Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Helen Thomas: it's OK to have a heart

As a former winner of Washington Women in Public Relations' "Washington PR Woman of the Year" award, I got to relax at this annual luncheon today and listen to keynoter Helen Thomas, a 57-year veteran of the White House Press Corps, first woman officer of the National Press Club, winner of the International Women's Media Foundation lifetime achievement award and the first woman member and president of the White House Correspondents' Association. Fearlessness and persistence are this eloquent woman's trademarks, and I was struck with her simple and direct language. As a former journalist and current public relations practitioner, I appreciated her acknowledgement of what the two professions have in common: "Trust and credibility--without these two standards, we cannot operate."

With an audience of women, she talked about still being outraged that women didn't get a vote in the United States until 1920, but noted that "the outlook is better for us now," with nine women governors, 70 women in Congress, and women as Secretary of State, Speaker of the House of Representatives and "a real woman candidate for President." Thomas noted "it's tough to get out and fight the traditions that men have had," adding that, while it's well established "that the hand that rocks the cradle also can wage war," her advice to all women politicians is "There's nothing wrong with having a heart."

Many Presidents--she's covered them all since John F. Kennedy--would be shocked to hear this aggressive questioner talk about heart, but Thomas noted that "no President has liked the press, going all the way back to George Washington--although I didn't cover him." Gerald Ford said that if God created the world in six days, he wouldn't be able to rest on the seventh until he'd explained it to Helen Thomas, and Fidel Castro noted that the difference between the Cuban and U.S. democracies was that "I don't have to answer questions from Helen Thomas."

Despite the humorous barbs, she persists. Barbara Walters once asked her in an interview whether the men at the White House thought her aggressive; Thomas's answer was simply "I hope so." (But before women entered the White House press corps, the male press aides and journalists had a much cozier arrangement, getting dates for one another in return for coverage or access. Eleanor Roosevelt, the first First Lady to hold press conferences of her own, led the way by opening the sessions only to women reporters--forcing news organizations to hire them, if only for this purpose.)

Wikipedia's "Wikiquote" pages devote space to more bon mots from Helen Thomas here, and here's a story she told at today's luncheon about great speechwriting and Lyndon Baines Johnson: When his speechwriters brought him a script full of quotes from the great 18th century aphorist Voltaire, he reportedly said, "Voltaire? The people I'm going to speak to don't know who Voltaire is," then replaced all references to him with "as my dear old daddy used to say..." For more Thomas tales, read her autobiography Front Row at the White House : My Life and Times.

young women and public speaking

In the past two weeks, I've trained two young women in public speaking and presentations skills, so I couldn't agree more with a column published today in the Charlotte Observer by book dealer Avis O. Gachet: She recommends training for young women in middle school to help overcome hesitancy about public speaking. She thinks early training is needed because:
Producing larger crops of vocal women will make female opinions a normal, not remarkable, occurrence. Also needed are outlets in precinct meetings, church groups and civic organizations -- particularly those that deal with local issues -- where women can voice opinions on issues that touch them.

When women have something worthwhile to say, let them speak up -- forcefully and publicly. More, more, sisters. We will never have true control over our lives until we do -- no matter how painful, no matter how awkward the initial steps.
From my own experience as a speaker and a trainer, it's rare these days to get training early in your career -- yet that's exactly when women can benefit most. Early training helps you build confidence, as many issues seen as insurmountable may have simple solutions. Too many executives, male and female, build up bad habits through lack of training, then seek to correct them later in their careers. Early training benefits your employer and your professional organizations, as well as your own career: It's a promotion-worthy skill at the office, and you can help promote your profession outside your organization using your speaker skills.

I recommend young professionals talk to their professional societies and community or church groups as well as their HR departments and managers. Ask them to arrange group or one-on-one training, or bring them ideas about speakers and trainers who can address the issue for you and your colleagues. When you have a choice about training to pursue, seek out speaker training first, as it's a skill you can use in many venues. Then pursue opportunities to practice by speaking to small groups (even with friends who also want to practice).

losing a lisp or an election?

