Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Does simple=stupid in speaking? Why Congress's report card isn't bad

With headlines like Study: Congressional Speech Drops Grade Level and Congress quite literally talks like a bunch of 15-year-olds, you could almost hear the laughter and head-shaking going on as people learned about the Sunlight Foundation's annual study of what it calls "the complexity of congressional speech patterns." Media coverage went for the snark, with terms like "dumbing down" and "mental teenagers" to describe the shift in vocabulary that has members of the U.S. Congress speaking at one grade level lower than they did seven years ago, around the sophomore level in high school.
Coverage sped past the foundation's note that what some might interpret as a dumbing down of Congress, others will see as more effective communications. And lawmakers of both parties still speak above the heads of the average American, who reads at between an 8th and 9th grade level.
In all that coverage, the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune was a rare voice expressing Our view: Congressional speech is easier to understand. Some of the members of Congress ranked as simple speakers defended the practice, as did freshman Rep. Mick Mulvaney. "People have been teaching this for decades," he said on CNN. "If you want someone to understand your message, you speak clearly and concisely."

My question is simply this: Since when did speaking simply equal stupid in public speaking?

Congressman Mulvaney is right: Those of us who coach speakers aim for clear and concise in communications. But that's not the same as "dumbing down" your content, by any means, and in fact, it's a tougher intellectual exercise to be clear than it is to use the jargon you find so familiar. As health reporter Ivan Oransky likes to say, he wants sources to "talk to me like I'm your smart 14-year-old nephew."

I've trained thousands of scientists, engineers and other smart experts in all disciplines, from physics to public policy, and in my experience, the suggestion that you have to dumb down your content is just a powerful way to say "I don't know how to do this any other way, and I don't want to try." It's your audience that must be at fault, not you, in that line of thinking. I think we also try to bring good speakers "down a peg" by mocking them for being clear and simple. Would we really like it better if we didn't understand them?

Effective speakers know that most public audiences prefer you to omit jargon and cut to the chase: What's the bottom line? After we know that, you might have our interest secured and be able to add in some detail. Without clarity, however, you'll lose the listeners.

That's true even when technical speakers are trying to balance technical vs. non-technical language for a mixed audience of experts and generalists. Technical experts also enjoy talks that are clear, concise and engaging. Who wouldn't? You can always fill in the details in the Q&A, or refer the experts in the audience to more information on a website.

How do you feel about members of Congress speaking simply? Share your views in the comments.

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Monday, May 28, 2012

Shouting at work: Why men get away with expressing anger & how women can

Yesterday's New York Times took a look at a different kind of public speaking: Shouting in the workplace. While shouting has overall risks and downsides, it has more negative impact on women who shout than on men who do, thanks to widely shared beliefs and stereotypes about how women and men should behave. When it comes to expressing anger, we give men a pass and hold women more accountable in a negative way, according to research by Yale social psychologist Victoria Brescoll.

Shouting or expressing anger is not only more acceptable for men in the workplace, it prompts observers to confer a lower status on women who express anger at work, both in terms of viewing women as less competent and as less deserving of a higher salary. In this summary of the research from the Yale School of Management,
The study participants, all working adults, watched a video of job interviews in which the men and women interviewees were asked to describe a time when something went wrong at work and whether it made them feel angry or sad. After watching the video, the participants were asked to rate them on factors such as their status and the salary they should earn. The angry man was perceived as higher status, more competent, more likely to be hired, and given the highest salary. The angry woman was viewed as lower status and less competent than both the angry and sad men, and the sad woman. She also earned $14,000 less than the angry man and $5500 less than her sad female counterpart. 
Why does that happen? It's in part because we attribute men's anger to external causes--things to which anyone might have a strong reaction--and women's anger to internal factors, as in "she's an angry person" or "she's out of control." Brescoll's research also found a bonus for women who express anger: If you can share why you got angry in a short, straightforward two-sentence explanation, observers will credit you with almost as much status as the angry man and feel that you have as much status, in terms of salary worth. Men, on the other hand, tend to drop in status when they start to explain why they got angry--so much so, they're better off not trying to do so. Brescoll notes, "There are situations at work where anger is normal, but women have to be careful. You have to walk a fine line between not being completely unemotional and appearing cold and not displaying emotion that will harm you and have negative consequences."

