Thursday, April 10, 2014

Oxford notebook: Women speakers, speechwriters at #uksgox2014

The second half of my England trip was to Oxford, where I attended the spring conference of the UK Speechwriters Guild and European Speechwriters Network and offered a pre-conference workshop, the UK debut of my Be The Eloquent Woman workshop. So I had a day of leading the workshop, followed by, as fellow speaker coach Alan Barker noted on Twitter, "A pleasant prospect: Sitting back and letting *others* be brilliant." Since I've keynoted and chaired this conference, getting the chance to listen and absorb was a fair treat.

I learned last year that this conference (and its autumn counterpart) are highly productive for me, and this session yielded inspiration you'll see on the blog for many weeks to come. Here are my impressions from the Oxford leg of my trip to get things started:

Seeing your self(ie) in historic context
As in London, my workshop participants and I found ourselves surrounded by a lot of masculine imagery in Oxford. In the dining hall at Trinity College, a lone portrait of a woman appeared--and she alone among the portraits had no identification. Fellow speaker coach Marion Chapsal captured two of the women at the conference taking a group selfie with this unknown inspiration from history. Sisters need to stick together, even across the span of centuries. I wasn't surprised by the lack of visible female role models, having prepared a Famous Speech Friday post on novelist Dorothy Sayers, who studied at Oxford and completed degree work, but couldn't receive the degree for several years until the university finally began awarding women that credential.

Women and speaking workshop
The best part of any trip like this is getting good feedback from participants in my workshops. The most frequent feedback from the UK session of Be The Eloquent Woman, my Oxford workshop? It was "too short." I'll take it--and I'll be adding more time for practice and feedback on building skills in future sessions.

It was an honor to have fellow coaches Marion Chapsal and Caroline Goyder in this session, along with executives from the publishing, legal, technology, consumer products and academic worlds. Participants came from various parts of England as well as Ireland and France, and I was struck again with the willingness of the group to trust themselves and the others enough to speak frankly about their challenges, questions and fears about speaking. Nearly every woman present had a presentation in mind during the workshop: corporate speeches, briefings for students, technical presentations, author talks and a short talk at the speechwriting conference. And the group came away from lunch early to talk more about building confidence and dealing with fears about speaking. The picture at right shows the view as you leave the workshop room, crossing one of the quadrangles at Trinity College.

Tips from one chair to another
The speechwriting conference followed my workshop for another day and a half. Fellow speaker coach Celia Delaney (pictured above) chaired the conference in a lively and well-paced way. We put our heads together early on, and my best advice to her was to be the boss of the schedule. Speakers who allow time for questions, rather than filling the entire space allotted, should get questions. When speakers fill all their (and our) time on the topic, direct the audience to find them in the break. For the record, I wish more speakers would leave time for questions, particularly for an audience as eager and curious as this one. But failure to do so doesn't mean that the chair magically has more time in the schedule, and sometimes, the quest to follow up with a speaker makes the breaks even livelier. Delaney kept us on time and in good humor throughout the conference, the two best things any audience member can say about a chair.
Speechwriting insights, tips and ideas
Two unusual speakers at the speechwriting conference in Oxford caught my attention so well that I've already bought their books. I'll be writing about them more in weeks to come, but you may find useful pastor and preaching professor David Day's Preaching With All You've Got: Embodying the Word and hostage negotiator Richard Mullender's Communication Secrets of a Hostage Negotiator. Despite their disparate topics, they share a common approach of listening for and respecting the listener's values, and of tackling the elephant in the room in order to build credibility. I'm looking forward to diving into both these resources from the conference.

Mullender urged speechwriters to use his listening techniques to elicit more useful information from the speakers for whom they are writing--including clever ways to get them to share what's important to them, a tactic I'll incorporate in my training sessions for communicators trying to do the same with subject-matter experts. And Sam Leith, author of Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama, shared an insight about speakers who wrap their ideas in complex, obfuscating words: They have an inner fear, he says, of being understood--and thought banal rather than wise.

Caroline Johns, the speechwriter at Deloitte who attended my session in London for the Fabian Women's Network (shown at left in Marion Chapsal's photo), demonstrated how to jump right into a speech, without a hint of throat-clearing thank yous, jokes or cartoons--something I always recommend. She says, of writing about and for accountants, "If you follow the numbers, a human story will always emerge." Johns also demonstrated with ease how to speak from a written text without reading from it, using great verve in her vocalizing. Marion Chapsal spoke on the second day with a wonderful analogy that used French profiteroles and English trifle to compare and contrast rhetoric in those languages--and made the audience hungry at the same time. Neringa Vaisbrod─Ś, speechwriter to the Lithuanian president, reminded us that rhetoric isn't always glorious, but can be viewed with cynicism and suspicion...even as she summed up the feeling with a rhetorical turn, "dishonesty, danger and disbelief."

Fellow speaker coach Alan Barker has done a thorough look at the conference here, and you'll be seeing more of my inspirations from this meeting in the weeks to come. My head's still buzzing with ideas. Check out the tweets from the conference here, and stand by for more to come.

I can't finish without saying once more that Brian Jenner, the group's founder, curates and organizes the best conferences. They are content-rich and loaded with speakers who are not the usual suspects, as well as attendees who elevate the discussion (and are fun to be with). He makes it look easy, and I know it isn't. Jenner gets my thanks as well for inviting me to bring Be The Eloquent Woman to the UK and to this conference. I loved the opportunity to reach across the ocean and get this workshop off to an international start.

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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