Thursday, November 19, 2015

What to do when your speech follows a tragedy

On Saturday, I had two coaching clients heading to the stage. One was giving a TEDx talk, the other was speaking to members of the professional association she runs. The talks couldn't be more different, but they both faced an unusual last-minute issue: Their long-practiced speeches were taking place the day after the terrorist attacks in Paris.

You, too, may face such a challenge in your speaking career. I don't say that hypothetically: I've had to coach numerous speakers in times of trouble and terror. Here are some models to follow should you find yourself challenged in this way.
  • Is it someone else's job to address the issue? Before you assume you must address the tragedy or event in your remarks, determine whether someone else--a speaker on the dais earlier than you will be, or one with a higher rank or responsibility--will be addressing it in her speech. One minute of silence is better than 10 of them, and by the end of a conference, the repetition will seem more rote than sincere, no matter what you do. A little coordination will go a long way in helping you figure this out. One of the speakers I coached would be among the final speakers of the day, so others handled the task of reflection. If this is true for you, don't forget that the issue may arise in questions after your talk. Be ready.
  • The tragedy is distracting to you before your speech: My other client told me she was having a tough time putting the Paris tragedy out of her mind before her talk. It's not surprising that such a major attack would be disturbing. If you're already nervous about your talk, you can expect your anxiety to encompass any other disturbing occurrence as well. Rather than coach her to put it aside, I encouraged her to consider making it part of her talk, right at the start. As her talk was about a life-saving advance in medical research, I suggested something like, "We're all processing what happened in Paris yesterday. I know I can't do anything about that, but I'm proud that what I'm here to talk about will save lives, not end them." Mention the events of the day in a way that pivots to your topic, if you can do so in an appropriate way.
  • The tragedy prompts a speech you wouldn't normally give: Madonna made an extemporaneous speech before her performance in Stockholm after the Paris attacks.  "I don't need my guitar for this," she says early on, putting her instrument aside and taking the microphone. I hope this speech redefines "emotional" to mean "powerful," as it has both qualities in tandem. If you're in this situation and wish to make an impromptu speech, you too may find yourself explaining why, as Madonna did: "It's been really hard actually to get through the show, because in many ways, I feel torn. Like, why am I up here dancing and having fun when people are crying over the loss of their loved ones? However, that is exactly what these people want us to do. They want to shut us up. They want to silence us. And we won't let them." It's a good reminder that, in its own way, singing also is a form of public speaking. Watch the video here or at the link:
Watch Madonna's Powerful Speech About Paris Attacks at Stockholm Concert
  • You know it's foremost in your audience's mind: One of the great roles of a speaker is reflecting what's on the minds of the audience. Doing so immediately following a major event or tragedy has power, and offers catharsis for an assembled audience, a way of making sense of the tragedy together. I was coaching the board president for a scientific society back when the U.S. invaded Iraq. Our meeting came right on the heels of the invasion. She wanted to remark on the war in her address to members without doing so politically. So I suggested she make a series of acknowledgments that, taken together, would show how many people in the room were touched by the war. She asked each group to stand and stay standing in turn: Those who had lived and worked in the Middle East; those who had served in the military or reserves in the past; those with family members in the military or reserves; those with family members or coworkers deployed in this war. By the end, nearly everyone in the room was standing, a visible measure of involvement that was both silent and moving--and far more respectful than a typical show of hands. She ended this introduction by thanking them all for their contributions, asking them to be seated again, and beginning her talk. You might replicate this, keying it to your audience, event, and the events of the day.
  • When the tragedy changes what you might say: Carly Fiorina's post-September 11 speech was certainly changed by that terrorist attack, especially with a title like "Technology, Business, and Our Way of Life: What's Next." Given just 2 weeks after 9/11 while she was the CEO of HP, she aimed for understanding of the Islamic world and a global view of the events of the day. It's a diplomatic and thoughtful speech, one that looks to a hopeful future as a way of making sense of the tragedy, without sugar-coating the situation of the day.
  • When you have a proper chance to respond officially: Brevity and plain, strong language are the best elements of an official response to a tragedy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's three-minute speech in response to the Paris attacks, appropriate for a head of state and major ally of France, spoke on behalf of the German people and addressed the French people directly, saying, "We are crying with you." Merkel, often said to be a dispassionate speaker in her everyday official speaking, mixes a leadership stance with the strong emotion of the day, serving to summarize the feelings of a nation. It's an appropriate stance to consider if you are presiding over a gathering, organization, or other entity when a tragedy strikes. 
  • Even when you're not the main speaker: U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt's Pearl Harbor attack radio address spoke directly to U.S. citizens about the uncertainty and certainty ahead as the nation was about to be drawn into war. Delivered on a regularly scheduled live broadcast the day of the attack, it required her to speak before her husband, the President, addressed the nation--and had millions of listeners. She's a great example of how to address a tragedy when specifics are hard to come by, reaching instead for the more universal emotions and focusing instead on her audience. Let the facts as known inform you, but don't feel compelled to recite them, as they will change.
I know this is a blog about women and public speaking, but on such a specific issue, were you surprised that all my examples are from women speakers? It wasn't a stretch for me, so I hope not--but if so, welcome. We've been waiting for you.

(Creative Commons licensed photo of weeping statue in Paris's Montparnasse cemetery by Shawn Hoke)

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.