You can read Brescoll's study Can an angry woman get ahead? Status conferral, gender and expression of emotion in the workplace. Do you think women and men are treated differently at work when they express anger? Share your observations in the comments.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Sally Ride's "Shoot for the Stars"

This Saturday marks Sally Ride Day, honoring the first American woman in space. It's been nearly 30 years since Ride, a physicist, flew aboard the Challenger space shuttle, but she's still one of the most recognizable astronauts and women scientists in the world.

There's nothing like being first, of course, and Ride's fame and popularity stems in part from her place in history. But Ride hasn't coasted since returning from low orbit. After the Challenger explosion in 1986, Ride was appointed to the Presidential Commission that investigated the accident. Her work on the Commission proved so valuable that she stayed at NASA headquarters to develop an influential report on the future of the space program that offered many reasons to look beyond the shuttle disaster.

Since retiring from NASA, Ride's passion has been science education and finding new ways to bring more women in science and math fields. Her company Sally Ride Science provides teaching materials to K-12 classrooms that showcase real-life role models among women and minority scientists. She's also in high demand as a speaker on science education, and her "Shoot for the Stars" lecture is one of her most-requested speeches. This version below shows why she's been asked to pilot the podium so often, and what you might be able to borrow for your own solo flights:
  • Don't skip the details. Ride opens many of her talks by describing how she became an astronaut. The short story is that she answered an ad in the Stanford school newspaper. But Ride makes a smart move by telling the story the long way instead. She talks about exactly where she was sitting in the cafeteria with the paper, where the ad was placed on the page and how she finished her NASA application that same afternoon. The details make it easy for listeners to "join" Ride as she revisits that important day, and then they're ready to move with her as she continues the speech.
  • Use slides for more than just background. Ride jokes that she's not allowed to speak anywhere unless she agrees to bring along photos from her shuttle flights. And her slides are gorgeous and unique, from the "thin blue crayon line" that delineates the Earth's atmosphere to the jet contrails woven over the busy Lisbon airport. But she carefully chooses images that will make a point for her: Science is needed to grapple with challenges like climate change and urbanization that affect all of us on the planet. For the most part, Ride is an unemotional speaker, so the slides also serve to make this point in a more eloquent way than might happen if she had to spell it out. If you're scared to embrace visual aids, consider how much work the "pretty pictures" do in this speech.
  • Say more with your Q&A. Ride smoothly handles the questions at the end of this speech, but it's interesting to watch how well she uses the Q&A to fit even more data into a data-filled speech. She's able to give guidance to a teacher who says her students think math is too difficult, and she offers some statistics on the employment outlook for engineers and technical workers. The topics are important enough to go into the main body of her talk, but she's had enough experience to know when to hold back and wait to hear what else her audience wants to know.
Here's the full speech, just in time for your Sally Ride Day celebrations. What do you think of this famous speech?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Not the usual suspects: 8 books that make me think differently about public speaking

