Friday, April 7, 2017

Famous Speech Friday: Gwen Ifill on politics, policy & leadership

Back when we used to watch the evening news on television--remember that?--we spoke loyally of our favorite anchors and our habit of "inviting them into our homes." Starting in 1999, my Friday night loyalties lay with Gwen Ifill on "Washington Week" (formerly "Washington Week in Review"), and it was with tremendous sadness that she left my living room in 2016.

The daughter of Caribbean immigrants, Ifill was an award-winning journalist and author who notched many "firsts" in her career. She was the first African-American woman to host a major political talk show in "Washington Week," and the first with Judy Woodruff to co-anchor an all-woman national nightly news program in PBS' "Newshour." She was also the first African-American woman to moderate a vice presidential debate, in 2004, and she and Woodruff became the first team of women to moderate a Democratic presidential debate in 2016. When Ifill died in November last year, she was a giant in the world of political analysis and reporting. She was also remembered as a warm and thoughtful speaker who especially took the time to encourage students from all backgrounds to pursue careers in journalism.

Ifill gave numerous public speeches, including many commencement addresses, but this 2011 speech as the Mary Louise Smith Chair at Iowa State University's Carrie Chapman Catt Center stands out as a terrific example of the kind of speaker she was. In "Politics, Policy and the Reality of Leadership" she is funny, serious, frank and inspirational. And for a quick glimpse into how Ifill saw herself, you could do worse than this description she offers in the speech:
If you judge me simply by reading my bio, you could also brand me as an activist on behalf of immigrants because my parents were born in another country, an activist on behalf of free speech because I believe in the First Amendment, women's rights because I am a woman, red lipstick because I wear red lipstick. Some of that would be true and some of it would not be. There is one description, however, that I have recently come to embrace and that is as a leader.
What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Take care when making transitions. I marvel at how many different things Ifill manages to cover in this speech, and yet it all hangs together beautifully. This is due in large part to her thoughtful use of transitions. For example, she uses her own biography as a segue into speaking about leadership, which then opens into a larger discussion of women's leadership in politics. She even has a nice way of moving from the usual introduction where she has to thank her local Iowa hosts into the difficulties of escaping Washington and its nonstop political cycle. Look for these graceful transitions throughout the speech--can you steal some of her strategies here?
  • Encourage the Q&A. The format of the Smith Chair talks is to leave plenty of time for audience Q&A, so it's not exactly in Ifill's hands to include this. But it's the way she encourages questions, right up front in the speech, that's impressive. She lets the audience know that the Q&A is as important to her as it is to them--she gets to "pick their brains, learn from you and go tell the world." Framing the Q&A like this helps both speaker and audience feel more engaged and less anxious when the floor opens up at the end of a speech.
  • Tell the stories that only you can tell. There must be hundreds of speeches out there about "leadership," but how many of them can include a story about the time that the leader found a racist note on her note at her first newspaper gig--and why she still decided to take the paper's permanent job offer? Ifill was proud of bring her own voice, her own background and her own perspectives to her work, and you should strive to do the same in your speeches. If you won't tell you story--even if it's a painful one--who will?
(Creative Commons licensed photo by Michael Foley. Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this Famous Speech Friday post)

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