Friday, September 4, 2015

Famous Speech Friday: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on likability

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is already one of my favorite women speakers: Her fierce TEDx talk, We Should All Be Feminists, is part of our Famous Speech Friday series. But when I heard about this speech, delivered as she accepted an award from the writing and mentoring program Girls Write Now in May, I knew she'd be on my blog again.

Never one to mince words or dodge the big points, Adichie used this short five-minute speech to give lavish praise to Girls Write Now and to the other speakers on the program, taking her time to make her observations thoughtful, vivid, and funny--and encouraging. But then she directed her comments to the girls doing the writing, the core of the program:
....I teach a writing workshop in Nigeria in every year and what I say to my students, and what I say mostly to the female students is, "forget about likability".

I think that's what our society teaches young girls and I think it's also something that's quite difficult for even older women, self-confessed feminists, to shrug off, is that idea that likability is an essential part of the space you occupy in the world. That you're supposed to twist yourself into shapes to make yourself likable. That you're supposed to kind of hold back sometimes, pull back, don't quite say, don't be too pushy because you have to be likable.

And I say that is bullshit. And so what I want to say to the young girls is, forget about likability. If you start off thinking about being likable, you're not going to tell your story honestly. Because you're going to be so concerned with not offending. And that's going to ruin your story. So forget about likability. And also the world is such a wonderful, diverse, multi-faceted place, that there's somebody who's going to like you. You don't need to twist yourself into shapes.
My recent post Did I just get public speaking advice? Shade? Or a virtual "shut up?" included an example of a young woman speaker urged to be more likable, and if that's happened to you, this speech is a great pep talk. It got plenty of buzz in the weeks following the awards. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Refute with an absolute: Adichie here wants to refute thoroughly the idea that girls should try to be likable, and by saying, "And I say that is bullshit," she uses a forceful, short, and powerful absolute to do the job. In the same way that a brief "Absolutely not!" would refute an specious idea better than several long sputtering sentences, her brevity is wielded as a cudgel and it's all the more powerful.
  • Reflect the realities: There's solid research to show that people think women can be competent or likable, but not both--in other words, if you're competent, we don't like you, and if we like you, you must not be competent. Talking about that phenomenon, and how to handle it by ignoring the yen to be liked, takes it out of the realm of the not-noticed and into the forefront, where we can all start dealing with it. And for women listening to this speech, it helps them to realize that criticism about likability isn't really about them.
  • Use a strong metaphor: Metaphors, when well-chosen, light up your mind's eye with a vivid image, and here, Adichie's choice of "twist yourself into shapes" does wonders in four words. That neat, short metaphor is worth its weight in gold, and gets her point across quickly and with force.
Watch the video here or below. This is Adichie's second appearance on Famous Speech Friday. Check out her TEDxEuston talk, "We Should All Be Feminists."

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 2015 Girls Write Now Awards Speech

I've got two small-group workshops coming up on Creating a TED-quality talk in Washington, DC, in January. Choose the January 14 workshop or the January 28 workshop. All you need to do is bring your one big idea for a talk in the style of TED. You'll learn how to plan, write, time, practice, and deliver it in a group limited to 5 people per workshop. Join us! You get the best discount if you register by October 30, 2015.