You'll find plenty of books on public speaking, but this group features unusual takes on the topic. Challenges large and small, focused looks at important tactics, and big underlying ideas about speaking all find a place on this list--as do some books that focus on women and speaking. I hope you'll find some inspiration and ideas in this pile:
  1. Vital Voices: The Power of Women Leading Change Around the World isn't just about public speaking, but about the larger issue of giving women and women's issues a voice. You'll find plenty of inspiring examples and learn more about how women around the world are building platforms for themselves.
  2. Women Speaking Up: Getting and Using Turns in Workplace Meetings is not the least expensive book on the list, and is certainly the most focused. But since we do most of our public speaking in meetings, the book is useful for all professionals--and for women, it uses research to show why you get talked over in meetings and how women in meetings are viewed, and much more. A must read for women professionals.
  3. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking is important for introverts and extroverts to read, and much of the book focuses on the author's own struggles with public speaking. It's a powerful book that helps all of us understand better how we handle speaking up.
  4. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human probes the reasons for and roots of public speaking through storytelling, and puts it in a wider context.  Speakers should keep these words from the book in mind: "Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story. No matter how hard we concentrate, no matter how deep we dig in our heels, we just can’t resist the gravity of alternate worlds."
  5. The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever takes what you thought you knew about presenting and adds in Twitter and other forms of social media, step by step. A thoughtful approach to a new reality.
  6. How To Deliver A TED Talk: Secrets Of The World's Most Inspiring Presentations focuses on the talks that fascinate, and that have become every speaker's secret dream or dread. Some call TED talks the new standard for public speaking. Here's one look at how to translate that standard into your own speaking style
  7. Barbara Jordan: Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder is an unusual biography focusing on the public speaking of a woman--but what a woman speaker. Jordan is considered one of the greatest speakers of the 20th century, and broke ground as a woman and as an African-American. A worthy read.
  8. What's The Use of Lectures? doesn't just echo the feeling of many an undergraduate, but takes a close look at how and whether lectures work, and how to do them well. Everything from attention spans to delivery tactics is covered. A must-read for those of you who teach and train.
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Monday, May 21, 2012

From the vault: Attention! Why speakers need a strong, fast start

Two books on speaking and presenting get into some of the research -- and gut reaction --that goes into getting your audience's attention at the start of your speech or presentation. And, as with many types of advice about public speaking, there's real life as well as research for you to factor into your calculations.

In Scott Berkun's Confessions of a Public Speaker, he notes: 
There is a moment  at every movie, symphony and lecture, right before the show starts, when the entire audience goes silent...This is called the hush over the crowd, but really it's the moment when the crowd itself first forms...And when I'm the speaker, I know that special moment is the only time I will have the entire audience's full attention....What defines how well I'll do starts with how I use the power of that moment. The balance rests on a bigger question: how will I keep people's attention after that moment is gone?

I agree with Scott and in some ways, that helps you divide your talk into two important parts:  A strong start, followed by a presentation or talk that's planned to keep bringing the audience's attention up high, knowing there's plenty that will divert your listeners.

Some of this involves basic physiology.  Sitting passively slows people's attention. Berkun cites research by Donald A. Bligh, whose book What's The Use of Lectures? recounts using heart-rate monitors on students in lectures. Results? Audience heart rates were at their highest at the start, falling off through the rest of the lecture. Another researcher Berkun cites, John Medina, writes in Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School that your audience has a maximum attention span of 10 minutes. (That would be a total, not just for your beginning. Sorry.)

But Cliff Atkinson, author of The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever cuts an even finer standard for speakers and presenters, based on that technology backchannel tugging on audience members' attention. He says:
In a world in which your audience is accustomed to high-quality media at their fingertips, you need to capture their attention out of the gate. You must engage your audience within the first five slides or at least the first five minutes of your presentation.
You've got the idea.  Your sweet spot's a short one.  Here are 4 ways to make the most of it to enhance your audience's attention:
  • Start a conversation with the audience: Go beyond taking a poll of the audience, because they really want to contribute to your presentation.  Ask an open-ended question related to the topic, and let them share their thoughts--or tell them you'd like to put the Q&A up front.  It's a great way to get the time and information you need to calibrate your remarks.  Audience members like to hear themselves and like the potential surprise their fellows can bring to a presentation.
  • Enter the crowd--anywhere but the front:  Moving yourself into the audience is a great tactic for building rapport and for holding attention. All eyes will follow you.  Better yet, start talking with a portable microphone and by entering the crowd from the side or rear of the room, both for an added surprise and to shake up the norms of the audience.
  • Don't waste precious minutes on preliminaries and throat-clearing:  Forget telling them how very glad you are to be here today, how much you appreciate the invitation, that lame joke, talking about the weather, thanking the host committee or talking about yourself.  (There: I just saved you three minutes.) Speakers love to back into their talks obliquely in these ways, and they're just wasting time. You can weave your bio into your presentation where it's relevant and thank the hosts with a nice note.  Get right down to it.
  • Craft a strong opening statement: Instead. replace those niceties with strong content: A compelling question, an odd fact, your most surprising point. Here's the time to use an unusual prop and ask the audience to guess what it is, or to suggest a strong viewpoint. Jump right in.  You might try outlining a presentation as you normally would, then cutting out the first few preliminary slides or points and see where that gets you.
Of course, you need to calibrate your start to the overall time allotted for you to speak--don't waste five minutes of warm-up when you only have 8 minutes total.  Then work on the rest of your presentation to figure out how to keep attention up high after your strong--and fast--start.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Minister Teresa MacBain "I am an Atheist"

