Friday, June 29, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Viola Davis's commencement speech "Go on and live!"

Many actors dread public speaking, mainly because they prefer to work from scripts and memorization. Not so Viola Davis, who makes every speech a thrilling performance--mainly because it's clear she isn't acting.

In this speech, following presentation of an honorary degree, Rhode Island native Davis admitted she might not have been so down to earth 10 years earlier: "I would’ve made a lot of stuff up and been very self-congratulatory, and self-righteous about what a wonderfully dramatic speech I gave,” she said. “Thank God this is not 10 years ago.”

Davis uses a scene from The Exorcist, of all things, to urge the graduates not to keep their authentic selves pushed away in a drawer like a special piece of jewelry only worn on special occasions, but something they should wear every day. "If I do not know who I am, it is because I think I am the sort of person everyone around me wants to be," she says, noting that acting out others' wishes for you is a kind of possession. Then she drives her point home:

You see, the two most important days in your life are the day you were born, and the day you discover why you were born. Now, I have only been able to slay dragons when I have kept these two important facts in sharp focus, because at some point in life, it will indeed suck: Loss of a loved one, health issues, marriage, children, loss of passion, the discovery that what you thought you wanted in life, you don't. You veer off course. But all the while that purpose, that thing you were specifically and divinely made for, will be moving in front of you.
Here's what you can learn from this commencement speech:

  • Use examples to lead us to your point: This speech is about finding and staying true to your authentic self, and Davis uses the indelible images from The Exorcist to make her listeners understand just how much of an out-of-body experience you can have when you drift from your true purpose. It's an invisible visual, one that sticks with the audience and underscores her theme.
  • Give us your enthusiasm: Davis doesn't just read her lines here. We can see and sense her humor, passion, regrets and enthusiasm--that secret sauce of personality and emotion that so many speakers leave out. She's present and eager to go, and so is her audience.
  • Give the grads a road map: Her narrative is so clear that you can see the years ahead of this class of graduates. There's the day you were born, the day you figured out what you were born to do, and then all that veering off course--and back on course--that form the path on which Davis leads us. Rather than toss a collection of advice and anecdotes at them, this speaker has a progression that's easy to follow, and easy to recall.
A nice coincidence for me: My own college classmate, Vicki-Ann Downing, wrote this great article about Davis's speech for Providence College. What do you think of this commencement speech?


(Providence College photo of Davis)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A problem-solving approach to finding women speakers from @SarahM

(Editor's note: Sarah Milstein is the author of The Twitter Book and has been a general manager for several high-tech conferences. She also is a great friend of this blog. Based on her  firsthand experience with the difficulties of finding women speakers, she published this problem-solving approach to the issue on her own blog. I knew I had to reprint it here to continue and expand our discussion on this important topic, and it appears with her permission. She's addressing people in the tech world, but her thoughts apply to any industry. Please leave comments below.)

Ok, so you love tech, or some aspect of it, and you decide to throw a conference to gather like-minded tech-lovers and people who want to learn from them. Maybe you want to make money from your event, maybe not--whatever. Maybe you’re doing this on your own, or maybe you’re working with an organization—again, whatever. You secure a space, you invite people to speak, you throw open registration. It feels good.

And then people start to point out that nearly all of your speakers are men. Or perhaps 100% of your speakers are men. Even if your event has a focus on women, somebody might mention that nearly all of your speakers are white

Now, you don't want to appear sexist or racist (bonus points if you don’t want to be sexist or racist). So you take a look at how you arrived at your speaker roster, and you realize that no women applied to speak, and you can't think of a single black programmer or CEO to invite. Thank god--it's not really your fault that white guys are over-represented on your program! You pretty much had no choice!

I’ve employed that tempting, crappy logic myself, and I’ve got a secret to share: Getting women and other under-represented groups to speak at your tech event is hard. Now here's something to think about: So?
You didn't get into tech because you hate solving problems. Indeed, having a "hard problem" to solve is considered an enticement in job descriptions for engineers, designers and tech businesspeople.

Which is where this conference thing gets interesting. Rather than throw up your hands and say it’s the nature of the business, you can embrace this challenge. You can read about what other people have done in this realm, and you can apply your considerable problem-solving skills to come up with new solutions that will benefit us all.

Of course, you can try to ignore the problem. You cannot, however, claim to have tried but failed ("the call for speakers was open, but no women applied") or pretend that the issue is intractable ("there aren't any black programmers or CEOs") and expect everyone to accept that. Think about it like test-driven development. When your test of the login form fails, you don’t delete the test. You fix the code.