If you lisp and want a quick vocal lesson on correcting it, listen to NPR's story yesterday by comedian Mo Rocca about his own lisp--and that of presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani. S is the culprit for both speakers, and a speech therapist walks Rocca through the various types of lisps involving an s, then works with him on, yes, the presidential oath of office to correct it. (The oath is full of s-sounds--especially "the Consitution of the United States of America.") The therapist notes that three weeks of concerted effortand training could help either Rocca or Rudy correct his lisp; then the discussion moves to whether you want to lose it.

too many speeches? call in the cavalry

We chuckled at this tidbit in the New York Times Magazine interview of noted scholar Patty Limerick, a University of Colorado at Boulder professor of American history and the chair of the school’s Center of the American West in a recent issue about movies and the West. The interview suggested that she didn't sound like a "big fan of westerns," and her reply was:
It took me a very long time to admit to myself that the main reason I don’t watch many western movies, of the John Wayne kind of western movies, is that I dissolve with desire to have John Wayne take control of my life. I want John Wayne to come to my office and answer the phone and say, “The little lady isn’t making any more speaking engagements, buddy.”
Do you need John Wayne to fight off the requests for speeches? Maybe not, but do consider asking requesters enough questions about the engagement in advance to be sure it's worth the effort you'll be putting into it. What's in it for you? Hold out for more benefits than a ride into the sunset.

what to ask a trainer

Whether you're booking a training for someone on your team, or shopping around for your own training, use these questions to interview your prospects. They work for media trainers as well as presentation or public speaking trainers:
- what's your approach to media training? Trainers have many different styles: Some want you to hammer a message over and over -- no longer considered a best practice in the field for media interviews. Some have no experience as journalists, something we consider a distinct advantage in media training. Some aren't up to speed on new media and answering questions from bloggers. Take the time to hear your prospective trainer's beliefs and approaches. Especially with public speaking trainers, you need to feel comfortable with your instructor.

- can you combine media and presentation training? can you do both? Because media and presentation training share a basic skill set, a good trainer should be able to point out to you which skills work in many settings. However, if you're going to be doing multiple interviews or multiple speeches, consider a separate training for each specific skill.

- how do you price your training? Ask about group and individual rates, and be ready to discuss any special needs or goals you have. Group trainings are less expensive per participant, but mean less practice time for individuals, and some special needs are best corrected one-on-one.

- do you use video and audio recording? Effective training can be done without cameras, and may be less expensive; it's a fine option if you don't anticipate many television interviews. At the same time, seeing or hearing yourself on tape, while uncomfortable, offers the best feedback to help you learn both public speaking and media interviews. But don't assume cameras will be used--ask.

- will you offer a discount if I book more than one session?Always worth asking, followed by "how would two sessions change the training?"

- who else have you trained? may I speak with them? The best trainings happen one-on-one, so most trainers don't allow observers -- and some clients require confidentiality agreements from their trainers. But you should be able to talk to other referres, ideally someone in your profession or situation.

- what does your training cover? The answer will vary depending on the number of trainees and the amount of time, but you should get a fulsome list of skills to be learned during the session.

- how do you handle these special issues I have? A good trainer will admit when a specific issue -- such as a speech impediment -- is beyond her abilities, but should be able to bring in a specific type of coach to augment the training.

- how long are the trainings? what time of day do you recommend for training? We recommend no more than a half-day at a time, and prefer to train in the morning, for the same reason: Your energy. Training's intensive, especially one-on-one. Be sure you don't lose the learning because you're tired.

- what's your own experience as a speaker and trainer?Feel free to ask us how we learned the ropes. If you can, go see your trainer speak in front of a group.

- where do you conduct the training? Trainings shouldn't happen in your own office, where you can be interrupted and distracted. But they may take place in a conference room you provide, a hotel room, a television studio, or the trainer's own facility.

- for group trainings, are there guidelines on participation? See our post on the don't get caught blog about why we prefer training groups of peers, rather than supervisors and subordinates.

- what will I need to do to prepare?You may need to provide a biography, messages you're already using in interviews and a list of your goals for the training. Your trainer should do independent research as well, looking at coverage of your topics and you, in order to help you develop effective messages and anticipate questions. Or, if you have a specific presentation prepared, ask whether you need to bring that on your laptop or a thumb drive.

- what materials or resources do I get to reinforce my learning? Do you get take-away materials? Online resources? Follow-up consultations? Our clients have access to two blogs with ongoing, updated resources, tips and ideas to reinforce training.
We're always happy to answer questions like these to make your training a better experience. Email Denise Graveline at