Right before minister Teresa MacBain gave this speech about realizing that she was an atheist, she told NPR that not speaking up about her new beliefs made her feel the way many nervous speakers feel: "I feel pretty good on Monday, but by Thursday — when Sunday's right around the corner — I start having stomachaches, headaches, just knowing that I got to stand up and say things that I no longer believe in and portray myself in a way that's totally false." In her case, this wasn't pre-speaking jitters, but because "I lead a double life."

MacBain chose the meeting of the American Atheists in March to make public her beliefs, before a crowd of 1,500 people who gave her a standing ovation immediately after her first sentence: "My name is Teresa. I'm a pastor currently serving a Methodist church — at least up to this point — and I am an atheist." Here are three tactics you can take away from this speech:
  • Address your audience directly: Despite the national controversy connected with her announcement, MacBain doesn't forget the audience in front of her and speaks to them directly to thank them for their support and understanding, and to apologize for years of working to show "how wrong you were and how right I was." Her directness forges a strong connection and brings the issue down to a human level.
  • Stick to "I" statements: With an issue this controversial, the speaker could have made generalizations. Instead, MacBain keeps this individual and personal. No one can tell her what her feelings are or should be, and she doesn't tell anyone what theirs should be. It keeps her from, well, preaching and keeps this statement an honest one.
  • Don't describe what you don't know: Despite months talking to other clergy in the same situation online and at the conference, MacBain has to confess that she doesn't know what will happen next, and that she is somewhat afraid of what the reaction will be to her announcement. I wish more speakers would stop at the point where they meet a topic they don't know. In this case, the uncertainty hangs in the air and reflects the tension that comes along with making this public.
In fact, MacBain did see negative media coverage and comments online and in person, as well as a video that quickly went viral. You can read the NPR story about MacBain's speech here, or listen to the story here, and the video is below for you to watch (this recording is missing the first line). What do you think of this famous speech?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

How should I evaluate invitations to speak on a panel? Pros and cons

The email or the call comes in: They want you as one of the speakers on a panel!

So let me ask you: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

The answer may hinge on many factors, so I've pulled together a list of panel pros and cons for you to consider when you're invited to join a panel discussion as a speaker. Please do add your own pros and cons in the comments!