For test-driven conference development, consider these three tests necessary as you create your program: 1) Are the speakers good communicators? 2) Are they going to cover topics relevant to your audience? 3) Do they reflect your community—beyond the people you know personally—or even have the potential to enhance your community? Either all of your tests pass or you find, debug, and fix the failing ones; you don't want women who give lousy presentations.

Here are some bugs you’re likely to encounter:
  • When you brainstorm speakers, you don’t come up with any women or people of color who are knowledgeable about your topics.
  • You want prominent people on the stage, and you can’t think of any women or people of color who are big names. Except maybe Sheryl Sandberg, and you don’t know how to reach her anyway.
  • You have a call for proposals or a call for speakers, and very few or no women or people of color apply.
  • Your call for proposals allows folks to suggest panels, and none of the suggested panelists are women or people of color.
  • You invite some women, and they all say no.
  • You get some women and people of color on the program, and then they all cancel.
  • The bigger your event, the harder it will be to acheive any sort of parity.
By now you’re probably wondering why, given all these bugs, you should care whether you appear sexist or racist. I've talked about that before; many others have done it better. What I'm really interested in today is new approaches that you--because you're smart and resourceful and creative--will come up with for solving these problems. 

So this isn’t a post about how you tackle the issue or even why you should; this is a post challenging you to try. I will readily acknowledge that your initial approaches will likely be imperfect and slow and socially uncomfortable. That's why this is a hard problem. I’m excited to hear your solutions.
A few notes on comments:
1) I’m interested in a good conversation on this topic, and I welcome opinionated comments on this post. Seeing, however, as the internet tends to draw vile comments on sex and race, I should mention that I will edit or delete hateful and phobic comments, personal attacks on me or other commenters, off-topic threads (including assholic comments on this comments policy) and things that strike me as trolling. If you dislike that approach, comment on any of the 80 billion other sites that welcome diversity of obnoxiousness. 
2)  Remember, this is not a post about why speaker diversity is important. That’s not a debate we’re entertaining today, so save those comments for another time (or for 4chan or whatever).

(And I agree with Sarah's comments on comments. Having said that, please do weigh in.)

Monday, June 25, 2012

From the vault: Finding your voice as a speaker

Writers are urged early on to start “finding your voice” – I know, I started out as a writer–but I’m not sure that speakers are. That, for most of us, makes an out-loud voice seem like thin ice on which to wander. Find your voice? In a room full of hundreds of people looking at you, expecting wisdom?

That ice can seem even thinner if you’re a woman, since women have been actively discouraged or outright forbidden to speak in public for so much of our history. Writing, traditionally, was an easier way for women to give themselves voices. You can always write undercover and under a pen name, as Jane Austen did, but it’s tough to speak publicly that way. Add in women’s stronger preference for speaking one-on-one, rather than reporting to crowds (wouldn’t you if you were forbidden to speak in public?), and it’s a no-brainer. So, even today, we talk ourselves out of it.

Another dimension to finding your voice as a speaker sets it apart from writing. It’s not just your words out there. It’s you: Your looks, your wardrobe, your gestures, your movements, your interactions with the audience. You are physically putting yourself on the line. That voice you’re finding comes out of you and into the air, in front of people, and they react (or don’t), clap (or don’t), laugh (or don’t) in real time. No book author gets that from readers when she’s writing.

By now you can tell that I’m thinking broadly about what your “voice ” is. It’s you, but also how you express yourself, and in speaking that involves more than your vocal chords or your words. We say people “give voice” to their thoughts when they speak. So for you as a speaker, the exercise is about finding your voice—and then giving it to your ideas. Here’s how you might try to do that:
Start with what you know. This will seem like a limited field of dreams, especially if you are young. But the only way to find out how you tell a story is to tell stories, your stories: the funny thing that happened at work, the coincidental meeting that led to a first date, how you got the idea to move to Houston. This will lead you to…

Pay attention, observe and listen. What were the details of what happened today: Who wore the red shoes? Who was snarky because she felt insecure? What’s a secret you heard and why is it a secret? Details like these not only help you create a mood, persuade or advance a story, but also will set your speaking apart from others’ efforts.

Use the vertical pronoun. I had a great boss and mentor who discouraged me from ever writing or speaking the word “I.” Today, I say that if you are going to find your voice, the vertical pronoun—his term for “I”—is the most useful, powerful and appropriate pronoun for you to use. No one can speak for you but you, so no one can deny you those statements. Plus, I can better tell who you are if you have an opinion.

