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)