  • Panels are a great learning experience for speakers. Serving as a panelist is one of 4 speaker stepping-stones you can use to work your way up to bigger speaking assignments. Panels are great practice to move you toward a solo speaking gig. And if you need to renew your speaking skills after having avoided speaking for a while, panels are a great way to get back in the game.
  • If you're moderating the panel, you learn yet another key skill set, one that's prized by organizers. But keep in mind that moderators generally speak less--except when subbing for a last-minute no-show speaker.
  • Panels offer a focused way to show your expertise. Most of the time, you'll be asked to join a panel because of your experience and expertise. You don't need to be "the expert," just an expert with a unique perspective.
  • Panels help you practice extemporaneous speaking, but in a focused environment. Most panelists use just a few notes rather than a prepared text, and the panelists invite questions from the audience at some point. You'll hone the skills involved in on-your-feet responding to questions, which  you'll use again and again.
  • You may need to reach this audience, on this topic. You don't want your stint on a panel to be a sales pitch, but if the audience, the prestige of the meeting, or the topic are critical to you, saying yes may be the right move. Always ask "What's in it for me?" when evaluating a speaking gig, to be sure you know your motivation.
  • If you've never been a panelist, there's no way to fix that except to say "yes" to an invitation.
  • Audiences have strong feelings about bad panels, mostly from sitting through some awful ones. It pays to do some research: What were the reviews for last year's or more recent panels at this meeting? Ask the organizer.
  • The organizers may need you more than you need this gig. Is your reputation or your marquee position lending credibility to this panel in a way you might later regret? Make sure there's a good match for you with the organizations hosting your panels.
  • Being on the panel may put you in an awkward position. You may not be ready to speak publicly on a hot topic, or there may be an assumption that you'll address something about which you just don't want to speak. Perhaps the audience will assume you're endorsing the organization or a project or issue to which panelists will be asked to react---so be sure you are comfortable with the appearance that you're on board, or decline those opportunities where it appears your comments might become endorsements you didn't intend to make. What's the role they want you to play? Are you comfortable with that? Asking "what's in it for them?" also is a good idea when considering whether to get on a panel.
  • The panel may be poorly organized, with too many speakers, an ever-changing agenda, too little time for each speaker, or some other logistical issue that will make the opportunity a chore rather than an advantage. There are 7 good reasons to turn down a speaking gig, so keep the list in mind when evaluating a panel invitation.
  • You may be sandwiched between over-talkers. That might mean speakers who don't abide by their time limits, or speakers who talk over you while you're talking. Make sure you've discussed ground rules with the organizer and moderator, and if you can, check out the reputations of your fellow panelists before you agree to join them. It's tough to suss this out ahead of time, but ask around--you may find out more than you expect about your fellow panelists.
  • You and the organizer don't agree on the panel's main purpose. If this is the case, or if you feel you're being told precisely what to say on your topic, rather than getting some leeway, it's best to decline right away.
Have you decided to say yes to that invitation to join a panel discussion? Check out my 7 paths to success for panelists to be sure your experience makes you glad you said "yes!"

Monday, May 14, 2012

Use the Coco Chanel method to gauge what's too much in your presentation

I nearly fell into that night-before-your-presentation trap a couple of weeks ago. You know this feeling: You're reviewing your slides and rehearsing what you'll say against them, and then decide to throw in one more tactic, one more audience interaction, one more slide or video.

In this case, I almost upended the order of my presentation so I could make use of a tactic that has worked well before. It even fit with my topic. Fortunately, I stopped myself, thinking, "Remember Coco."

That's Coco Chanel, the epitome of elegance, who's said to have advised women "Before you head out the door, take one thing off" from among the accessories you've put on. It's advice that speakers would be wise to consider, lest their presentations start looking like a Christmas tree, decked out from top to bottom. There's a temptation to think that just one more thing will "make" the presentation, when in fact it might detract from your impact.

When gauging what's too much in your presentation, you might need to remove:
  • Slide jewelry, like animations, transitions, bullets, videos and sound, or too many charts, pictures and graphics. Pile on those cone charts and shadings only if you want us to start counting how many times you've done that.
  • Audience stylings, like putting questions upfront, taking polls of the audience or using volunteers to demonstrate key points. At some point, you may look as if you're distracting us from a lack of content.
  • Technology tinsel, from laser pointers to slick videos. You may dazzle us, but will we remember your point?
  • Language lightshows, such as using an alliteration with an analogy with a story. Too many rhetorical devices make us think about your machinery, not your point. Be confident in your content, and don't deck it out with boughs of holly.
Featured on BlogHer.comHave you seen presenters who piled on the equivalent of too many necklaces? Share your pet peeves about presenters overdoing it in the comments.

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Friday, May 11, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Severn Suzuki's 1992 UN Earth Summit speech

It's been 20 years since Vancouver native Severn Suzuki, then 12 years old, took the microphone at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Five minutes later, she'd delivered a speech that's still going viral, popularly known online as "The Girl Who Silenced the World for Five Minutes."