Don’t throw away women’s vocal advantages. Honed by all those one-on-one connections, women excel at using emotion and connecting with their audiences. But too many women feel they need a sterner, masculine tone. Keep in mind that the most successful speakers among U.S. presidents, all men of course, were those who adopted that more emotive, personal style: Reagan, Clinton and Obama. Take back your innate strengths as a speaker, which will lead you 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. You'll find many examples of these too-difficult-to-tell speeches in The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Women's speeches, such as Caroline Kennedy's eulogy for her uncle Teddy Kennedy; Elyn Saks's talk about her own schizophrenia;      Kayla Kearney's coming out speech to her high school assembly; Ruth Reichl's speech on not becoming her mother; Sophie Gustafson's speech about being a stutterer, and many more. Use them to get good role models and build up your courage.

Use three dimensions to make your voice sing. I get a much better sense of a speaker’s voice when she takes the time to think about her presentation in three dimensions, including how she dresses, moves through the audience, gestures, pauses, and listens actively to questioners without getting defensive. Remember, I’m watching as well as listening. Make those factors reinforce your voice.

Help give voice to others. One of the most effective speakers I’ve coached had a tough situation: Facing important members of his organization, each with competing goals, in the first week of his presidency—before he’d have time to address anything substantively. We decided his speech would ask all the tough questions he could anticipate that they would ask—not with answers, but to acknowledge that he understood their concerns. It got a standing O and reminded me all audiences hope speakers will say what they’re thinking and hoping. For whom can you be a public voice next time? Who will you represent when you speak? That consideration makes your voice much louder, and more important.
This originally appeared as a guest post, "Say it in your own voice, girlfriend!" on Kate Peters' blog "Kate's Voice." I've updated it to present it here.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Maria Shriver on "The Power of the Pause"

"What are you gonna do?" Journalist and former First Lady of California Maria Shriver used her commencement speech at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School, all communications graduates, to pose and re-pose the familiar question that newly minted degree holders get--and to clue them in that they'll be hearing that all their lives after graduation.

But Shriver urged the graduates not to feel pushed to rush toward things. Instead, she invoked "the power of the pause," and made it a call to action (or inaction, if you like) to the graduates: "Pausing allows you to take a beat -- to take a breath in your life. As everybody else is rushing around like a lunatic out there, I dare you to do the opposite."

The pause applies, she noted, to their work as well as to their lives: "You have the chance to change the way we talk to one another, what we read on the Web and newspapers and magazines, what we see on TV, what we hear on radio. You can help us change the channel." Noble goals aside, she addressed those who were graduating without a job to go to, saying, "And if you don’t have a job yet and someone asks you 'What-are-ya-gonna-do?' Just pause, and be aware of this fundamental truth: It’s okay not to know what you’re going to do! It’s okay not to have all the answers. You don’t have to be like I was at your age and beat yourself up for not knowing."

Here's what you can learn from this commencement speech:
  • Strike a chord with the graduates: Shriver does a great job reflecting the graduates' big worry by using her own experience and the question "What are you gonna do?" It's a simple gesture, and one that too many commencement speakers forget. In this case, it's also clever: Now that Shriver has posed the question, it will seem even more pushy when someone asks the grads that after her speech.
  • Make a metaphor without beating it to death: A communicator myself, I sensed that Shriver's invocation of the pause--contrasted with the fast pace and action-packed world of communication into which these grads are stepping--sounded a lot like the metaphor of a remote control and its pause button. But she stopped short of drawing that picture too distinctly, just noting "you can help us change the channel," and the speech benefits. So too can your speeches let the audience complete the thought, rather than draw a fine line.
  • Sharing insecurities works: Some speakers never want to admit a weakness, and lose the power of storytelling, which requires a lesson from some kind of negative. Shriver admits she wasn't sure of her own path when she graduated, and many in the audience were probably thinking she's in that same place now that her marriage is ending and her role as California's First Lady is over. That makes her theme of pausing even more effective--in effect, she is demonstrating it by having done it. The admission doesn't detract from her power, persuasiveness or appeal to this audience.
The full text of the speech is at the link above on Shriver's own blog--a good example for women everywhere that you should be sure the full text of your speech is published so we can find it online. The video is below. What do you think of this speech?

