Thursday, January 31, 2008

when holding back breeds eloquence

Those who dread speaking often use "eloquent" to describe those for whom words come easily, even too easily. Perhaps it's my work coaching speakers and subjects of media interviews, or my original work as a journalist, or just too many years of working in Washington, which I lovingly call "a small town with a lot of hot air," but I've come to pay more attention to the held-back voice, the speaker who's more often silent. Holding back comment, then speaking with care, can hold great persuasive power, as we've seen this month with Caroline Kennedy's New York Times op-ed piece endorsing Barack Obama for president. Someone who hadn't read the piece summarized it as "my father was a great president, and Obama's like him, so he'll be a great president." In fact, quite the opposite: Kennedy takes care to limit her comments so that they reflect what others have told her about her famous father. The last lines of the piece say:
I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them. But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president — not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans.
Kennedy's avoidance of the limelight makes her words -- and endorsement -- all the more eloquent. You can have similar power as a speaker or commentator if you withhold comment until what you see as the critical moment. A famous writer or speaker like Kennedy need not underscore her silence by mentioning it, but you may need to alert your audience if you've stayed out of a certain debate for a reason. Better, and yet more powerful: Weighing in with an audience that knows you've held back.

Friday, January 25, 2008

when your voice is lost

Political campaigns offer up daily examples for good speakers about what--and what not--to do. Today's Wall Street Journal looks at candidates who speak so much (whether one-on-one or to large groups) that they lose their voices. Physicians and vocal coaches recommend:
- Watching out for gastric reflux, a vocal-cord irrantant, by avoiding caffeine, chocolate, alcohol and mints and taking antacids; and
- Rest, something the candidates fail at routinely, and silence, another tough medicine on the campaign trail.
A few home-grown remedies that aides and coaches swear by in the article--a tablespoon of olive oil, or wearing a scarf to keep vocal cords warm--sound to us like the refuge of the desperate. Before your next speech, just avoid caffeine and drink lots of water. If your throat's closing up, hot water with lemon (but not tea) helps many a speaker at the last minute. But rest is best, we say.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

double-edged swords: fashion

I winced through a recent presentation by a fellow female speaking coach, who addressed a small lunch group in a conference room. Her outfit was stunning, and perhaps a bit too distracting in terms of color, cut and distinctive jewelry. But at eye level throughout her talk -- at close range in that intimate setting -- was a gap in her buttoned blouse, far too revealing for the audience's comfort (and not a professional asset in her line of work).

I'm not alone in noticing these issues. The Wall Street Journal takes its second look in two weeks at fashion issues for powerful women, prompted, of course, by Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. This week: The pantsuit's examined, and as the article notes at the start, when we say "pantsuit" we know who we're talking about, since men just get to wear "suits" with their pants. In the comments section, one reader noted a practical reason women speakers wear pantsuits: "Women in politics, including wives, have found pantsuits to be more modest attire, particularly when sitting or standing on a lifted platform or stage."

And there's one of the double-edged swords of fashion for women speakers. Women enjoy more options for color, fabric, cut and style in their clothes than do men; that makes the choices more complex, purely on a logistical level. More important, women's fashions focused on attractiveness often send mixed signals in work settings, including speeches--yet few women want to adopt something less stylish when they move out in public. We could all head to Project Runway and toss our hats in the ring right now...or start thinking through business outfits and their ramifications when you speak in public.

Speakers need to consider a range of issues in the dressing room, particularly fit and appearance when in motion. Lift your arm above your head--as if pointing to something on a chart or slide--and check where your jacket shoulder, hem and button placket wind up. Bend forward to pick up a pencil and watch your neckline. Consider where you'll be in relationship to your audience: on a stage, with your feet at eye level? Standing amidst a group seated at a conference table, with your torso at eye level? Most of us check our look in a mirror and focus on our head and shoulders; speakers need to do more, and move more, in the outfits they choose before heading to the lectern.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

the lower your voice...

National Public Radio reported last week--in one of its most-emailed stories--that anthropologists have a new study on how our voices affect our attractiveness to potential mates. It's an intriguing study for the woman speaker to consider, as the women studied (among the Hazda people in Tanzania) preferred men with lower-pitched voices. The story notes:
And what did Hadza men prefer in a voice? It turns out they found the women with higher pitch most attractive.