She was 9 when she started the Environmental Children's Organization with a small group of other children, and they raised the money to attend the UN Earth Summit, where Severn closed a plenary session with this speech.

One reason the speech worked so well was her tactic of addressing the adults directly as a child would. There's no effort here to sound older than her years, and it works in passages like this one:
I’m only a child and I don’t have all the solutions, but I want you to realise, neither do you!  You don’t know how to fix the holes in our ozone layer. You don’t know how to bring salmon back up a dead stream. You don’t know how to bring back an animal now extinct. And you can’t bring back forests that once grew where there is now desert. If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it!
And she was an effective ambassador on behalf of children everywhere, by turning on its head the reason adults usually cite that their efforts are "for the children." Here, with the speaker a child herself, she makes what would otherwise sound trite a more concrete concern:
Do not forget why you’re attending these conferences, who you’re doing this for — we are your own children. You are deciding what kind of world we will grow up in. Parents should be able to comfort their children by saying “everything’s going to be alright” , “we’re doing the best we can” and “it’s not the end of the world”.
Here are some tips you can use from this famous speech:
  • Real-life experience lends credibility: Suzuki speaks of spending time outdoors, so her high-minded ideals can be described in concrete terms, words that both connect her to the audience and build her credibility. Always underscore your position with real experience when you speak.
  • Go after the big speaking opportunity: She could have spoken locally, but taking the initiative to line up the UN summit and raise the money to attend demonstrates what can happen when the speaker swings for the fences--this hit a home run in part because of the audacity of seeking out such a platform.
  • Speak for yourself: Throughout, Suzuki used "I" statements -- "I am a child" -- and spoke firmly as the young person she was. It's authentic, and keeps her on point. 
Now Severn Cullis-Suzuki, the girl who silenced the world is still an activist involved in environmental causes, and has gone on to do many more speeches, television hosting and other types of public speaking. But it's hard to top this early effort. You can read the full text of her speech and do watch the video below. What do you think of this famous speech?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Speaking Science: Avoiding the Copycat Chills When You Speak

Have you ever participated in a conversation that left you cold? I mean literally cold, like you found yourself shivering after the talking stopped? If so, you might have been speaking with a creepy mimic, according to a new study by social psychologists from the Netherlands. (Their paper's still in press, but you can learn more about it here.)

People often mimic the movements of others when speaking. We rub our noses in a similar way, or tilt our heads in unison, and it's mostly unconscious when it happens. Some studies even suggest that this kind of mimicry can bring people together, possibly by signaling, "Hey, you're just like me!"

But sometimes a speaker is not just like her listeners, and that's when mimicry can backfire, says University of Groningen psychologist Pontus Leander, who led the new study.

His research team asked an assistant to conduct either a friendly or all-business conversation with undergraduates, instructing the assistant to mimic or avoid mimicking the students' gestures and postures during the talk. The students weren't conscious of the copycat movements, but they felt something was "off" when the assistant mimicked them during the all-business talks. At the same time, they were uncomfortable when the assistant was friendly but didn't mimic them in any way.

The students reported feeling physically colder after their uneasy interactions, possibly because the region of the brain that regulates feelings of trust also controls physical warmth and coldness, the researchers noted.

So what accounts for the chill factor? Leander says it depends on whether a mimic is part of your social group. We expect some mimicry from our friends, because mimicry can help emphasize the common ground in a relationship. But if the mimic is outside your social group--whether from a different culture, a different race, or a different social status--we don't expect that kind of emphasis on similarities, Leander says. Instead, we see their copycat movements as blatant and mocking.

"It's not just my research, but several studies now show that 'overdoing' it when it comes to mimicry, especially getting caught, is just a bad thing in general," Leander says. "It's draining for others and it can really backfire, socially."

If you're speaking in a situation where your audience isn't part of your social group, it's probably best to avoid intentional copying. It may possible to learn how to dial up or dial down your mimicry for different audiences, Leander says, but it's a tricky maneuver because so much of mimicry is unconsciously performed and perceived.

