Friday, May 30, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman"

Sometimes, I give clients poetry for practice. Poems, made to be read aloud, are really short speeches, oral storytelling at its most ancient. In the modern day, they're a compelling way to practice your vocalizing skills. But more than that, poetry gives voice to emotion and thought in compact packages, seeing and saying the significant but often small things we don't often see and say. More proper speeches should do the same.

Maya Angelou, who died this week at age 86, wrote poems that beg--no, demand--to be read aloud. On Twitter this week, young and old women alike were sharing memories in particular of this poem, Phenomenal Woman, as one they recalled when remembering her. Many of them wrote about memorizing it and reciting it for an important assignment or public moment:
A professor at Wake Forest University, she lectured and spoke in public widely, giving an estimated 80 lectures per year, even into her 80s. That's amazing considering how her voice once was stilled. As a child of 8, she was sexually abused and raped by her mother's boyfriend. He was later jailed for one day, then murdered four days later, likely by her uncles. Because she had identified him, Angelou was mute for five years after the murder. In a BBC interview, she said, ""I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone."  A teacher later helped her to speak again, but the silence is thought to have cultivated her memory, love of reading and observation skills.

Her most visible reading was the poem she delivered at President Clinton's inauguration, but it's those hundreds of speaking engagements--and people memorizing and delivering her poems themselves--that really shared her voice and vision with audiences around the world. The poem is worth a read in full, but here is a sample. It's the epitome of hard-fought confidence, but touches as well on themes of beauty and body image and public presence:
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Angelou recited this poem thousands of times in her public speaking and it sounds fresh every time, something I wish I could say about speakers who recycle their speeches. What can you learn from this famous poem-of-a-speech?
  • Poetry adds color and connection to speeches:  Angelou's poems, and this one in particular, are loaded with vocal verve. There's attitude, understanding and much more behind these verses.
  • That starts with word choices: In Phenomenal Woman, the active verbs and crisp nouns help you picture the movements described--it's almost impossible not to move your body to suit the action. Note, too, how short the words are, with so many one-syllable wonders leading up to the featured word, phenomenally. The contrast makes it stand out like a jewel in the right setting. Yet those one-syllable words are not filler. Each counts.
  • Rhythm matters: Speakers who drone through talks and presentations would do well to practice poetry, with its cadence and pauses for effect. Listen, please, to Angelou's reading of this poem and try it yourself. It makes all the difference in the impact this poem had on audiences.
If you want to see and hear a proper speech (with some improper references) there's none better to my eye and ear than our previous Famous Speech Friday post about Angelou's eulogy for Coretta Scott King, among the best-read posts on this blog, seen by thousands. It's a masterpiece of public speaking, and no one else could have delivered it. She shares the one true thing every eulogy needs, something that only the speaker and the deceased knew. I hope someone will sing and speak her out in as fine a fashion, now that her turn has come.

Women speakers should listen to Phenomenal Woman within the half-hour before they walk onto any stage, large or small. It will make you smile and feel more confident. Watch and listen to the video of her recitation of this great poem below, which depicts Angelou in every stage of her life, and read the full text here. Phe-nomenal.

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(Creative Commons licensed photo from Burns Library at Boston College)

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Presenting in your 2nd language: My article for @Toastmasters

My latest article for Toastmaster, the official magazine of Toastmasters International, is now freely available to all. Presenting in your second language appears in the April 2014 issue. I'm excited that it's available to a wider audience, as I know this is a challenge for many readers of The Eloquent Woman.

For this article, I made use of the expert speechwriters and speaker coaches in the European Speechwriter Network and UK Speechwriters Guild, turning to colleagues in the UK, Belgium and Canada for insights into how they handle speaking or writing speeches when the delivery has to be in the speaker's second or third language. I also interviewed Toastmasters in Spain and in South Korea with interesting perspectives on speaking in a second language.

In the article, they offer advice on:

  • word choice, 
  • use of metaphors, 
  • the overall length of your speech in another language, 
  • playing to the strengths of the language in which you are speaking, 
  • paying attention to the sounds you're making, and 
  • ensuring your delivery helps you put your points across. 
There's also a sidebar on the benefits of bilingualism, a little incentive for speakers who are learning another language.

Not mentioned in the article is a new resource for those of you who wish to practice your speaking skills in English. SpellUp is a new experiment and game from Google: You use your voice to spell and play word games with it, as a practice tool. It works best with the Chrome browser and Android devices; iPhone and iPad users also can play, but will type instead of talking. Here's a short video about it. Enjoy these resources!

