Wednesday, January 7, 2009

There's um-thing about her (and all of us)

Another female candidate for higher office is getting criticized for, among other things, her speaking skills, and today Maureen Dowd comes to Caroline Kennedy's defense in the New York Times:

I know about “you knows.” I use that verbal crutch myself, a bad habit that develops from shyness and reticence about public speaking.
Dowd goes on to discuss the issues raised about the Kennedy dynasty, her experience and more, but comes back to her speaking skills and notes:
People complain that the 51-year-old Harvard and Columbia Law School grad and author is not a glib, professional pol who knows how to artfully market herself, and is someone who hasn’t spent her life glad-handing, backstabbing and logrolling. I say, thank God.
Dowd's lending her voice (and platform) to defend Kennedy and does so in the same frustrated manner that millions of women do when they feel shut out of--or shut up in--public speaking situations from meetings to conventions. I hear it in hallways, on Twitter, and from my friends and training clients in private. At the same time, citizens have few other ways to evaluate political figures than to parse their speaking skills...and their opponents, particularly when faced with a political dynasty, may have few other chinks in the armor to attack. And, of course, most people define eloquence as the ability to speak extemporaneously in roll-off-the-tongue, smooth-sounding sentences--words that go beyond basics to flourishes and turns of phrase that make us pause and listen, and that move us to a place beyond our daily lives.

I'll be exploring the historic reasons that women have had few--and hard-won--opportunities to speak in public throughout history, even in our time, in other posts. But, putting that aside for a moment, let's look at the supposed stumbling block: using "you know," another version of "um." According to Um. . .: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, these types of verbal blunders make up 5% to 8% of everyone's daily speech--that's everyone, not just those in the spotlight. "You know" may be, as Dowd suggests, a sign of hesitancy, but it also serves as "um" does, as a pause to think of what to say when you don't know what to say. Ums and their near equivalents can increase when your hands are immobilized (clasped, gripping a lectern or just in your pockets) and in general, suggest a need to anticipate questions and prepare answers--nothing more sinister, stupid or suggestive. (Photo of Kennedy by Kate Sherrill on Flickr)