"'Keep it subtle' should be the mantra for any intentional mimicry," he says. "Don't be too quick to copy, and don't be blatant about it."

"One could also just leave it alone and let your non-conscious do the work," Leander adds. "As human beings, we have spent a lifetime non-consciously calibrating our mimicry patterns, so any conscious overrides should be take with the utmost caution."

Have you ever gotten the chills from a blatant mimic? Share your experiences in the comments.

(Our Speaking Science series is penned by science writer Becky Ham.)

My post on "How Rush Limbaugh is helping me celebrate Women's History Month" is nominated as one of BlogHer's "Voices of the Year 2012." Follow this link to vote--and thanks for supporting this post.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Do you turn down speaking gigs because you're not "the expert?"

In the recent post Do you talk yourself out of speaking--or say yes to opportunity? I was exploring the suggestion I've heard that qualified women speakers refer invitations on to men or otherwise turn down speaking gigs they might have taken. In the comments, Louise Armstrong wrote:
Great question that made me squirm when I read it because I think I've been guilty of this from time to time. This may not be a popular opinion but I think, at a certain level of business, some women (not all) feel that everything they do needs to be spectacular in order for them to be taken seriously and valued as much as their male counterparts. I've often turned down speaking opportunities because I didn't believe I was enough of a subject matter expert to "wow" the audience, only to see a man with much less expertise take the same gig. I don't think they necessarily believe they know more or will do better. I just think they're less afraid to fail.
I wouldn't suggest anyone take a speaking gig that was clearly outside her expertise, but this comment made me think of the saying that Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did--and do it backwards, and in heels. Do you feel the task is greater, that you have more hurdles to overcome, or do you feel less able to fail? Do you feel your expertise isn't "enough?" Let us know in the comments--you're free to post anonymously.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard at ANZAC Day

(Editor's note: Sydney-based speech and communications coach Claire Duffy, who has a special interest in women and young speakers, is back with a recent speech from Australia's prime minister. I'm happy to have this contribution as another international entry for Famous Speech Friday.)

Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard is feisty and personable in debate, and comfortable and easy at walk-arounds, but in interviews and speeches she is criticised for having little animation and a nasal monotone that can sound flat and stilted.  

Her address to the Gallipoli Dawn Service this year on ANZAC Day was a challenge she met well.

ANZAC Day (April 25th), commemorates Australians at war. It’s a significant holiday, and Dawn Services are held throughout the country and overseas to mark the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces, at Gallipoli in Turkey in 1915. The battle was a devastating defeat, but it was the coming-of-age for these two young countries, and gave birth to the ANZAC legend – the national character.
So it's  a national occasion in an international arena, and she’s speaking because she's Head of State. Apart from the normal challenges that go with this, consider what else she was up against.
First there’s the setting. She is speaking outdoors to a big crowd in cold pre-dawn darkness. Second there’s her gender, a female leader memorialising a very masculine military event. Third we have the political context. She’s delivering this speech just days after announcing Australia is reducing its commitment in Afghanistan, amid widespread criticism at home about the effects of war on veterans and their families. Finally there’s the emotion. Any ANZAC speech is freighted with generations of symbolism, tragedy, grief and loss. The theme is always “ Was it worth it?”, there can be no other.
Gillard’s speech is beautifully writtenIt tells the story of the catastrophe in poetic language:
“They were strangers in a strange land.
Men who came from “the ends of the earth” in an enterprise of hope to end a far-off, dreadful war.
But it was not to be.
Even at dawn, the shadows were already falling over this fate-filled day.”
It deftly weaves in respect and honour for the Turks, our enemy. The Australians:   
“…did not begrudge the victory of their enemy, which was hard-fought and deserved.
They did share a regret greater than any defeat – having to leave their mates behind.
So the Australian and New Zealand commander, General Godley, left a message asking the Ottoman forces to respect the Anzac graves.
But no such invitation was required.
The Turkish honoured our fallen and embraced them as their own sons.
And later they did something rare in the pages of history – they named this place in honour of the vanquished as Anzac Cove.”
The speech builds to a climax that could have been corny (because of the way it plays with place names), but instead it is heartbreaking.
“In this place, they taught us to regard Australia and nowhere else as home.
Here where they longed for the shape and scent of the gum leaf and the wattle, not the rose or the elm.
Where they remembered places called Weipa and Woolloomooloo, Toowoomba and Swan Hill.
Or the sight of Mt Clarence as their ships pulled away from Albany, for so many the last piece of Australian soil they would ever live to see.
This is the legend of Anzac, and it belongs to every Australian.”
These are unusual speaking circumstances, but there are still some lessons to be learned.