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Eloquent Woman's weekly speaker toolkit

Fans of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook see links to good reads, resources and ideas from other sources there, in addition to posts from the blog. But you won't miss a thing, since I'm summarizing that extra content and putting it here on the blog for all readers to see. Here's what I shared in the week just past:

Friday, May 23, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Jill Abramson's "to anyone who's been dumped"

As it turns out, getting fired right before giving a commencement address is not a bad thing for a speaker.

It worked for Carol Bartz, fired as CEO of Yahoo, in her 2012 commencement speech at the University of Wisconsin, another Famous Speech Friday entry. In the case of Jill Abramson, who was fired suddenly from her post as the top editor at the New York Times just days before, it made her speech at Wake Forest University a news event this week. The university live-streamed it, Twitter lit up with people watching from afar, and the media (including the outlet that fired her) covered it like a blanket, giving her a great opener: "I think the only real news here today is your graduation from this great university."

Her advantages in giving this speech went far beyond the news cycle. Audiences love immediacy and the unexpected, two things in short supply at most commencements. Because Abramson passed on the option to describe her firing publicly as a resignation, a hailstorm of criticism rained down upon the Times, which reacted by describing her as a divisive force in the newsroom, citing that--rather than pay disputes or gender discrimination--as the reason for her dismissal. So this speech, her first public statement since her firing, would be dissected in the moment for signs of turmoil, blaming or cheap shots taken against her former employer. One reporter at the Times said of the paper's handling of her departure, "The lack of decorum was stunning," even as he predicted this speech would be her chance to return the favor.

Abramson instead reached for a theme that suited both her situation and that of the graduates: Resilience. Describing how her sister called her the day after she was fired to say that their father would have been just as proud of her that day as when she took the top job at the Times, Abramson explained:
It meant more to our father to see us deal with a setback, and try to bounce back, than to watch how we handled our successes. 'Show what you are made of,' he would say....and now I'm talking to anyone who's been dumped--you bet--not gotten the job you really wanted, or received those horrible rejection letters from grad school. You know the sting of losing, or not getting something you badly want. When that happens, show what you are made of.
Abramson took the high road in speaking about the Times, calling her editorship "the honor of my life." But she gave a nod to efforts to characterize her as pushy and bossy in the wake of her firing. She noted that she wrote a book, Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, about Anita Hill--another Famous Speech Friday notable--reminding the audience that the all-white, all-male panel of U.S. Senators called Hill "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty" after hearing her testimony about harrassment by a U.S. Supreme Court nominee. There was no need to point out to the grads that history repeats itself. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Use your speech to define yourself: In the days leading up to this appearance, Abramson was described in all sorts of negative ways by her former management--none of which was on display in this pleasant, gracious, funny speech, which put the focus back on the graduates again and again. It's always good policy when you've become a sideshow to point people to the main event, and Abramson described herself to the graduates as a parent, as a leader and as a fellow traveler in uncertainty. Her delivery demonstrated grace under pressure.
  • Use humor with vulnerability, but don't deprecate yourself: Lots of women speakers wonder about how to use humor well, and this is a good speech to study. Having already been kicked out of a high-profile post, Abramson avoided using humor to deprecate herself further. Instead, she got laughs by being vulnerable and creating a bond with the audience: "What's next for me? I don't know. So I'm in exactly the same boat as many of you...and like you, I'm a little scared but also excited."
  • Adjust your analogies: Abramson concluded with a riff from a 1956 commencement speech by poet Robert Frost, about life after graduation as "pieces of knitting to go on with." She explained it and updated the analogy along the way, letting it speak to the different generations in the audience: "What he meant is that life is always unfinished business, like the bits of knitting women used to carry around with them to be picked up at different intervals. And for those of you who have never knit, think of it as akin to your Tumblr, something you can pick up from time to time and change....get on with your knitting!"
You can see the full speech in the video below. What do you think of this famous speech?

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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

