Thursday, November 17, 2016

My FLOTUS #publicspeaking wish list for Melania Trump (or any new leader)

Many in America and around the world have expressed their dismay about the recent results of the U.S. presidential election by sharing memes like the one at left, making fun of our next First Lady, Melania Trump. I admit, I've laughed at my share.

Nearly all of these memes and messages reference her disastrous debut as a public speaker at the Republican National Convention. You remember: Her speech included passages lifted from an earlier convention speech by current First Lady Michelle Obama.

When I covered it for our Famous Speech Friday, I wrote:
No matter how you vote, I think it's a shame that this happened to a woman speaker on only her second speech of the campaign. The Republican National Convention had just 34% female speakers on the stage, with this speech the most prominent by a woman. I'm ending the week feeling as if Melania Trump was not, at a minimum, well supported for this now-famous speech, in both the speech preparation and the spokesmanship about the controversy. In the end, this major stumble at what might have been the start of a high-profile speaking career is going to dog her steps going forward. Should she become First Lady, she might well want to avoid speaking publicly, which would be a big step backward for that role. This will frame her media coverage and her credibility. Her unfavorable rating was high going into the convention, and it will only increase now. And it should. In the end, the responsibility for a speech begins and ends with the speaker, no matter how many speechwriters you throw under the bus.
Following the election, I had lunch with an old friend who served along with me in Bill Clinton's administration, and she suggested that all the memes and jokes were off-point. "We should be hoping she succeeds--especially as a speaker," she said, pointing out that it wouldn't help women, or women speakers, if she fell on her face in public appearances. I came home from that lunch to see You can be anti-Trump without slut-shaming Melania, an article addressing the many memes and media articles sharing nude pictures from early in Mrs. Trump's modeling career.

My friend and the article had a great point. By mocking the next First Lady before she begins her work, we are silencing her, or convincing her to silence herself. Even if we don't agree with what she might say, we shouldn't be about silencing her. So I, for one, am going to resist the urge to do that, and figure out how we can support her as a public speaker. I still plan to hold her to account for her words or her delivery, if those become a problem at a policy level or provide a poor example. But I do want to be consistent with the goals and principles of this blog, which seeks to advance, not hold back, women speakers at all levels.

So here is my wish list for Melania Trump and her public speaking as First Lady:
  1. Get coaching: I don't put this wish first because I am a coach, but because I understand the value of coaching for beginning speakers and speakers pushed into high-profile roles. Many, many presidents and first ladies sought out coaching to speed their development as speakers and to develop a personal, particular style that worked for them. Having a coach who will be in your corner and who will challenge you can make all the difference--especially in a job that is 90 percent public appearance and public speaking. Don't try just one session. Get some coaching over time, so you understand how you are progressing and why it's working or not.
  2. Get a scheduler involved in your speech planning: Her husband famously surprised Melania Trump in a live television interview, saying she'd be giving more speeches in the campaign. As First Lady of the United States, your speeches shouldn't generally be surprises, and your scheduler should be involved. That means including time in your schedule for things like meeting with your speechwriters and your coach; reviewing speech drafts; practice sessions; and how you will spend your time before and after the speech, including alone time if you're an introvert
  3. Invest in good speechwriting help: If you are going to be any form of public official, getting good speechwriting help is a must, in part due to the sheer number of speeches or remarks you'll be asked to give, and in part due to the variety of speaking situations. Hiring professional speechwriters means you'll have the right level of support for all occasions. As with the coach, it's worth taking the time to build a relationship, and that means giving speechwriters ample time on your schedule, so they can get to know you and your preferences. Please don't fail to do this.
  4. Learn how to work with and take advice from your coach and speechwriters: One of the stumbling points in advance of Mrs. Trump's convention speech was the moment when she decided she didn't like the draft written by the professional speechwriters hired by the campaign. Instead of calling them (on her own or via campaign staff) to share her thoughts and ask for changes, she began rewriting herself. Then she turned to a trusted writer who is not a speechwriter to finish the job. That's where the plagiarism crept in. You don't have to like all of the advice you get from your coach or your speechwriters, but they still might be right about what's best for you or for this speech, and you should discuss it with them. Mrs. Trump has already seen what happens when she chooses a less-qualified but comfortable-to-her writer. Now it's time to bring in the pros, and learn what they can teach her.
  5. Don't be silent: I've already seen articles saying Melania Trump will be a "classic First Lady"--you know, the kind who dresses well, shakes hands, smiles while standing next to her husband, waves to the crowds, and says almost nothing in public. And the New York Times, writing about the meeting pictured above, noted "a wardrobe can be a powerful platform for a first lady, making points without her having to say a word." Why are we already encouraging Mrs. Trump to be silent? That's not classic, truly.  After all, consider Eleanor Roosevelt, who may have given many more speeches than her president husband, since she was more mobiles. Or Jackie Kennedy, who gave an unscripted White House tour on national television that beat her husband's television ratings on the same day, and who gave speeches in English, French, and Spanish during his campaign and his administration. So let's not box Mrs. Trump into a silent helpmeet kind of role as First Lady. Let's support her speaking.
  6. Have public opinions: One of the ways first ladies have been marginalized is in guidance that suggests they must only support the views of their husbands, the presidents. But demonstrating that you have your own issues and views and opinions makes you a real person to the public. You might look to Betty Ford as a model, as well as Eleanor Roosevelt, and Lady Bird Johnson. And once you express your views publicly, be ready to defend them. It goes with the job.
  7. Keep trying: No, it's not great to start your speaking career with a speech that dominated media coverage for the wrong reasons. The only antidote is to keep trying. Speaking can't be learned without practice in private and practice in public. Nor can it be learned without mistakes. The best way to proceed is incrementally. After each speech, identify what worked and what didn't; add the latter to your to-do list going forward. Over time, you can earn the respect of the media and the public, both for continuing to try and for improving. Read Even famous speakers are made, not born: 4 examples for your role models, which include a president, a prime minister, a first lady, and a TED speaker.
This wish list would be standard operating procedure for many U.S. first ladies, but Melania Trump comes to the role with perhaps less speaking experience than most, and a big speaking stumble to overcome. But here's a hint: The list also works for anyone. If you're a senior manager or CEO, leading a board of directors, running a nonprofit, or starting some other official role, you need the same level of prep, anticipation, and help for your speaking. Here's wishing the next First Lady of the United States the chance to grow and improve as a speaker over the next four years.

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