(Photo by Cindy Gold, USC Annenberg)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

5 secret advantages of the panel moderator

If you've been feeling kinda sorry for panel moderators, with such a small role to play, you're not alone--but you are mistaken. Panel moderators have some great, if secret, advantages up their sleeves. You might not know them if you're new to panel moderation, but I'll bet even seasoned moderators can learn a few things from this list. (And just wait till the panelists find out.) Here are five secret advantages of the panel moderator:
  1. You get to show your expertise to advantage: As a featured performer on the panel, moderators will miss out on this bonus if they simply stick to reading the panelists' names and asking "any questions?" at the end. Instead, smart panel moderators insert a comment here and there to sum up the sense of the panel, add a choice piece of data to illustrate what two panelists have just touched on, and asked blunt questions that get to the heart of the matter. Smarter moderators introduce a theme and ask unusual questions. Don't waste this opportunity!
  2. Your speaking role is a short one: Panel moderators may be able to have the most impact in the fewest number of words. That's an advantage in terms of preparation, and also for newbies, making panel moderation one of my favorite stepping stones to help speakers get ready for bigger opportunities.
  3. You can be the audience's best friend: Moderators, if wise and deft, can keep the talkative panelist from going overtime, and can help make sure the questions have plenty of time. Your role in calling on audience members and doing triage with the questions also helps recognize that person eager to get a question in, and helps the speakers handle the onslaught.
  4. Your role is prized by conference organizers: Good panel moderators are in short supply, and you can really make a name for yourself if you can be a moderator who keeps the trains running on time, gets the panel organized and in step, and allows plenty of audience interaction. And if you can handle the odd accident, unexpected crisis or equipment failure with aplomb, you can be a moderation star, sought-after for conferences.
  5. You can say things even the panelists can't: Big thorny issues, bald controversial statements and that big elephant in the room? If the panelists can't or won't address it, the moderator surely can--and follow up by asking the panelists to weigh in. You've got special status, so don't be afraid to use it.

Monday, June 18, 2012

7 more unusual books on public speaking

My recent post Not the usual suspects: 8 books that make me think differently about public speaking proved so popular that I've turned back to the bookpile for more finds that public speakers--particularly women--can put to use this summer. Try these unusual finds to round out your speaking and presenting expertise on these issues commonly faced by speakers:
  1. Storytelling smarts: Don't polish that story to make it all sweetness, light and inspiration. It's the foibles, mistakes and bad things that happen to us that form the crux of the best stories and help your audience find meaning in the tales you are telling. How else can you have redemption if nothing bad happens? So says The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning, which is discussed in this post from Brain Pickings.
  2. Workplace bottom line: We do most of our speaking at work, and research shows that women are rated more negatively than men--by men and women--when they speak up in meetings, and not because they lack skill. Both men and women will find Leadership and the Sexes: Using Gender Science to Create Success in Business a thorough and useful guide on how men and women work differently and how to use gender science to excel at work. Learn how you use a gender "lens" now, and expect to use it differently once you read this book. 
  3. How to refer to yourself and others is one of the speaker's most important struggles--and a solid clue to your inner workings. Find out what's behind the pronouns you choose in The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, by psychologist James Pennebaker, interviewed here by Scientific American.
  4. Great quotes start with great reference books, and a staple on my shelf is Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists, an index that's full of aphorisms--those circuitous sayings that turn on themselves, like "A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water."
  5. Looking for role models who are speaking women? You'll find two volumes' worth in From Suffrage to the Senate: America's Political Women: An Encyclopedia of Leaders, Causes & Issues. It's a treasure trove of examples and resources from which you can quote liberally (or conservatively, as you choose). 
  6. Speaking at work often includes negotiating for what you want, and Women Don't Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation--and Positive Strategies for Change will enlighten you about why women don't ask for salary raises and other negotiable items. Hint: It isn't that they think they're less worthy. It's that women have sized up the possibilities and decided, correctly, that they're less likely to succeed by asking. Full of useful tips for turning that around.
  7. Practicing speaking requires making it a habit. To do that, you might benefit from reading The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. With insights that go beyond your presentation prep, the book may also help you think through your speaking habits and how they developed.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Aung San Suu Kyi's "Freedom from Fear"

Many people think of fear as the emotion belonging to persecuted people, not their controllers. But Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi felt otherwise. In her now-famous “Freedom from Fear” speech in 1990, she pointed out that oppressors are motivated by fear: "It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it."

