Friday, April 3, 2015

Famous Speech Friday: Monica Lewinsky at TED 2015

"You're looking at a woman who was publicly silent for a decade. Obviously, that's changed, but only recently."

Monica Lewinsky opened her 2015 TED talk by talking about silencing herself as a speaker. It was an electric example of those speaking gigs when who you are matters as much as what you say. The former White House intern whose affair with President Bill Clinton exploded in a scandal in 1998 was at one point so notorious that there was almost no escaping her.

The attention on this speech was high,because many view it as an attempt to whitewash her involvement in the affair or as an attempt to derail a Hillary Clinton candidacy. And in truth, this is just a new version of Lewinsky "breaking her silence" since the 1998 scandal broke: In 1999, she did a three-hour interview with Barbara Walters. In 2002, she appeared in an HBO documentary with a 90-minute interview. In 2004, she spoke out on Bill Clinton's memoir.  In 2009, she commented again in the book The Death of American Virtue. And in 2014, she wrote an article for Vanity Fair that led to the TED talk. Not exactly silent.

At the same time, this talk's focus on the shame to which she was subjected moved even observers whose first reaction was to say she deserved what she got. It also moved many to comment with hate and vitriol once the speech was posted online. Is there a better indicator for our ambivalence about women and the commonplace slut-shaming that they are subjected to? Full disclosure: I was a senior official in the first term of the Clinton Administration, and served on the White House Council on Women. I know the havoc this affair wreaked in the government. I also know how we use shame to silence women, and Lewinsky is certainly an example of that.

Lewinsky's initial focus was about the scandal's impact on her, with her picture was splashed on newspapers and magazine covers and television programs, tape recordings of her phone calls played in the national and world media, and her name used in the lyrics of many rap songs. Her words and image, as she put it, were made "Public without consent, public without context, and public without compassion." She withdrew from the public eye, silencing herself in part to get some peace. This talk's intrigue lay in showing us what her life was like, during that maelstrom and subsequently--not the stuff of tabloids, but behind the scenes.

Today, Lewinsky has found her voice in representing people publicly humiliated and shamed online. She uses the case of Tyler Clementi, a college student who committed suicide after he was surreptitiously recorded kissing another man. The video was put online and the harrassment took its toll.

For my money, the most powerful part of this speech--and there are many powerful moments--lies in the turning point, in which Lewinsky realizes why Tyler's story resonated all too well in her own family:
My mom was beside herself about what happened to Tyler and his family, and she was gutted with pain in a way I just couldn't quite understand. And then, eventually, I realized she was reliving 1998. Reliving a time when she sat by my bed every night. Reliving a time when she made me shower with the bathroom door open. And reliving a time when both of my parents feared I would be humiliated to death. Literally. 
Today, too many parents haven't had the chance to step in and rescue their loved ones. Too many have learned of their child's suffering and humiliation after it was too late. Tyler's tragic, senseless death was a turning point for me. It served to recontextualize my experiences, and I then began to look at the world of bullying and humiliation around me, and see something different.
"Recontextualize" is regrettable--just say "put my experiences in context"--but otherwise, this is a moving, one-of-a-kind pair of paragraphs.

The speech was released as the conference was happening, gained a quarter-million views in less than 24 hours, and 1.5 million a week later. Those numbers will continue to climb. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • There's power in vulnerability: Making yourself vulnerable in public isn't easy, but it's far from a display of weakness. This speech took great courage and humility to do. As a result, the connection with the audience is high. Few people are willing to talk about their failings, the transformation and redemption that resulted, and the lessons learned...but when it's done well, there's incredible power in the experience. 
  • Use someone else's lens to make sense of your story: Sharing her insights about her mother's reaction to Clementi's suicide added a different dimension to Lewinsky's talk, giving us a subtle reminder that harrassment doesn't only affect its target. Using others' relevant reactions in your own personal story lends perspective to your own views and adds credibility. And while you might say her revelations about her own suicidal thoughts were outsourced to her mother in this paragraph, the tactic gave her a way to talk about that without being accused of histrionics.
  • Waiting to speak can have advantages. As she notes early in the talk, today, many of her audiences today were too young in 1998 to remember the scandal firsthand. Lewinsky's "cooling-off" period also allows her to face audiences old enough to remember, but whose anger has tempered over time. Using her own story to explain just how far we've come in a couple of decades, she's also able to put cyberbullying in perspective, making it less distant and more real. This talk wouldn't have been possible back then. Today, it's loaded with the insight that only time can add.
If you want to contemplate what goes into a TED talk, this one has many of the classic components. A personal story of failure and redemption, with a vivid turning point moment and a path to an issue bigger than the individual speaking. (The effort to redeem herself, using cyberbullying as a cause, is what makes this different from earlier efforts to break her silence.) Vulnerability and courage. Data, used wisely and sparingly. Revelation and observation. A little humor, for catharsis and sly insight. There's a clear dramatic arc here, moving from the conflict of the scandal, to the ideals she describes in terms of how we share private things publicly, to her call to action for what individuals can do on a day-to-day basis.

Do I wish she hadn't run long (at 22 minutes, versus TED's usual 18-minute top limit)? No kidding--the lack of a good edit made this talk feel overly long. Do I wish she'd ditched the paper text and music stand, neither of which she really needed--unless to offer some place to hide from the audience? You bet. That would have been an even more compelling talk, and that's saying something.

You can read more about Lewinsky's prep for this talk here, which in part explains the music stand,  and watch the video below. A transcript isn't yet available.

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