Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Henrietta Wells dies at 96

She's been the most-read-about person on this blog, with thousands of visitors coming to learn more about her. Today,we learn of the death of Henrietta Bell Wells--the lone female debater on the historic Wiley College debate team in the 1930s, depicted in the recent movie The Great Debaters--at age 96. (Read all our posts about Wells here.) Wells was the lone surviving member of the team, which won the first interracial college debates. You'll find the New York Times obituary includes quotes from our exclusive interview about Wells with Jeff Porro, story developer for the movie, and many of the resources you've already seen on this blog. The obit includes photos of Wells with the team, and as she appeared recently. In the wake of the movie, many colleges are reviving the old-style debates and--judging from the interest in our coverage on this blog--thousands of readers have found her an inspiration.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

women execs share speaker secrets, woes

Speechwriter Jeff Porro and I spoke yesterday to the Executive Women's Forum at the Tower Club in Tysons Corner, Va., about "speaker secrets for executive women." Our audience was a seasoned group, with many of them frequent speakers. Still, over the course of lunch and our discussions, a wide range of tips, advice and concerns emerged about situations professional women face as speakers. Here's a sampling of what I shared with (and learned from) the audience:

  • Getting started is tough: Several participants noted that they clutch right at the start of a presentation or speech--even when well prepared. It's that "face the music" moment where your anxiety takes over your throat, gaze or ability to stop gripping the lectern like a liferaft. I advise thinking ahead about the situations you most fear in the speech and planning how you'll handle them--then make sure you've taken care of the physical things, like rest, adequate nutrition, drinking only water an hour before your speech, and deep breathing and stretching beforehand (duck into the restroom or a stairwell if you need to). Two participants say they put reminders that make them smile in front of them--a humorous text message from a spouse or a child's drawing in with your speech script--as a tension-breaker. But don't go off your script at the start--a common mistake. It's harder to recover, and you're wasting a moment when the audience attention is at its highest.
  • Balancing data and emotional connection--is it impossible? One speaker who works at the national level in risk management posed this challenge. She speaks annually at a conference with a "mixed" audience of data-hungry researchers who want all the details, and policymakers looking for trends and broad-brush analysis. Her concern: Alienating or boring one group or the other as she tries to meet both needs. (Similar concerns were raised by a sales executive who needs to gain credibility with financial executives on a regular conference call.) Jeff and I had emphasized connecting with your audience through anecdotes, personal stories, humor and the like--and we reminded the group that even the driest data-lover likes being approached as a person, too. But we offered this way to strike the balance: Announce at the start that you're going to give topline data, and leave the details for the question-and-answer session, after you've reviewed trends first. That way, the audience knows what to expect.

Those are just two of the many situations we discussed with this lively group. How do you handle strained starts and data-rich presentations? Let us know in the comments.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

the roots of blogging women

Women who find their voices blogging are a powerful new source of eloquent women (I'm fond of the idea that prolific letter-writer Abigail Adams would've been a blogger today). Today, Blogher Kim Pearson looks at some of the historical factors that have held women back in public speaking and communicating in general. Written in honor of Women's History Month, the post raises issues that have been documented since the ancient Roman empire and continue today--it's not uncommon for me to train and coach women speakers who, despite excellent presentation skills and content, are belittled or decried by male audience members. Sometimes their viewpoint's attacked; sometimes they're dismissed by being told their presentation isn't "sexy enough," an attempt to push them out of the business realm (where they clearly pose a perceived threat) and diminish them. The best way I know to train women speakers and communicators to handle these threats is to build their skills and confidence, particularly avoiding an anxious response that further undermines your presentation. (Think of Ronald Reagan's great "There you go again!" response when attacked in debates--not at all anxious, somewhat charming, and putting the anxiety back where he wanted it to be, on his attacker.) It also helps to spend time anticipating aggressive or hostile questions and developing strong but calm responses. If you've got examples of barriers like these that get in the way of your speaking--or speaking out--please share them! I'd be glad to brainstorm ideas on this site that we can share with all our readers.