She knows persecution well. She is the only daughter of Aung San, the founder of modern Burma, who negotiated its independence from the British and was later assassinated. She echoed his well-known courage in this speech, using his memory to motivate her listeners: “Fearlessness may be a gift but perhaps more precious is the courage acquired through endeavour, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one's actions, courage that could be described as 'grace under pressure' - grace which is renewed repeatedly in the face of harsh, unremitting pressure.” The words are poignant because she might well have been speaking of her own persistence in the face of persecution.

It’s no mistake that her voice was so powerful that it had to be silenced. After the military called a general election in 1990 and then nullified the results, she was placed under house arrest for 15 of the following 21 years, making her one of the world’s political prisoners of longest standing. She was freed earlier this year. This week, Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to Norway to receive her Nobel Prize in personand deliver her acceptance speech, 11 years after it was awarded to her. This week's trip marks the first time she has left Burma in more than two decades.

Here's what you can learn from this famous speech:
  • Start strong: The words "It is not power that corrupts, but fear" come right at the start of this speech, rather than after a long build-up of arguments--and these are the most-quoted words in this speech. It's the one-two punch, the throwing down of a gauntlet, the bald statement that grips the listener from sentence word. And, from a woman who was prevented from using her time as she might have wanted to, it ensures that her speech doesn't waste a moment getting to the point.
  • Share innermost feelings: Emotion and inner feelings form a strong thread that connects this speaker to her audiences around the world. She speaks of grace under pressure, fear and fearlessness, humiliation and peace, giving voice to the unseen forces that shape the oppressors and the oppressed, rather than relying on descriptions of the physical actions and surroundings of that oppression. This helps underscore her point that revolutions must include "revolutions of the spirit," as well as the physical overthrow of individuals and offices.
  • Give everyone something they can do: In an oppressive regime, and in her situation, not every listener can take up arms or storm the capital. Instead, Aung San Suu Kyi directs them to something they can do: Rid their minds of fear, and embrace courage and grace under pressure. It's consistent with her peaceful approach to protest, and also a practical call to action for her listeners.
The image above, via the Nobel Women's Initiative, is just the right size for a Facebook cover photo, if you want to honor Suu Kyi today. Below is a BBC interview in which she describes her detention, and what her life has been like since she was freed from house arrest:

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

From the vault: 13 simple things you can do to help women with public speaking

This blog's full of examples of the difficulties women face in public speaking, starting with just getting a spot on the program. But instead of blaming women or saying this can't be done, what are some practical and simple things that any of us can do to help a woman with public speaking?  Unlike some observers, I'm not suggesting that only women should do these things.  These are tasks any woman or man can do.  I welcome your additions to this list in the comments:
  1. Talk about this issue--with your friends and colleagues, with your boss, with your professional organizations. Ask what they can do to help. Share this list as a starting point.  When you see people helping to keep women silent, point it out. 
  2. When you organize or moderate a panel, take the time to look for, invite and encourage women speakers to join it. Got an all male panel? Include women.  (This is a problem even in female-dominated professions, by the way.) Get your organization to make this a rule of thumb.
  3. Share speaking resources with women you know.  I always hope you'll recommend The Eloquent Woman or The Eloquent Woman on Facebook, but please also share the many books, blogs, seminars and other resources you find useful with women interested in speaking.
  4. If you're a manager, offer support for speaker training, particularly for younger women on your team. Use a low-cost alternative like Toastmasters, private coaching, or team training for the women on your team. Insist that women working on your team get speaker training. Encourage them to keep trying.
  5. Managers also can make public speaking and presentations skills a professional development goal for female team members, both to indicate their importance and to cause training to happen.
  6. Not a manager? Then ask for presentation and speaker training at work, and ask to make it part of your professional development plan. Suggest group training for you and your colleagues. Feel free to use my memo to the boss for this purpose.
  7. In a meeting, ask a woman what she thinks about the matter at hand. Listen to what she says.  If a woman's having trouble getting a word in edgewise, help her out: "I'd like to hear what Emily has to say on this score" is all it takes.
  8. If a female friend or colleague is speaking, go hear your speaking friend. Congratulate her. Encourage her to do it again. Ask intelligent questions during her presentation. Tell others to go see her.
  9. If you're a woman who speaks on a subject with authority, make yourself known to program organizers, and publicly.  Women are sometimes penalized for putting themselves forward in this way. Do it, anyway. It's okay to "toot your own horn."
  10. Offer to help a friend practice public speaking.  Watch a video playback with her, watch her rehearse, or sit in the audience and offer observations afterward.
  11. Mentor another woman with less speaking experience.  Let her watch you speak, and talk to her afterwards so she has the chance to ask questions. Help her get speaking gigs and opportunities to practice. Show her how to network in ways that will help her be noticed as a speaker, and talk to her about how to promote her speaking.
  12. Speak up and shut down the myths, mocking, negative talk and sexual slurs that attempt to silence women. A simple "that's unacceptable" should do it; if it doesn't, make a complaint. Don't let women around you be intimidated into silence.
  13. Before you register for a conference, figure out the proportion of female speakers.  Send a message to the organizers if it's out of whack. Let them know the problem has been noticed--and ask what they're going to do about it.
Please add to this list--and share it with your colleagues. I look forward to your thoughts and ideas.

