Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Women speakers: Are you the backup singer or the lead performer?

One of the many insights I've had as I roll out my Be The Eloquent Woman workshops involves women who, in effect, are playing backup singer to other speakers. Here are some of the things I've heard in workshops and conversations in the last couple of months:
  • "Since I'm in public relations, I'm really behind the scenes. So when I have to speak--at a press conference or in front of my peers--I don't feel sure of myself."
  • "I like to think that I’m pretty good at chairing, even very large events with high profile speakers, whether the speakers are male or female, but I have been doing this since I was a student and find it quite easy, I’m guessing because the focus isn’t on me."
Call it the backup singer syndrome for public speaking women: You might be willing to moderate or chair, to help others get the prime speaking slot, but not to speak as an individual. I can relate to those comments, having spent much of my career helping to put other people out front as speakers, both in public relations and now as a speaker coach. But at some point, I realized my own career needed to include public speaking and it's a skill I continue to sharpen and use regularly. 

There's a Catch-22 for women more comfortable with the backup-singer role as a speaker, however. It's one of the subtle ways in which women are discriminated against in public speaking. Some conference organizers use women as gendered window dressing, relegating them to moderators or chairs, without including women in the more substantial featured role of keynote speakers or panelists. (That's just one of my 12 ways you can evaluate speaking gigs for gender bias.) It's not just an issue for organizers. If you are always chairing or moderating, you're not speaking about your own content and ideas. Do you want all of your speaking to be about others? Do you want all of your speaking content created by others? I didn't think so.

On a long flight home from my recent London trip, I found inspiration in 20 Feet From Stardom, a documentary about the primarily female backup singers in the music industry. Blues singer Mable John--one of the first singers Motown founder Berry Gordy signed to his own label, and a backup singer in Ray Charles's Raelettes--shared a perspective on backup singers that women speakers would do well to borrow:
We in the music industry, especially African American people, need to know our worth. We need to know as women, we're important. And I think the breakdown is when a woman doesn't know who she is and she settles for less. Check out your worth. You're worth more than that.
I'm not saying you shouldn't moderate or chair. These are important speaking roles, and good stepping stones as you progress as a speaker. They're not simple tasks, by any means. But if you look at the last few years of the speaking you've done and find you are always supporting others and their ideas, it may be time to push yourself forward, into the spotlight. The documentary's great inspiration if you've been lurking behind the scenes, and shows what it's like to always be in someone's shadow. How will you work on moving from backup singer to featured performer in your public speaking?

  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.