Friday, October 10, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Kerry Washington on the risk of public speaking

No one who watches her intrigues in Scandal would be surprised to hear that actress Kerry Washington gave a speech about a speech she didn't give. Earlier this year, she used the occasion of accepting an award at the Women In Film Los Angeles Crystal + Lucy Awards to talk about the risk of public speaking, and why she--and other women--often turn down speaking gigs. This, at a ceremony where she was described as "fearless" and "bold."

In Washington's case, it wasn't just a speaking gig, it was the chance to speak at TEDxWomen. She used the invitation phone call from conference director Pat Mitchell to explain:
She called and said, ‘I’m going to be running TED Women and I would love for you to speak.’ And I said, ‘You know, gosh, you know what, Pat, I really appreciate the invitation, but I just don’t know really what I would say, I’m not sure what my story would be, I think I should decline, and maybe when I’m ready I’ll come do that.’ And Pat said to me, ‘Kerry, I’ve worked with TED for a really long time. No man has ever said to me, I’m not ready to speak, but for TED Women you are part of a long list of women who have denied me by saying they’re not ready.’ And I realized that what that meant is that we as women put ourselves in this situation of feeling like we can’t take a risk, like in order to step out there we have to be perfect, because we’re scared that if we don’t say the right thing, or do the right thing, that we’ll reflect poorly on ourselves and our community, whether that community be women, people of color, both.
So sometimes, we don’t step out there. And I’m telling on myself, because I didn’t [speak], even after Pat said to me, ‘This is so unfortunate, this is so wrong, women have to feel comfortable speaking out and stepping up, and standing in their light, and owning their voice.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you’re right. Good luck.’ I don’t do that often, but when I do, I know that it’s not good for me, and it’s not good for other women. 
What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Personal experience, used judiciously, can make a speech sing: Not every minute of your personal story can be included in short remarks, nor should it be. And not every speech needs a personal story. But used judiciously, a personal moment can make a speech sing. In this case, it works because it's something the audience could not have seen or known previously, making it more surprising. 
  • Be real: Adding to that surprise was the ending: She knew it would be better to say yes, and she still turned down that TED talk. You may not be getting offers to do TED talks, but I'll bet you've turned down at least one speaking opportunity that you knew you should have said yes to. That becomes the fulcrum for her message, and it's a strong one--much more effective than if she'd decided to do the talk, because the rest of us can relate to it.
  • Share an unlikely call to action:  Washington could have urged women simply to do more public speaking, but her call to action gets to those inner actions and feelings that come before you say 'yes' to a speaking gig: "We need to be willing to be uncomfortable, to be flawed, to be imperfect, to own our voice, to step into our light, so that we can continue to inspire other people and employ other people, and make room for more and more voices and presence." It's a two-step call -- we need to do this, so that we can do that -- and a more complex version of the form.
You can read the speech on BuzzFeed, which helped this one go viral. Unfortunately, it's the only record of the remarks on women and speaking. The video below is just part of this speech, focusing on her tribute to Shonda Rhimes. What do you think of this famous speech?

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Sam Javanrouh)

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