4 finds to streamline your public speaking and presenting

Presentations (most of the time) involve technology and tech headaches to match. But what if I told you that new tech tools are making it possible for you to juggle fewer devices and types of software for your next presentation? That's the case with this quartet of apps and devices, which combine multimedia features with easy-to-use efficiency. I'll be revising my prep, delivery and followup for presentations now that these tools are available:
  1. Unwhiteboard: You're probably already taking pictures with your smartphone to capture whiteboard musings from meetings. Now Unwhiteboard cleans up those photos for you when you send them to a specific email address. No software or editing on your part! You get a cleaned-up PDF in return.
  2. VideoStream for Google Chromecast: The Google Chromecast HDMI Streaming Media Player itself is handy: For less than $30, you can plug it into any TV with an HDMI port and stream video programming. Now, even better for presenters, Chrome app VideoStream allows you to do the same but with your own videos and audio in nearly every file format. Or connect to the Chromecast and browse your computer for online videos to present. No projectors needed.
  3. Sending a big slide deck via email and PDF is no guarantee that your recipient will do more than hit "delete." Add value with, which lets you upload a slide deck or document (in many formats), then add audio or video to create narration. Tell the viewer why it's important for them, or just add a voiceover. A bonus: Your slides then can be easily embedded or shared by others.
  4. Evernote's Presentation Mode: Once available only for Mac users, Evernote has now expanded this feature across many platforms for its Premium users. This means you can project any Evernote note on a screen (and use your Evernote smartphone app as the remote). You maneuver with the space bar and get a built-in "laser pointer" that works via your mouse. Lots to explore with this new feature, which might mean toting fewer presentation tools and using fewer types of software. Evernote supports all kinds of formats from text to video, and is free. Even better, when you sign up using my link, you'll get a free month of Evernote Premium to try out. See the new feature in action in the video below:

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Monday, May 19, 2014

The Eloquent Woman's weekly speaker toolkit

Fans of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook see links to good reads, resources and ideas from other sources there, in addition to posts from the blog. But you won't miss a thing, since I'm summarizing that extra content and putting it here on the blog for all readers to see. Here's what I shared in the week just past:

Friday, May 16, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Anne Summers on Julia Gillard's misogyny factor

On this blog, I often bemoan the lack of documentation of women's speeches. Not so in the case of this one. Dr. Anne Summers has published a wide range of materials about this lecture. It talks about the misogynistic attacks leveled at Julia Gillard, who was, until recently, prime minister of Australia.

Titled Her Rights at Work: The Political Persecution of Australia's First Female Prime Minister, the speech was the 2012 Human Rights and Social Justice Lecture to the University of Newcastle. In publishing the speech--and the video, photo and graphic examples she showed--Summers created an "unexpurgated R-rated version" and a "Vanilla version from which the images and video links have been removed," along with an Appendix of additional material, which she compiled "because I felt it was important that we ordinary citizens and voters be aware of the obscene and offensive material that is circulating about our prime minister and our governor general."

The speech itself is intended as a wake-up call, describing how Gillard went from high levels of popularity to low ratings (which later helped push her out of office), and suggesting that the misogynistic attacks on her were fueled by her political enemies. Summers looks at actual YouTube videos, cartoons, Facebook attack pages and more to show as well as tell the story, and considers legal protections against gender discrimination that seem not to be applied to Gillard as prime minister. From subtle gendered attacks such as never referring to her by her title or even her name, to more clearly biased attacks like calling her a "lying bitch" or a "cunt," Summers walks us through this walk of shame and shines a light on the practice in society and in the Parliament.

Her call to action at the end of the lecture suggests a simple solution to the audience, whom she urges to say, "It stops with me:"
So next time you get one of those emails, don’t delete it – send it back to whoever sent it to you and tell them: It stops with me.  When someone in your company refers to the prime minister disrespectfully, don’t ignore it – tell them off: it stops with me. And if you stumble across a website or a Facebook page that contains offensive commentary or images, don’t avert your eyes – make a comment calmly saying how sad this makes you feel: it stops with me.
This is something that is beyond party, beyond political affiliation, beyond voting intention and beyond whether or not you like Julia Gillard. We should all be worried about this vilification of our first female prime minister.
It's interesting to note that this lecture preceded Gillard's own now-famous speech in the Australian Parliament, in which she described the opposition leader's misogyny, one of the most popular speeches in our Famous Speech Friday series.What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • It's important to stop undermining comments in their tracks: The drip-drip-drip of comments that undermine women's authority and credibility take their toll. Summers offers a solution anyone can use in any setting to stop subtle and not-so-subtle sexism, by calling the offender on it and exposing the behavior publicly. It's the only way to counteract the intent, which is to shame the woman being attacked in this way.
  • Confront tough topics directly: The power in this speech lies in its unflinching willingness to show, again and again, offensive material to make its point. Summers uses the full range of media available so that the audience can see and hear the offenses directly, without the need for her to embellish further how awful they are. In this case, the examples speak for themselves, allowing Summers to describe the things that are harder to see--the laws, tactics and other factors that aren't being discussed.
  • Back up another woman: Any woman who's been under attack in this way knows what a lonely place it is. Meeting public backlash with an equally public show of support that addresses the attacks head-on is a real gift. Can you give that kind of support to another woman, whether it's in a speech or just in a meeting?
  • Have a strong and simple call to action: Topics like misogyny and distant public officials make it difficult to draw a connection with the audience. After all, these aren't people like you and you can't do much about the larger condition of misogyny. By reminding her listeners that these issues do touch their everyday lives in emails and on Facebook and in conversation, and by giving them a simple action to take, she lets the audience members know they, too, can have an impact.
Recommended by reader Cate Huston, this speech has plenty of documentation, and a video, which appears below. Summers's book, The Misogyny Factor, carries the speech forward with ideas on what successful gender equality looks like. What do you think of this famous speech? 