Monday, June 11, 2012

"How do I correct the unconscious moves I make when I speak?": 4 tactics

The lights are on, the mic is working and you've started to speak. And then you start to sway...or keep touching your face...or look from side to side, again and again. Maybe you know you're doing it, maybe not--or maybe you thought you'd corrected the problem, but it crept back into your routine.

So what can you do if you're a speaker with a body with a mind of its own? Here are four tactics:
  1. Know what you're doing: The biggest issue with unconscious moves is that lack of awareness. This is one time you'll want a video camera and a trusted pal or a coach to capture what you're doing. Get footage of yourself speaking or presenting, ideally a few times, so you can observe how and when you move. For some people, just seeing the unconscious move is enough to end it. But if not...
  2. Review video soon: The sooner you review a video of your unconscious moves after a talk, the more you'll be able to recall about what you were thinking. If the movement is what I call a "visual um," you might find that you lost your train of thought--and the movement was a silent way of marking your place, just as "um" does verbally.
  3. Know why you're doing it: When you review the video, think about those unintentional moves. Are you repeating a move because you're nervous? Were you distracted? Just don't know what else to do with your hands? All of those can be dealt with, but you need to identify the reasons first.
  4. Find a substitute: If your unconscious move signals forgetting, substitute more practice so you feel more prepared. Use a plan for your message so it sticks with you first, and then with your audience. If you're aimlessly repeating a move, work out a couple of substitutes, then practice using them. If you keep looking away from the audience, prompt yourself to look at a different part of the audience instead of turning away, for example. 
What are the unconscious moves you've made while speaking or presenting? Share them in the comments.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Carol Bartz's commencement speech "Embrace failure"

Close to the start of this commencement speech to the 2012 graduates of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Carol Bartz laid it out plain, as is her habit: "I do feel like my remarks today should come with a warning label...Attention! Attention! The advice you are about to receive comes from a 63-year-old unemployed former CEO whose language is frequently described as salty." It's no mistake that Business Week asked Bartz for advice on "how to speak your mind"--she's an expert.

The ex-CEO of Yahoo!, Bartz was scrutinized from her first speech in that role, and has publicly discussed getting talked over in meetings by men who later claimed credit for her stated ideas. She isn't known for holding back with her opinions or her shyness--her advice for women when men take credit for their already stated ideas is to say, "I just said that!" But on this commencement day at her alma mater, the forthright speaking was mixed with fondness.

One reason may be that Bartz missed her own graduation ceremony because she'd already started her first job, and another is motherhood. She gives mothers many shout-outs in the speech, poking gentle fun at how they like to sign their texts "Mom," which their kids don't understand, since they can already identify who's texting. Her use of humor is an artful tool here, helping to bridge the multiple audiences and generations that are always present at a graduation: She makes references to what the students are really doing on Thursday nights instead of studying and acknowledges the older generation's adjustments when college grads move back home.

But the best of the speech comes when Bartz addresses failure, a brave topic choice for a woman who has failed so publicly. She turns failure on its head here, suggesting that the graduates "embrace failure" and view it as an essential part of their careers:
Everybody has failures of many kinds but how do you take advantage of failure? I think the greatest strength that we have in the us and especially in Silicon Valley is that we actually view failure as a sign of experience. We view failure as a way of life and those people are willing to take on risks to the road to innovation. I have a saying that I have used at my companies. Fail. Fast. Forward. Take risks. Fail. You're not going to get hurt by that. Try and figure it out as quickly as possible that it is not the right thing. That's the fast part. And move forward. Fail. Fast. Forward.
The speech drew plenty of attention in the hall where it was given, and beyond, as business observers took note. What can you learn from this speech?
  • Refresh that tired commencement content: Instead of waxing eloquent on success, Bartz focuses on failure, and she tosses out the career ladder idea, urging grads to build "career pyramids" instead. Rethinking and reworking tired cliches can only help the audience, commencement speakers.
  • Use humor to unite, not divide: Notice how Bartz uses humor when referring to herself as a mother or as a student--both an effort to build a bridge to the different age groups in her audience the very best way, by sharing what she has in common with them.
  • Be honest: Another refreshing quality of this speech is Bartz's willingness to address failure head-on, instead of using the platform to reshape her image. It's a breath of fresh air that's also likely more useful to the grads than any number of platitudes.
You can see a partial transcript of this speech here, and watch the video below. What do you think of this famous speech?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

