Friday, December 10, 2010

A lesson for speakers in finding your voice, from Elizabeth Edwards

One of the most popular pages on this blog is "Finding Your Voice as a Speaker," in which I remind women speakers to:
Pay attention to the stories you find it too difficult to tell right now. At one of the greatest times of personal challenge in my life, I stopped keeping a journal—the situation was too awful to contemplate. Those big life-changers may be too much for you to tackle today. But later, I promise, if you can bring yourself to share them in a speech, you’ll have the most compelling content and a riveting voice.
And that's a lesson we can take again from Elizabeth Edwards, who died this week at age 61 and grew to be a compelling speaker for so many  people.  She transformed as a speaker over the course of her life, and it appears that her first responses to the troubles she faced--the death of her son, her own cancer, and her husband's infidelity--were deeply private responses.

When she began finding her voice, it was in writing. She shared some of her troubles in Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers.  When her husband's infidelity was added to her grief and struggle with cancer, she wrote her last book, Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life's Adversities It drew from her difficult experiences and talked about managing disappointment--one of the toughest topics you can own up to as a speaker.

And those books helped propel her as a speaker, first in her husband's presidential campaign, then on her own as audiences sought her out to speak about her cancer and later, her husband's infidelity and what it took to overcome them.  Along the way, Edwards spoke about many more difficult topics, even using her last speech two months before her death to remind women to get preventive physical exams, and revealing:
I did not take advantage of the tests that we knew we had for breast cancer...Like many women, I made sure my children had their annual check-ups, and I did not have mine.
In the end, her ability to speak calmly about her own death made her voice even more clear.  Today, she is remembered as someone who has prompted a discussion about what it means to have a "good death" and to face it with dignity.

Later, as this writer points out, Edwards added an epilogue to Resilience as a way of defining herself, rather than letting the events of her life define her.  That's the ultimate reason, eloquent women, to find your voice and use it, whether you do so at work or home, in public or privately.  And how do you test that? In Edwards' case, this video shares what North Carolina residents thoughts about her. You'll hear the words "strength" and "brave" and "resilience" over and over again -- words that would not have come to mind if Edwards hadn't found her voice and shared it with us. Share your own thoughts in the comments.

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