(The speech and quotes from it are used with permission from the author. Photo from TEDxSouthBankWomen's photostream on Flickr.)

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

How to give a killer presentation: My #AF4Q session notes

Slam the door. Take those ornaments off the Christmas tree. Stop the throat-clearing. Omit the NASCAR slides. Those were my shorthand, colorful ways of describing what you should put in--and leave out--of a "killer presentation," for the national meeting of Aligning Forces for Quality (#AF4Q), a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in San Diego last week. AF4Q is focused on improving health and health care in communities, and the coalitions at this meeting included doctors and nurses, social scientists, consumers and more.

My focus was prompted by the trend toward short, five-minute talks (think Ignite! or Shark Tank) and TED talks, based on my experience coaching TEDMED and TEDx speakers. Nearly every speaker I've encountered in coaching struggles with what to leave out and what to put in, with those short time limits in mind. This was a lively, interested group, and while much of the time was given over to answering their questions and group exercises in messaging, here are the six things I told the group to omit or include:
  1. Omit the throat-clearing and put in a strong start: Lots of speakers fritter away the strong audience attention span that's highest when you start talking. They do that with what's known as "throat-clearing:" Cartoons unrelated to the topic, jokes, trite observations about the beauty of the day/campus/conference setting, thank-yous, more on their bio, and how pleased they are to be there. My guess is that speakers do that to buy themselves time to get comfortable, make sure they have a laughing audience, and to get over initial nerves, but it's a waste of precious attention. Go here to find out more on why speakers need a strong, fast start, along with more ideas on what to use instead of the throat-clearing.
  2. Start with questions: There are two ways to start with questions, and both of them are the keys to audience engagement, something I want you to put into every presentation. You can "start with questions" by planning your Q&A time before you plan your presentation, so you know what to leave out of the formal part. Read more about that in Got lots to say? Save it for the Q&A. You also can simply begin your presentation by asking the audience what it wants to know, on the spot. It's one of 5 ways speakers can find out about the audience, with a special advantage: It ensures high attention and engagement from the get-go.
  3. Lose the armor: Truly killer presentations get the speaker off the platform and out from behind the lectern. But in addition to losing barriers, think about whether you really need those slides, pointers, remotes and other "armor," since many speakers like to hide behind those, too. The price is less interaction and connection with the audience. I know this is tough for speakers to do, so as with any new tactic, start small. Stand next to the lectern at first, or move behind and away from it. Stand down in front of the audience, then work your way up to moving through the crowd. And yes, as one participant wanted to know, you can do this in a boardroom setting or meeting room--just be sure you're not doing the back-and-forth movement in a straight line. Don't feel as if you need to move the entire time, either: Stopping your movement can be an effective way to emphasize what you are saying at that moment.
  4. Cut down the Christmas tree and stop the NASCAR race: Loading your speech up like it's a Christmas tree groaning with ornaments is not the path to a killer presentation, even if you're the President of the United States. Watch out for that long list of things your colleagues think you have to mention, or the shiny objects like animation, video and other things you may think you need to make the presentation sparkle. Too many of them get annoying. I use the Coco Chanel method to gauge what's "too much" in a presentation I'm preparing. The same problem can befall a single slide, particularly those that get loaded up with logos of your partners, funders or other people you want to thank. They're called "NASCAR slides" in my line of work, and there are more appropriate, authentic ways to thank people in context throughout your presentation. Find out more in From NASCAR slides to "Any questions?" 8 slides to delete right now.
  5. Slam the door shut: Equally important to a strong start is a strong close. Instead of "any questions?" think of what you want that audience to do--or remember--when they walk out the door. It's the place you put your call to action, the question that will leave them thinking, or the enticement for your next speech.
  6. Structure your message: I advocate the time-honored use of the rule of three, structuring anything from an elevator speech to a long speech in three parts. It comes out of the oral storytelling tradition and you're familiar with it in many context, most often fairy tales. And it works, otherwise we wouldn't still be using it. One version of the rule of three is the easy structure of What? So what? Now what? Using the rule of three will help you fly without slides, as it's the easiest way for you (and your audience) to remember what you want to get across. We practiced using alliteration and analogies to make the three points even more memorable, using them to create versions of one participant's message. For persuading an audience, use the equally well-established Monroe's motivated sequence, which sandwiches three key points about need and solutions in between a dramatic start and a call to action. And if you're a technical expert, physician or researcher of any kind, just flip the usual order of your reports to get something easier to follow for non-expert audiences, as in the diagram below:

Participants in this session asked some great questions, so here are more resources to answer them:
  • What should I do if I talk too fast? Read Hit the brakes: When you're a speedy speaker, and remember that your spoken presentations must be slower than your lively conversation if you want us to follow you.
  • You said not to use your kid's pictures, but my talk is personal. Many participants at this meeting are health care consumers, and I enjoyed spending a day with them in a storytelling workshop. In that context, relevant pictures of your family members are absolutely appropriate and can add layers of meaning to your talk. I've also talked some TEDMED speakers into using photos of their younger selves when those photos put the audience back in time, where the story was set. But you also can succeed by creating what I call "the invisible visual," that word-picture which you speak, but which can be seen in the mind's eye so vividly that it will stay with your audience longer than any slide. Here are some fantastic examples of using the invisible visual to good effect. Just remember, when it comes to using pictures, "relevant" is the key word.
  • What if I use all pictures? I have a post forthcoming on this very topic, but in short: Too many pictures, pictures used as visual cue cards for the speaker, or gratuitous pictures will not save your presentation. Make sure they have a role. You don't need one slide per point, even if it's a picture.
  • What about that recommendation to tell them what you're gonna tell them/tell them/tell them what you told them? While this is itself a nice three-point structure, which is why you can recall it easily, it was designed for military instructions in the field, where the repetition is needed for quick recall in a setting where nobody's taking notes. Repetition can be useful, but not this much when you're doing a presentation.
  • What do you think of Prezi versus PowerPoint? I use both of these slide-creation programs, but if you are thinking one or the other will solve all your problems, keep in mind that a bad structure will undermine any slide-creation program's effectiveness. You can load up a Christmas tree on Prezi just as easily as you can on PowerPoint. Trust me, I've seen them!
  • What do you do if you have a crippling fear of presenting? The good news: Anyone who can raise her hand and ask that question in a group of dozens of people does not, apparently, have the kind of social phobia that would keep her off the stage for sure. But she might be an introvert who needs more time to prepare, as well as quiet time before and after speaking; if that's the case for you, consult my 6 resources for public-speaking introverts. Nerves get calmer with practice, and you can start small with my 4 stepping stones to public speaking. Still lacking confidence? Social psychologist Amy Cuddy recommends two minutes of "power posing" (so I recommend 10 minutes, in hopes you will actually do two minutes). You can see the group power posing in Alicia Aebersold's photo above.  It's a great way to use your body to trick your mind, and all you need is a quiet hallway or handy stairwell. For inspiration, watch Susan Cain's TED talk on the power of introverts--one she prepared for over the course of a year. 
My thanks to Aebersold and the national program staff of AF4Q, who made this meeting run like a top--and made it easy for me to succeed as a speaker. They excel at live-tweeting, and you can find more about all the speakers and sessions in the meeting Twitterstream.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Eloquent Woman's weekly speaker toolkit

Fans of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook see links to good reads, resources and ideas from other sources there, in addition to posts from the blog. But you won't miss a thing, since I'm summarizing that extra content and putting it here on the blog for all readers to see. Here's what I shared in the week just past:

Friday, May 9, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Queen Noor's 1996 Kennedy Center speech

For more than 30 years, Her Majesty Queen Noor al Hussein has been a thoughtful and passionate supporter of education, the arts and women's rights in Jordan, a position that has required some careful diplomacy as the first American-born queen of an Arab country. Even after her husband King Hussein's death in 1999, her international portfolio has included work on behalf of anti-landmine and anti-nuclear weapons organizations and the United World Colleges.

Oh, and did we mention her hair?

"There seems to be an unwritten law that every press report about me must contain the phrase 'mane of blonde hair,'" she acknowledged in her 1996 Kennedy Center speech, part of the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives distinguished speakers series for that year. Threaded together with her personal experiences, it's a fascinating, free-ranging talk about the recent history of the Middle East and the mistrust that still characterizes many of the exchanges between the region and the West.