  • Honour the occasion. A dignitary at a ceremonial event has little control or flexibility over format, timing, or even content. These are all largely pre-ordained.  To present well at these events you should be sure you’ll meet the expectations of the organisers and those attending. Understand what it is they want from you. Formality and state occasions invite big messages, simply stated; rousing, direct language; and strong (but contained) emotion.
  • Manage the feelings, don’t avoid them. An occasion like this is necessarily sad. This speech has enough feeling to carry the mood and no more. Gillard keeps up the pace. She doesn’t hurry – far from it, but while the words are emotive, her naturally flat delivery sounds matter of fact. This steers her away from sentiment and into practicality.  Her tone lacks light and shade or dramatic effect, which gives her a no-nonsense touch. It’s moving but not mawkish. 
  • Keep eye contact.  It would be better if Gillard raised her eyes at the end of her paragraphs. She could hold our attention but instead she disconnects from us while she finds her next line. It’s an elementary mistake (perhaps there’s no autocue), but however much you want to look away and hide from the audience remember, you may not.
  • Dress for the podiumI wish it wasn't so, but female speakers are invariably assessed on how they look as well as what they say. I don’t much like that hat and coat combo. The downward brim draws attention away from her eyes (which are what we want to see), and the collar and hat together clutter up the silhouette - but of course it’s better than freezing or having her hair blowing in the breeze.  I'd have preferred a hat that showed her face in full. If you are dressing to look good from a distance, keep the outline tailored  and uncomplicated.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Speakers: To persuade, get concrete. To inspire, be abstract.

Should you try to inspire your audience--or persuade them? Are you speaking about why your audience should do something--or how to pull it off? New research suggests that decision depends on the timing of your message and what the audience has to do next, whether that deadline is in the future or next week.

When to use abstract versus specific messages looks at recent studies that used political messages to gauge how effective they are
The question tackled by these studies in paper by Hakkyun Kim and his colleagues in the Journal of Consumer Research was when "influencers" are better off using vague, abstract high level messages -- ones that are more about "why" -- versus concrete, specific, implementation oriented messages -- ones that are "how" to get things done.
The studies went on to note that there's a time difference apparent in how political messages are received:  Abstract, inspiring talk works fine when the election is far off, but the closer you get to the ballot box deadline, citizens seem to prefer more concrete promises. The researchers liken it to travel for a vacation, where you might be convinced by vague promises of sunsets at first, but are more likely to want to see an activity schedule or something more concrete the week before you depart.

While it's not possible to extrapolate the findings to the workplace, this study made me think of commencement speeches, which are traditionally long on high-minded abstractions and short on what's actually about to happen to the graduates. Most commencement speakers aim for the high, inspiring and abstract road. That's why I so enjoyed reading 10 things your commencement speaker won't tell you, a list as concrete as the sidewalk. Here's an example that urges the graduates to worry less about doing something grand and positive, and more about not doing any harm:
Everyone will tell you that you can change the world. They are right, but remember that "changing the world" also can include things like skirting financial regulations and selling unhealthy foods to increasingly obese children. I am not asking you to cure cancer. I am just asking you not to spread it.
That's certainly all about the "how" for the audience. The article is excerpted from a book that's out this week, 10 1/2 Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said by Charles Wheelan, whose first job out of college was working as a speechwriter to the governor of Maine--a job that involved writing words of wisdom for graduations, when he was just 23 himself.  Consider that, graduates!