6 secret advantages of the newbie public speaker

Are you "just a beginner" at public speaking? Good for you! No, really, I mean that: Beginning public speakers and presenters have advantages over the rest of us who've been doing it for a long time. I love to coach beginning speakers, because they all come to the task with these talents.

The trouble is that these strengths are secrets that newbies don't know, so I'm taking the lid off and exposing them. (Seasoned speakers can take a few clues from this list, too.) Here are the six secret strengths of the beginning public speaker:
  1. No bad habits to unlearn: Any speaker coach will tell you that it takes longer to unlearn bad speaking habits than it does to learn new ones on a clean slate. You'll advance further and faster in your learning as a presenter if you're starting from scratch. The takeaway here: Get training as fast as you can, as early as you can, in your career, before you build up a flotilla of flawed speaking tactics.
  2. A healthy respect for the audience: Over time, some speakers take the crowd out there for granted. Not so the new speaker, who's more likely to anticipate with care what the audience will find of interest, how long to speak, and how to be generous with question time. I think this stems in part from a more recent recollection of what it's like to be in the audience, combined with fewer assumptions about speaking in general.
  3. The appropriate level of nervousness: New speakers make no bones about it: They're nervous. Anything might happen. What will the audience think? What if they forget something? All those worries are a great to-do list for preparation--a list that many more experienced speakers skip over. Here, nerves are your friends.
  4. A willingness to prepare: Speaker trainers also will admit that the one chore that most speakers skimp on is preparation, yet it's the one chore that will help a speaker most, both in confidence and in looking at ease and (ironically) unrehearsed and natural. Newbies are far more willing to prepare, and thus more likely to score when they speak.
  5. The honesty to admit what you don't know: Unlike the more experienced speaker who may be invested in an image as such, most beginners don't bother pretending that they've done a keynote or even a panel discussion. That removes a big barrier to training and learning. If you're too busy pretending to know how to speak well, you'll never get the insights that come from taking a lesson.
  6. A seemly reticence: Some seasoned speakers don't seem to know how to wind up their remarks. While newbies may err on  the other side of the spectrum and speak too briefly, they can't be accused of being windbags, for the most part.
As a speaker trainer and coach based in Washington, DC, and working all over the U.S., I've seen and worked with plenty of new and beginning speakers. Do you have a question about getting started in public speaking? Leave it in the comments and I'll answer it here on the blog.

This post was featured on

Monday, June 4, 2012

The growing Twitter buzz about conferences with few (or no) women speakers

Here's a fun fact to know: About 150 days into 2012, you can say that, on average, more than a tweet a day can be found complaining about the lack of women on conference programs. On some days, that means dozens of tweets; on others, just a few. But the drumbeat is persistent, and growing.

I've long been a proponent of using Twitter to find out what audiences are thinking about public speakers, because that backchannel always reflects the best and worst of what people see on the podium when they attend conferences. But lately, I've been tracking the conference gender imbalance and seeing a growing discussion emerge.

I started the collection earlier this year when a PR firm claimed that speaking opportunities abounded for women executives, in a post called Does she or doesn't she have trouble getting asked to speak at conferences? At that time, I pulled some examples of the tweets I was seeing into this SlideShare presentation:
That SlideShare has just a dozen examples in it, but lately, the discussion's heating up even more. I keep standing searches for "women speakers" and "women's speeches" going on Twitter. When I see a tweet that mentions gender imbalance on the program (and sometimes, among the attendees) of a conference, I store it in an Evernote notebook. Recently, I noticed that the notebook is getting close to 200 tweets on the topic, all of them since January 2012 and gaining in frequency each month. And that doesn't count all the retweets, just original tweets on the topic that I've seen. In May, for example, How I got 50% women speakers at my tech conference from the Geek Feminism blog got lots of retweets, expanding and continuing the conversation.And as the author later noted, many of the comments assumed she did that by reserving spaces just for women, which is not the case.