But surprisingly, the men said those same women wouldn't necessarily be the best food gatherers. "We found that the men actually thought the women with the lower-pitched voice or the deeper voices were the better gatherers," [researcher Coren]Apicella said.
Apicella's quick to note that it's not clear that these results translate to all cultures. But in our experience, this is a particular issue for American women, and young women, when they speak in public. A high-pitched voice connotes youth and inexperience; a lower pitch, authority and assurance. (We coached one young American woman to deliver a major speech in Chinese, a language in which she is fluent, and noticed her speaking voice lowered considerably during the formal deliver--and went much higher and faster when speaking casually. Asked why, she explained she and her young Chinese friends spoke fast and high-pitched when hanging out, but slowed, formalized and lowered their pitch when speaking in formal settings.) What do you do? and what do you find more effective when speaking in groups? Which sounds more eloquent to your ear?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Girls compete in Dr. King speech contest

National Public Radio today marked the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birth with a story about elementary school students in Houston competing in a speech contest honoring King--this year, nine of the 10 entrants were girls, according to the story, which you can listen to here. One of the 10-year-old girl orators, born three decades after King's death roused the crowd with this line: "I am opportunity, you are opportunity, we are all opportunity....I am opportunity, and I'm not knocking, I'm coming on through!" And Miss Perry Jones, who won first place, told the crowd after her victory: "There's no stopping me now--with my eyes, I see it; with my mind, I believe it, and with my hands, I will one day achieve it."

If you're looking for more inspiring words from black women speakers, check out our posts on Henrietta Bell Wells, the inspiration for the female character in the current film, The Great Debaters, and look for speeches collected in the book Say It Plain: A Century of Great African American Speeches. Women represented in the collection include Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan, and Mary McLeod Bethune. You also can get another version of the book with a CD of live recordings of speeches, titled Say It Plain: Live Recordings of the 20th Century's Great African-American Speeches: A Book-and-CD Set -- the latter version includes 2 80-minute CDs with an expanded range of speeches. Or check out the Say It Plain website, where you can listen to an hour-long documentary, as well as read transcripts and hear audio of several of the speeches, including those by Bethune, Chisholm, Jordan, and civil rights organizer Fannie Lou Hamer.

Buy Say It Plain: A Century of Great African American Speeches

Buy Say It Plain: Live Recordings of the 20th Century's Great African-American Speeches: A Book-and-CD Set

Monday, January 14, 2008

See and hear Henrietta Bell Wells

Thousands of visitors to this blog have come in search of Henrietta Bell Wells (see all our posts on her here), the lone female on the Wiley College 1930 debate team that inspired the movie The Great Debaters, directed by and starring Denzel Washington. Jeff Porro, a speechwriting colleague who developed the story for the movie, sent us this article from Episcopal Life Online, where you can see a photo of Wells, the only surviving member of the debate team, and read a rare interview with her. It yields more inspiration for eloquent women, including this description:
She was a valedictorian at her graduation from Houston's Phyllis Wheatley High School and attended the all black Wiley College on a modest scholarship from the YMCA. She worked three jobs to make ends meet, she said, and when her English professor asked her to try out for the debate team, she wasn't sure what that was. "We didn't have debates in high school," she said. "I guess I did all right. He stood at the back of the chapel and I read from the front. That was his test."
And Wells--who says she talked Washington into playing Melvin Tolson in the movie--offers this advice:
What's her advice for today's college students? "Learn to speak well and learn to express yourself effectively," she said. Her training as one of the "Great Debaters" carried Wells through a successful life and career and, at 95, continues to serve her well as the interviewers line up at her door.
We've had visitors from all over the United States, and as far away as Japan, Denmark and Africa looking for information on Wells--clearly, an eloquent woman whose story resonates today.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

trail of tears? gender's campaign 8-ball

Crying on the campaign trail emerged for real yesterday, as tears came to Hillary Clinton's eyes when she described the pressures of her campaign. Note that this passage from the Times' story emphasizes that she did not cry:
Her eyes visibly wet, in perhaps the most public display of emotion of her year-old campaign, Mrs. Clinton added: “I have so many opportunities from this country, I just don’t want to see us fall backwards. This is very personal for me — it’s not just political, it’s not just public.” Mrs. Clinton did not cry, but her quavering voice and the flash of feeling underscored the pressure, fatigue, anger and disappointment that, advisers say, Mrs. Clinton has experienced since her loss on Thursday in the Iowa caucuses and that she continues to shoulder at this most critical moment.
And on the Times op-ed page today, Gloria Steinem tackles the issue of why women "are never front-runners." She describes a mixed-race female candidate--one with the same qualifications and family as Obama, then notes:
If the lawyer described above had been just as charismatic but named, say, Achola Obama instead of Barack Obama, her goose would have been cooked long ago. Indeed, neither she nor Hillary Clinton could have used Mr. Obama’s public style — or Bill Clinton’s either — without being considered too emotional by Washington pundits.
Steinem's piece offers a strong reminder that issues of gender and race shouldn't be pitted against one another, yet are, to the detriment of both. In an eloquent passage, she asks:
So why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one? The reasons are as pervasive as the air we breathe: because sexism is still confused with nature as racism once was; because anything that affects males is seen as more serious than anything that affects “only” the female half of the human race; because children are still raised mostly by women (to put it mildly) so men especially tend to feel they are regressing to childhood when dealing with a powerful woman; because racism stereotyped black men as more “masculine” for so long that some white men find their presence to be masculinity-affirming (as long as there aren’t too many of them); and because there is still no “right” way to be a woman in public power without being considered a you-know-what.
Steinem -- who supports Clinton -- also speaks highly of Obama's approach and policies. What are your thoughts about the passage above? I'm especially interested in hearing your examples and experiences related to women in public settings.

