Thursday, December 31, 2015

Is 2016 your public speaking "year of yes?" Advice from Shonda Rhimes

In this interview on NPR's Fresh Air, TV writer, producer, and show runner Shonda Rhimes explores two words and decisions that can trip up women public speakers: "yes" and "no."

For many women speakers, it's a tough choice. If you say "yes," will you be harrassed, taken advantage of, or gain great publicity? Will your speaking gig "yes" turn into missed time with your kids or at important office meetings, or take from your vacation time? If you say "no," will you be invited back, stay safe but unknown, or miss a great opportunity that you'll regret? And with the dearth of women on conference programs, might we need to look more closely at the reasons women say "yes" and "no" when they are invited to speak?

Rhimes has a new book out, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person, and I've been listening to her read the audiobook. Her sister challenged her to spend a year saying yes to things that were offered to her by pointing out, "You never say yes to anything," and Rhimes, an introvert, had an "aha" moment. Interviewer Terry Gross explored what she'd been saying "no" to, and public speaking is right on the list:
GROSS: Your book is about your year of saying yes because your sister told you that you don't say yes to things. You're always saying no. For example, what were some of the things you were saying no to that your sister thought you should be saying yes to? 
RHIMES: It was almost everything. If I was invited to a movie premiere, if I was invited to a screening, if I was invited to a party, if I was invited to an award show, if I was invited to be on a talk show, if I was invited to give an interview, if I was invited to speak somewhere. It didn't really matter what the invitation was. Sometimes it would just be - an actor would invite me to dinner at their house. I would say, no. It was too much, like, the concept of being out there and socializing and getting out into the world was scary to me, I think. And I hadn't been doing it enough. And I hadn't been out enough. So I'd just been going to work and coming home. And you don't realize how much of a rut you get into. But after 10, 11 years, it becomes a real rut, and you suddenly don't even know how to get back out into the world. 
GROSS: Was it because you were too busy or too uncomfortable? 
RHIMES: I think it's both. I think, first, you're too busy, you know? At first, I was - I always say, like, you don't lose yourself all at once. You sort of do it, you know, like, one no at a time. You start to, you know, decline invitations 'cause you're working too hard. And then you start to decline them because you don't really know everybody that well, and everybody else seems to know everybody really well. And then you start to do it because you haven't been out in so long that you feel uncomfortable. And then you start to do it because being at home feels really good. And then you start to do it because you have no other reference point.
I like that nuanced explanation, since a "no" when said to a speaking invitation typically isn't about just one thing. Later in the interview, she examines why saying "no" works so often. Again, it's entirely relevant to women considering public speaking opportunities:
RHIMES: Saying no really is saying yes to yourself. One of the things that I really had a difficult time with was the ability to say no and was the ability to have the difficult conversations that go with saying no. And figuring out a way to make it possible for me to stand up and advocate for myself in that way was very hard. I literally - I ended up writing myself a little script and putting it on a Post-it note and sticking it to the side of my computer and then reading it aloud whenever I had to give a very difficult no. But I also found it wildly freeing once I started doing it because once you start telling people no - and their reaction always tells you, A, who they are and, B, what situation you're in. You know, if you say no to somebody - you know, somebody asks you for a ton of money and you say no to them and they respond with vitriol and hatred, then you know exactly who they are now and what their relationship is to you. Everything's been defined, and everything's clear. And now you know where you stand. If you are in a negotiation and you say no, either they're going to back away or they're going to give - you know, they're going to give in. You know where you are, and you know where you stand. It becomes a very interesting tool to use, really. It allows you to see things in a different light. And I started thinking of it that way as opposed to thinking of it as something that was going to be dangerous or be hurtful or be scary to do.
There's much more in the book about her fears about speaking, about catastrophizing before a speech, not writing the speech until just before the event, power posing for confidence, what it feels like right before you go on, and processing your fear. Rhimes's first example of facing a speaking fear involves all those details about her commencement speech at Dartmouth, in which she discusses her fears with the audience. (And in the audio version of her book, you'll hear the actual audio from the speech, a nice plus.) Here's how she ends that speech, with great advice for speakers:
And every single time you get a chance?
Stand up in front of people.
Let them see you. Speak. Be heard.
Go ahead and have the dry mouth.
Let your heart beat so, so fast.
Watch everything move in slow motion.
So what?
You what?
You pass out, you die, you poop?
And this is really the only lesson you'll ever need to know ...
You take it in.
You breathe this rare air.
You feel alive.
You be yourself.
You truly finally always be yourself.
If you like that quote, you can find a graphic version of it on our Pinterest board of great quotes by eloquent women.

The book is a real-life look at what it really means to say no, and then yes, to everything--especially everything that makes you scared. In public speaking, I've advised you in both directions,with 7 specific times to turn down a speaking gig as well as urging you not to say "no" if you're wavering. I understand this dichotomy firsthand: I said "no" for two years straight to what turned out to be one of my favorite keynotes ever, finally realizing I needed to say "yes"--and I'm so glad I did. I also know there are many, many reasons women say "no" to speaking gigs, and those "no" votes go far beyond lack of confidence in many cases. But maybe it's time in the new year of 2016 to try your own "year of yes" when it comes to public speaking.

I have a proposal: If you're interested in talking about your "year of yes" specifically in public speaking, head over to The Eloquent Woman on Facebook. I'm starting a discussion there where you can ask questions, share successes, and encourage each other.

Want more inspiration from Rhimes? Check out one of the speeches she said "yes" to in our recent Famous Speech Friday post. It's also included in the book as a speech that fell near the end of her year of yes--and it challenged her in a new way.

Say yes to this stretch goal: I've got two small-group workshops coming up on Creating a TED-quality talk in Washington, DC, in January. Choose the January 14 workshop or the January 28 workshop. All you need to do is bring your one big idea for a talk in the style of TED. You'll learn how to plan, write, time, practice, and deliver it in a group limited to 5 people per workshop. Join us! Today is the last day to register.