Thursday, January 19, 2017

How are you referred to in speeches--your own, and those of others?

She was a newly minted corporate CEO, looking at a fresh draft of a speech written by her speechwriter.

"What does being a mother have to do with our policy positions?" she asked me. "And why do I have to talk about being the first woman CEO here? Or being a woman at all?"

Great questions. The speech draft in question had lines like this:
  • "As a mother, I take our safety rules especially seriously."
  • "Being the first female CEO in our industry is a real thrill."
  • "Having been the first woman to manage operations in our industry, I bring a special perspective to the work ahead."
These kinds of questions from clients help me dig deep. And here's what I explained: If you want to be an exemplar on women's issues in your industry, that's worth emphasizing. If you have an initiative up your sleeve that will increase the number of women in industry, your female-ness might be worth a mention. But if not, it's your choice to omit the sentences that say, "Hey! I'm a woman! That's unusual!" And you might just want people to see that you are a woman, and leave it at that. You might apply this test: Would a male executive refer to his gender here in the speech? If not, what's your reason for mentioning your gender?

I also explained to her that these sentences are almost reflexive for speechwriters, particularly in Washington. Often, you'll hear them say they want to "humanize" the woman speaker by talking about her motherhood--as if the woman is not human otherwise. Too bad if you neglected to have children for this purpose. Inserting references to "as a woman, I...." or "as a mother, I...." are lazy ways to take credit for your gender, or make use of it. You may well want to do that, and I certainly don't object to it. Just make sure it's a choice of yours, speakers, and not something being thrust upon you. If you or your speechwriter need some ideas, you'll find more of them in my post, Do all your references to women in speeches cast us as "mothers, wives and daughters?"

As a coach, I think you, the woman speaker, needs to take charge of how your speeches--and those of others--refer to you. What does that mean in real terms? I think it's a two-step process:
  • Talk to your speechwriters, formal or informal: Anyone who is preparing remarks for you needs to know whether you do or don't wish to emphasize motherhood or being a woman. Don't be afraid to say, "This is me" or "this isn't me," and why. Ask them to describe you in a variety of ways: CEO, voter, business leader, entrepreneur, volunteer. You get the idea.
  • Take charge of your introductions: I once attended an awards banquet in which notables from the organization were asked to introduce the honorees. One male executive got up and talked about the winner of a lifetime career achievement award solely in terms of her loving husband and children. Her work accomplishments were completely ignored. (Was it a coincidence that the introducer's wife doesn't work outside the home? I doubt it.) You can head that sort of experience off at the pass by saying, "I'd like this emphasized in the introduction," or just providing some points for the introducer to make. You can read Speechwriters, don't write differently for women. Write differently for men for more ideas.
Those of you who are professional speechwriters don't need to wait for the women speakers you support to speak up. Ask them what their preferences are, and heed them.

Finally, I know many readers may feel self-conscious asking to be referred to in a particular way, but if you don't set the specifications, you're just letting others control how you--and other women--are seen. Is that really what you want?

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Rubbertoe)

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