Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Returning to the stage, part 2: Speaking to dudes about love

(Editor's note: Many readers and participants in my workshops have reacted to the post A reader shares: Returning to the stage...after harrassment, in which Google engineer Cate Huston talked about taking a hiatus from public speaking after being harrassed during a talk. This post will bring you up-to-date with how her story turned out, something many readers have requested.

Huston participated in my workshops on women and speaking in Oxford and in London this spring, and, as she notes below, I worked with her on this series of talks that marked her return to public speaking. It's unusual, to say the least, for a coaching client to go public with her process--but I'm delighted that she's willing to share not only what it feels like to be harrassed as a speaker, but also her road back to speaking. It's a familiar path for anyone who's had a hiatus from speaking. I think this post demonstrates ably that it takes an enormous amount of courage to show your vulnerabilities, as BrenĂ© Brown has noted. 

Some of you may think it odd or risky that Huston chose a metaphor about dating and relationships for an audience that would be primarily male, but the talk she devised isn't suggestive or gratuitous. The core concept--that users aren't as committed to apps as the developers might like to think--is solid. It's also a metaphor to which anyone can relate, another strong factor in its favor. 

I'm always encouraging speakers to think about how they want to be seen, so it's especially satisfying for me to hear that what Huston defined for herself as "eloquence" in my Oxford workshop was exactly what an audience member saw in her talk. I was pleased, but not at all surprised, that this series of talks prompted several more invitations for Huston to speak, making her return to speaking complete. This post first appeared on Huston's blog and she has kindly granted permission for me to republish it here for you.)

There was an amazing response to my previous post, it was really gratifying to have people find it worthwhile.

I wrote it, finally, for two reasons. The first was to take ownership of the experience, to not sweep it under the carpet like it was me that had done something wrong.When you allow someone to silence you, you let them define the story. I was done with that jerk defining that one.

The second reason was because I kept hearing people talk about women needing to speak up, but either glossing over the harassment, or just ignoring the effects of harassment. There are some women who have been horribly harassed, far far worse than I was, and yet they come back, sometimes they even give talks about it as with Caroline Criado-Perez or Anita Sarkeesian.

I found it hard to relate to these stories. These women are usually by some definition public figures – journalists, media commentators, politicians. I could deem their experience too far away, too un-relatable. Well they needed to get on stage and speak again, it was their job, a bigger part of their life. As a software engineer I could get away with staying hidden, keeping quiet. An intellectually dishonest justification of a decision born of fear.

There was a lovely response to that post, people told me that I was brave, thanked me for sharing. And I thought, it’s not really that brave, after over two years. It’s not really that brave, to give a talk at a women’s conference.

That was the warm up.

For my next trick, I talked to a bunch of dudes about love.

I exaggerate slightly – the first in front of 90 people at iOSCon, of whom about 10% were women. The second in front of hundreds of people, a pretty mixed audience, at ModevUX.

My talk was Distractedly Intimate. You can find my notes here, but the short story is, it’s about how people’s feelings about mobile effect what we should build, about how we love our devices but rarely give them our full attention. I reclaimed the feminine rhetoric, and told stories around these themes of – we are in love, we have changed, we are not really here. I talk about adorable hedgehogs, goats, imaginary girlfriends, and the time that I live tweeted a date with a misogynist.

I was terrified. This flowery descriptive explanation, became distilled in my head to “speak to a bunch of dudes about love”. In the days running up to the first event, some mansplaining – a common occurrence as a women working in a male dominated field – had me retreating and panicking. The audience was surely going to think I had nothing to offer, and critique me accordingly. Sitting in a room full of men, not relating to the content, I felt sure this was a precursor of what was to come. Surrounded by people, but feeling other, and alone.

I was blocked on my script. I know, substantially, what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t fit it into my narrative. Denise coached me through it. Then I just couldn’t seem to sit down and write it. Rushing around at work, heading to the gym for a couple of hours instead of sitting down and cranking it out. It occurred to me, as in an elaborate fit of panic-based procrastination, when I chose the 90 minute walk home in the drizzle over the 20 minute tube ride, that I could throw money at this problem. Denise worked my content into the format we’d discussed, and I could breathe again. The problem was manageable. It always had been, but I was stressing too much to realise without help.

It occurred to me, that it was reasonable to ask them to cover an Uber across town. This would make me dramatically less stressed, as it would be faster and more private that two tubes and a 20 minute walk. They agreed.

I wanted to avoid the speaker dinner, figuring that it would only make me more terrified. But I went (Denise talked me into it), and had a really good time. The organisers were no longer names on an email thread, but real, warm people, who were positive about my talk.

I booked the day off work, so that I could focus the morning on last minute bits, going over my slide deck, going over my notes. Double checking my timings. I felt OK about things; I even found time to get a haircut.

I found myself, in a room full of men, miking up. Trying to get the thing over my ears, and under my hair was a reminder that I would be the first woman on stage that day. Too late now, keep breathing. They found me a different mike.

I hid behind a pillar as I was introduced, and then came to the front. Looked out at the room, and could only see men. Took a deep breath. It’s too late now, go with it. Started speaking. Got my first laugh. Good sign, keep going. Spotted a woman at the back. A woman closer to the front smiled at me. Keep talking.

And so I did it, I talked to a bunch of dudes about love. And then a couple of days later, I flew to another country and did it again. Bigger, with tighter timing. Getting dressed that day, I put two items of clothing on back to front, and one inside out. It could have been terror, or jet lag. Thankfully, these wardrobe malfunctions were long resolved by the time I stood on stage, blinded by the bright lights, and tried to make sure my 15 minutes was a worthwhile experience for the people there.

I was shaking with fear. Probably the entire time. I was thrown by the handheld mike, and the clicker, and discovered that my iPad was too heavy to hold one handed for an extended period – time to upgrade to the air, I guess.

When I came off stage, a fabulous amazing woman, one of the co-chairs, told me that I had seemed poised.

I was transported back to the workshop in Oxford. We each gave a word which we felt captured the idea of an eloquent woman. Mine, was poised.

You can see the comments and live tweets, captured in Storify, here and here. I feel compelled to tell you at this point, that one guy thought there was a disconnect in my narrative. I have this urge to apologise, to write some kind of in depth explanation of how those two things are related, just for him.

But in the end, his criticism is intellectual, and not personal. And constructive, not an expletive. So I will leave it, and consider it overall, a win.

(Photo of Huston speaking at #modevux bShahed Chowdhuri. Used with permission.)

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