Friday, January 4, 2008

more footnotes on henrietta bell wells

Fans of The Great Debaters movie will want to tune in to Washington, DC's Kojo Nnamdi Show, a call-in radio program, at 1pm Wednesday, January 9 to hear speechwriter Jeff Porro, who shares story development credit for the Golden-Globe-nominated film. He'll be talking about the movie, debating and black college debate teams in history. Jeff interviewed Henrietta Bell Wells, the 1930 Wiley college debate team's lone female member; you can see our interview with Jeff and more background on Wells here and go here after the show to download it from station WAMU. Jurnee Smollett, who plays the character based on Wells in the movie, says in the January Vanity Fair:
“My character is based on a woman named Henrietta Wells, who’s still alive at 95,” says Smollett. “I spent time with her, stayed in her house in Houston. She made me breakfast in the morning. I sang in her church.”

Thursday, January 3, 2008

insights from women CEOs

I'll be moderating a live interview with Julie Lenzer Kirk, Path Forward International, as part of the "CEO Insights" speaker series for the Washington, DC, chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners. Lenzer Kirk is the former CEO and President of Applied Creative Technologies, Inc. (ACT), an IT solutions firm which she founded in 1995 in the basement of her home. She built the company into a 24-employee multi-million dollar firm with Fortune 100 clients. Her latest ventures are as president of Path Forward International and author of the newly-published book The ParentPreneur Edge: What Parenting Teaches About Building a Successful Business.

”CEO Insights: Interviews with Top Washington Women Business Owners"
When: Thursday, January 31, 2008
Where: Renaissance Mayflower Hotel
1127 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20036
Time: 5:15pm-6:00p.m. Registration & Networking
6:00p.m.-7:00p.m. Program
7:00p.m.-7:30p.m. Reception
Registration details appear here.

when you don't know what to say

Every speaker encounters moments when the words you need don’t emerge on time. That’s especially true in question-and-answer sessions and media interviews, but it may happen to you in any speaking situation. For those occasions when you just need time to think about what to say next, here are some stepping stones to get you across the deep river of stumbles and silence--tips to help you gather and express your thoughts:
Use a neutral phrase to buy yourself some time. A medium-length phrase lets you get a response started, while thinking what you’ll say at its end. “I’m trying to recall a time when that happened” or “Let’s look at the evidence on that point” move your answer forward while buying you time.

Use a time-buying phrase instead of “um” or “uh.” For many speakers, “um” and “uh” are signals that they’re trying to think of what to say. Replace them with a time-buying phrase to sound more eloquent and responsive.

Incorporate your own experience to answer the question while buying time. “No one’s ever asked me that before” or “I’ve spent 20 years doing this research and that’s never come up once” buy you several moments to gather your thoughts and help the audience learn a bit more about you in the process.

Don’t over-use your time-buying phrase. “That’s a really good question” is well on its way to being the most over-used phrase interviewees or speakers employ to buy time. If you say it over and over again, your audience will tune out—and you’ll be emphasizing that you don’t know what to say.

Don’t use a phrase that’s too short. Many speakers or media interview subjects start every answer with “So…” or “Well…” and, over the course of one presentation or interview, those words become like “ums,” “uhs,” or other awkward pauses—they sound like a mistake and are too short to buy time.

If appropriate to the question, use the time-buying phrase to redirect the answer to a point you want to make. Many questioners pose a query that presumes a certain answer: “Have you always wanted to be a writer?” or “Didn’t you enjoy the talk by Dr. Smith?” If you need to say no nicely in response, soften it with a time-buying phrase (“It probably sounds as if I did, but that isn’t the case”) and follow up with your real answer (“In fact, I always thought I’d be a fireman” or “We disagree on many of the key points”).
With practice, you can learn to automatically take this approach instead of using ums and uhs to buy time.