisle, with a distancing podium intended for the committee at the front--was not the best layout for an interactive talk. So I put myself at ground level with the participants, walking up and down that center aisle. Since my back would be turned to parts of the audience no matter what, I made sure I moved around and looked at participants in all parts of the space. A real challenge in action for someone talking about good speaking skills.
I wasn't the only person who noticed the "pale, male and stale" images lining the walls:
Those optics and surroundings really do have an impact on women speakers, but at least this group was comfortable pointing that out:
The conversation
Once done with the workshop, it became time for museums--but even there, I found inspiration on speaking. One of the points I make about women and speaking in my workshops is that women, long forbidden to speak in public in our history, have developed a different style of speaking. Linguist Deborah Tannen refers to this as "rapport talk," or conversational style. It's a style that has been popularized by the TED talk, and co-opted by male speakers like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, in contrast to the "report talk" that characterizes the traditionally popular masculine rhetorical style. Urging women speakers to take back their authentic, conversational, connect-with-the-audience style was a big part of my message on this trip. That's why I was delighted to come across the lovely Vanessa Bell painting, A Conversation, at the Courtauld Gallery. It captures perfectly this traditional female style of speaking.

At the Victoria and Albert Museum, I kept coming across examples of lecterns, essential in times when the prayer and choir books were large in format and too heavy to hold unassisted. One model featured a female angel hoisting the lectern overhead--talk about a woman in a supporting role for another speaker--and an older model included a detailed carving of a bagpiper, considered a comic symbol of lust that was in turn supposed to prompt the virtuous to think penitent thoughts. Wonder how well that worked? Both examples are a far cry from today's popular plexiglass lecterns, intended to disappear and take away any sense of a barrier between speaker and audience. These, instead, are like armored vehicles that protect the speaker and lend the appearance of authority.

The confidence
No lectern can lend the authority that comes from inner confidence when you step forward to speak in public. Hands down, the best part of my London trip was hearing from women who attended my workshop about how they felt more confident or were able to make changes in their approach to public speaking, putting the tips to practical use right away. Here's a sampling:
  • "You taught me many valuable skills last Thursday which have already increased my confidence, I can't wait to speak publicly again and test them out! I will even be doing power poses..."
  • "I just did a talk to a group of 15 and wanted to thank you for your advice. I prepared in advance, had 3 key points which I listed in my intro, and started with a story. It went really well, and I was amazed at how comfortable I became. Writing it out made such a difference, and has really given me a huge boost of confidence to take on other talks!"

No better music to the ears of a speaker coach than to hear "I can't wait to speak publicly again" or "I can't wait for next week's workshop!"

The last two tweets are the transition to the Oxford portion of my trip, from women who attended the Fabian Women session and the Oxford conference: Cate Huston, a longtime reader of and contributor to the blog whom I had the chance to get to know in real life on this trip, attended my Oxford workshop. Deloitte speechwriter Caroline Johns also was at the London event prior to speaking at the Oxford speechwriters conference. I'll have my Oxford notebook for you on the blog tomorrow!

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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