If you've ever had to handle expectations about your appearance in a talk, this one's for you. And there's loads more you can learn from this famous speech:

  • Consider using your venue as part of the story. Queen Noor takes advantage of the Kennedy Center setting to establish her background as a Kennedy-generation student (in the first co-ed class at Princeton) who had considered a stint in the Peace Corps. This information, right at the start, gives her audience a sneak peek at her international and idealistic orientation toward the challenges she met later in Jordan.
  • Your personal story may make a larger point. The Queen does an excellent job throughout the speech of showing how her personal experience has helped her reflect on the impact of stereotypes on larger economic and geopolitical issues. Here's one great example:
    Among the most frequent and frustrating interview questions I am asked, one reflects the prevailing stereotypes of the Arab world: how could I as an independent, well-educated working Western woman adjust to life in the Arab world? In fact, my first impressions of Jordan were formed by my women friends, who were involved in many aspects of life, who were working, running family-owned factories, teaching...
  • If appearance is an issue, don't be afraid to meet it head-on. The Queen recalls an earlier Washington speech that she delivered about the Arab-Israeli conflict, and how the Washington Post "ran a story in the style section and zeroed in on what I wore rather than what I said." She's already noted in the speech that comments on her appearance seem inevitable. But she moves beyond that here to discuss similar challenges faced by all women in the public arena:
    ...I was soon able to empathize with the frustrations of women around the world whose activism for public well-being commonly generated attempts to define them primarily in material rather than intellectual terms--in terms of gender and domesticity, their hairstyles and clothing.
  • These days, you're most likely to hear from Queen Noor on Twitter (@QueenNoor) where she maintains her own active account. In a 2012 interview with The Telegraph, she singled out social media as an especially important part of making women's voices heard during the Arab Spring uprisings. Social media, she added, also helped "people to understand that women in the region are not a subservient, passive and homogeneous group, but in fact they represent many different viewpoints."

    Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this Famous Speech Friday post.

    (Creative Commons licensed photo from the Skoll World Forum photostream on Flickr)

    Wednesday, May 7, 2014

    A reader shares: Returning to the Stage...After Harrassment

    (Editor's note: Cate Huston is an engineer at Google UK and a reader of the blog who attended my London and Oxford workshops on women and public speaking in March and April. She also sought and received coaching from me for the talk she describes in this post--which first appeared on her blog---and kindly gave me permission to reprint it here for you. And when she says "it went really well," that means that she was one of just two speakers that day whose audience scores were higher than the norm, and was highly praised by the organizers.

    Huston has connected the dots between two issues I follow closely: The apparent lack of women speakers on programs all over the world, in all professions, and the underlying conditions that undermine their confidence, particularly harrassment, the one we don't like to discuss. Too often, women are told the "confidence gap" is internal, something they should fix in themselves. This post helps us see that, in fact, a little discouragement goes a long way in keeping women from the advantages of public speaking. She argues that it is rational for women to refuse to pay the price of harrassment in order to speak, and I can't disagree with that. Every speaker needs to make her own choices. I'm glad, however, that she is taking up speaking once again, and speaking out here and on her blog about this important issue.)

    I stopped public speaking at the end of 2011. And, 6 months into 2012 I finally wrote about why. I wrote about being more intentional with my time, wanting to focus on more technical talks, and – in the vaguest terms, not really calling it what it was – about being harassed on Twitter as a result of speaking in public.

    There was a lovely comment about a talk I gave on that post (thanks, kind stranger), but I had forgotten it was there. Know what I hadn’t forgotten?

    this bitch is so dumb

    That, I remembered.

    I gave more technical talks, internally. Eventually I started going to safer spaces – female space – and talking about women. I introduced other women, women brave enough to speak about their work, their opinions, their experiences.

    I, was quiet.

    It’s interesting, the use of the word dumb, an ableist epithetic for someone who can’t speak. Who doesn’t have a voice. He used it, to silence mine. To quiet me. There’s a long and proud history of silencing women, that Mary Beard spoke about so eloquently. The refrain goes, that we talk too much, that what we say is driven by emotion and so inherently untrustworthy.

    And yet. It is men who have this reaction to women who dare to speak their minds in public. Whether they Tweet it, blog it, or speak it into the microphone. I don’t pretend to understand it, but it seems like it comes from a place of fear – a fear of an equal world, where women have a voice and use it.

    Is fear not an emotion?

    Not all women
    I went to see a comedy show with a friend. There were four white male comedians. I observed, afterwards, that it would have been nice to see a woman (or person of colour) on stage.

    My friend tends to agree with me, but qualifies it, tells me, and I paraphrase here for anonymity, “There was a woman last year. She wasn’t very funny“.