You can see the collection of tweets I've captured about conferences with few or no women speakers in this free Evernote notebook, which will be continually updated as a resource for us all. You'll find some, but not all, of those tweets with the hashtag #changetheratio, which refers to gender imbalance of all kinds, not just public speaking. Most of them are reports from audience members about how they feel about or that they've noticed a dearth of women on the program. Others echo the common responses that show up whenever this discussion arises:
  1. Arguments that the organizers tried to find women, but couldn't, or that there aren't "enough women speakers to go around"
  2. Suggestions that women aren't willing to speak
  3. Lists of tips for finding women speakers
  4. Messages urging women to be bold and nominate themselves, a suggestion that it's women's reluctance that is the "problem"
  5. Suggested lists of women speakers
And this, also a common response when the issue of getting women on the program comes up--a real insult:

The tweets run the gamut, bemoaning the situation, blaming women for the problem or suggesting fixes they can make to themselves, and even expressing sympathy for conference organizers who seek women speakers. Some organizers have hollered back down the channel to say "we asked women to speak and they all turned us down," in an attempt to end the negative feedback. A couple of forward-thinking conferences also are represented with tweets that broadcast the fact that they have 50 percent or more women speakers. For purposes of tracking this discussion, I've omitted tweets about or by women's conferences. Beyond that, these conferences are taking place across the professions; while there are plenty of professions for which this is a longstanding issue, there is no one sector that seems to be immune, so far.

I'm interested in this ongoing discussion, which seems to be gaining steam--it has long been a focus of coverage on this blog, and you can see all my posts on the difficulties of getting women speakers on the program here. What have you noticed in this discussion on Twitter? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Manal al-Sharif on The Drive to Freedom

She's even more famous for a video of herself driving than she is for her speaking. Manal al-Sharif, a women's rights activist from Saudi Arabia, made waves in May 2011 when she recorded herself driving through the Saudi city of Khobar and posted the video on YouTube and Facebook. Viewed more than a million times in Saudi Arabia and around the world, the video also prompted her detention for nine days; she was released only after pressure from human rights groups, and only on condition that she post bail, come back for questioning on request, and refrain from driving or speaking to the media.

Fortunately, that ban didn't extend to public speaking, and al-Sharif was able to follow her imprisonment with this speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum. For all that we westerners complain about women not getting on the program at conferences, we don't begin to face the limits placed on women in al-Sharif's country, where, as she says in the speech, "We were voiceless, we were faceless and we were nameless."  This speech is moving purely for its simple and straightforward description of the day-to-day limits placed on women in Islamic society--limits that al-Sharif accepted for a long time.

Women started to defy the ban on women driving in 1990. Those women were banished from the country, and driving was further outlawed for women, but the spark of their "drive to freedom" stuck with al-Sharif.  Of her own driving attempt, she says, "I used my face, my voice and my real name. I was there to speak up for myself. I used to be ashamed of who I am, a woman. But not anymore." Her driving attempt led to even more women defying the ban--without arrest.

Here's what you can learn from this famous speech:
  • Step away from that lectern: She's not speaking in her native language and is relaying many dates, historical facts and complex issues, so al-Sharif uses a lectern and notes--but steps away from the lectern repeatedly to speak from the heart about her own experiences. You don't need notes and the safety of a lectern to tell a story from your past, so step out where we can see you. It helps her connect with the audience even more.
  • Share the unimaginable for us, and for you: While her western audiences may be trying to picture a world in which women can't drive, for al-Sharif, the unimaginable was the further shame heaped on her as rumors were spread about her after the incident, in an attempt to discourage her and others who might follow her--a common backlash when women speak out. She said: "That was the hardest thing: Not facing what I did, but facing the things I did not do."
  • Carry the analogy through: From the title "The Drive to Freedom" to her closing lines--"for me, the struggle is not about driving a car. It is about being in the driver's seat of our destiny"--al-Sharif uses the driving analogy wisely, not too well. It's used for greatest effect at beginning and end, but not to distract from the already powerful content that fills this speech. Resisting the urge to bang your analogy into the ground will ensure a more powerful punch in your own speeches.
Here's the video of al-Sharif's speech, and there's an interactive transcript included in the video post on YouTube:

 And here's the video of al-Sharif driving in defiance of the ban:

What do you think of this famous speech?