    Men are allowed this incredible luxury, that of being individuals, allowed to speak for themselves and not their entire sex. Allowed to represent their own talent, humour, lack thereof. No wider judgement required.

    Standing up invites a certain amount of judgment. It invites judgement about the delivery, and the content and opinions that are offered. For women though, this judgement on women as an entity is an additional overhead.

    Then there is the judgement on their “fuckability” (as with danah boyd). Yes, every so often the male comedian gets heckled for his appearance, usually his hair (or lack thereof) but male politicians, male executives, are above criticism about their physical appearance… in a way that women are not.

    As a society, the worth of women is defined so much more by her appearance, and until we allow women to be worthwhile citizens regardless of how well they conform to conventional standards of beauty, this will continue.

    Rational fears
    I keep hearing the argument that despite these additional taxes on women who dare to have an opinion in public, women should speak up anyway.

    I disagree. I applaud the women who do speak in public, particularly those like Adria Richards who returned after the kinds of harassment (threats to livelihood and to her physical safety) that I have no words strong enough to express my disgust for. They are incredible.

    But, when that is the risk, the price, for speaking up in public, I argue that it is rational to refuse to pay it. Amongst feminists in the tech industry that I know on Twitter, a certain level of harassment is expected. It’s appalling, but being appalled doesn’t mean it isn’t normal. Being normal, doesn’t mean that these women get used to it.

    Caroline Criado-Perez famously pointed out that “Don’t Feed The Trolls”, that well known refrain, is victim blaming. She is right.

    A few days after that first series of tweets, as the loop that played them in my head was starting to slow, there was another one. I decided it was better not to know, than to make a connection. What would I do? The organiser had already demonstrated that they would at best do nothing, and this was probably the result of them having made things worse. After that one, though, I felt physically threatened.

    There is a lot of talk about code of conducts, and making sure that women are represented at events, but we are not there yet. And we remain in a place where harassment is normal. Where harassment is expected. If I know that the likely outcome from me speaking my mind in public, online or off, what might my reaction be? To be very careful about what I say, and where. Or to opt out altogether.

    Being brave
    Approaching two years later, I finally took a look at my career goals and realised public speaking had to be part of The Plan again. I put together a talk, and submitted it to conferences. It got accepted. I agreed to give it at another event. It was on the plan. It was agreed to. It was happening. But, everything was nicely, abstractly, far away.

    It loomed closer and I became more, and more anxious.

    this bitch is so dumb

    I remembered it, more clearly. I thought about it in a way that I had managed not to, since it happened. I thought about how badly the organiser had handled it, and wished I had stood up for myself more.

    But of course I wanted to be nice. Didn’t want it to seem like I wasn’t OK with criticism. Didn’t want to make too big a deal out of it. Didn’t want to seem emotional.

    I took the main thing within my control seriously – how prepared I was. I gave two internal practise talks, both went well. I published my notes on my blog. Denise, of The Eloquent Woman ran two UK events, I attended both (12).

    I fixated on what to wear.

    I had a one on one coaching session with Denise. We  went over my message, tightened it up a bit, put together three points for an introduction. Talked about managing my energy levels (and terror!) as I was speaking later in the day. It was incredibly helpful to talk these things through, and I decided not to worry about my arrival time, meaning that I could wake up naturally and miss rush hour, even if that also meant I missed hearing one of my friends speak.

    It went really well

    Admittedly, it was a women’s event, a safer audience, but it was the largest talk I have given in a long time. The curse, if not broken completely, has been damaged. I reminded myself, that I can do it.

    This bitch is no longer dumb.

    (Photo of Cate Huston speaking to the BCSWomen Ada Lovelace Colloquium by Anne-Marie Imafidon. Used by permission.)

    Huston participated in my recent workshop in Oxford, England and on May 15, I'll be convening another session of Be The Eloquent Woman in Washington, DC. It's a subversive new workshop that helps women executives and public officials learn how women speakers are perceived and how to turn those expectations on their heads with confidence, content and credibility. Go here to read how the first workshop went and what participants had to say.

    Monday, May 5, 2014

    The Eloquent Woman's weekly speaker toolkit

    Fans of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook see links to good reads, resources and ideas from other sources there, in addition to posts from the blog. But you won't miss a thing, since I'm summarizing that extra content and putting it here on the blog for all readers to see. Here's what I shared in the week just past:
    • Trainers, beware: A frequent workshop leader shares insights into why the audience needs breaks in Why I blah-blah less at workshops (and presentations).
    • Smarter speaking: 8 ways neuroscience can improve your presentations will give you great tips about your audience and how to reach it. 
    • Noted: A reader writes about why she takes notes at talks--and that she's noticed as a result how many presentations lack content.
    • Or just TED: Apply to speak at TED's public tryouts? Yes, you can. Here are the details.
    • Music to my ears: I've been coaching lots of individual speakers lately, and I always ask them to report back. "I was able to take the opportunity to put all the different techniques for preparation into practice I had learnt. The best part was I didn't feel nervous in morning, it was more of good feeling....I will definitely be saying "yes" to the next opportunity and I look forward to it," reported one of my workshop participants. Another was singled out for getting particularly positive feedback in the audience evaluations. Can I help you get to the same kind of results? Email me at eloquentwomanATgmailDOTcom.
    • About the quote: Speakers, watch that self-talk! From our Pinterest board of great quotes for public speakers.
    Just days left to register! On May 15, I'll be convening another session of Be The Eloquent Woman in Washington, DC. It's a subversive new workshop that helps women executives and public officials learn how women speakers are perceived and how to turn those expectations on their heads with confidence, content and credibility. Go here to read how the first workshop went and what participants had to say.

    Friday, May 2, 2014

    10 famous commencement speeches by eloquent women

    (Editor's note: It's commencement time again, so we've updated this 2013 post with new additions to The Eloquent Woman Index since it first appeared.)

    Cue the Pomp and Circumstance, it's that time of year again. Commencement is the start of something new, yes, but we're often stuck listening to the same old tired speeches in celebration. Can you remember your commencement speakers, or any memorable speakers at the graduations you've attended?

    Admittedly, the commencement speech is a tough gig. Speakers want to be inspiring, and to avoid  cliches. They want to be broadly appealing to a diverse-age audience, but not so broadly appealing that every line they deliver has lost its bite. And they want to be memorable, but they're speaking at an event that rarely changes from year to year.

    With all that in mind, we've compiled a list of commencement speakers from The Eloquent Woman Index who managed to meet these challenges, in ways that pleased the people who heard them live and that echoed long after the graduates shuffled off the stage.

    1. Carol Bartz's 2012 commencement speech at the University of Wisconsin, Madison was full of plain speaking from the ex-CEO of Yahoo!, including jokes to bridge the gap between parents and students. She also decided to talk about the importance of failure--an unusual and memorable topic at an event held to celebrate success.

    2. Viola Davis' 2012 speech at Providence College was full of the deep emotion and dramatic flair that you might expect from the Tony Award-winning actress. But a speech that included a scene from The Exorcist as a way to encourage graduates to find their authentic selves? Maybe not so expected.

    3. Also in 2012, teacher and author Margaret Edson spoke beautifully at Smith College. Her speech, along with several other commencement speeches in the Index, used gentle humor to take the pomp out of the day's events. She also spoke without notes, allowing her to look out at her audience and establish a strong and instant rapport with them.

    4. Nora Ephron's 1996 commencement address at Wellesley College is a terrific example of how humor and deft language can give new life to a standard speech. The journalist and screenwriter spoke directly about the year's top stories, from O.J. Simpson to Hillary Clinton. That's somewhat daring in a commencement speech, to be so topical when the occasion itself is so timeless. But I bet the graduates appreciated hearing where they fit into a moment in time.

    5. and 6. Ursula K. Le Guin's commencement speeches at Mills College in 1983 and at Bryn Mawr in 1986 are some of the most poetic calls to action for women that you'll ever hear. The Bryn Mawr speech, in particular, has been considered among the 10 most memorable commencement speeches.

    7. Before "lean in" became a buzzword and a best-selling book, Sheryl Sandberg was exploring the idea in a 2011 commencement speech at Barnard CollegeThe Facebook COO was especially good at reaching out to today's mixed audience of graduates, speaking not just to the obstacles facing women in their 20s, but also those facing women earning their mid-life degrees.

    8. When Maria Shriver spoke at the 2012 University of California Annenberg School graduation, she urged students to consider "the power of the pause." Like Carol Bartz, she chose a topic that was memorable because it strayed away from the usual gung-ho, march-to-the-future rhetoric that graduates are accustomed to hearing.

    9. Public speaking, including an earlier commencement speech, created lots of trouble for Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who shared her experiences at Harvard's commencement. She stirred all that trouble into inspiring lines like, "If you dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough."

    10. Also from Liberia, Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee told Barnard graduates in 2013 that, before they could lean in, they needed to "step out of the shadows" instead of following the self-effacing, supporting role so many women adopt.

    (Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this post.)

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