Friday, October 28, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Wilma Mankiller on rebuilding the Cherokee Nation

Wilma Pearl Mankiller became the first female chief of the modern Cherokee Nation after a life's journey that was familiar to many Native Americans. The second half of her childhood and her early days as a wife and mother were spent in San Francisco, where her family had lived since 1956, after leaving Oklahoma in the Indian Relocation Program. But she was unhappy in the city, and her participation in the 1969 American Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island was the spark that led her back home. (You can listen to Mankiller describe these events at the Voices of Oklahoma oral history website.)

Mankiller returned to Oklahoma newly divorced with two children, and most of the family's belongings stashed in her car. She took an entry-level job with the nation, but rose quickly within the leadership on the strength of her organizing and community outreach skills. She recalled that some Cherokee thought they would be "the laughing stock of all tribes" with a woman as chief. "I did fairly well in debate in both high school and college," she said, "and it was really interesting because I was unable to even get in a dialogue with people about this issue."

Given her personal history, it's not surprising that Mankiller was best known for her programs to make the Cherokee self-sufficient. It's a theme she discusses in her 1993 speech, "Rebuilding the Cherokee Nation," delivered at an American Indian conference held at Virginia's Sweet Briar college. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Call Me Wilma, Not Chief: In her introduction, Mankiller said that "very, very few people" back home call her "Chief." Many of her speeches start like this, and it's a great way to set the tone for the informal speaking style that follows. The conversational voice she uses--peppered with words like "gonna," "SOB," and "so anyway"--make it easy to settle into her words. It's more story than speech, although her topics are serious and her expertise is evident.
  • The Past is Present: "We had non-Indian friends throughout the South who helped us, who took up our cause and tried to protect the Cherokees and work with us. Some of our friends spent time in jail..." The "we" that Mankiller refers to in these sentences are not the friends that surrounded her in 1993, but the Cherokee of 1838 facing President Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal policy. The language lends immediacy to a speech that contains significant chunks of historical background, and allows her to make a smooth transition to the present-day challenges of the Cherokee.
  • Speak for Yourself: In this speech there are numerous examples of Mankiller pushing back against expectations of her as a woman and as a Cherokee. Early in her career, she admits that low self-esteem kept her from speaking up in meetings, and that people said "real hurtful things" during her first run for deputy chief. But Mankiller persisted in her efforts, and she notes that "what caused me to have faith in myself to speak up was that my desire to do something and contribute was stronger than my own fear of speaking up."
One more technique that Mankiller employed during some of her early tribal council meetings was detailed in her Washington Post obituary. When particularly quarrelsome council members kept talking over her in meetings, she consulted a communications expert--and installed a cutoff switch for the council's microphones. Here's video of Mankiller that demonstrates her speaking skill as well as her theme of self-suffiency:



(Freelancer writer Becky Ham researched and wrote this Famous Speech Friday post.)


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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

4 ways not speaking up derails women in the workplace

Confidence is critical for any kind of public speaking, and a lack of confidence may be contributing to women's reluctance to speak up for themselves in the workplace. A 2011 study by the Institute of Leadership and Management in Europe reveals that women reported lower career confidence--just 50 percent of the women surveyed reported high or very high levels of confidence, compared to 70 percent of the men responding. And half of the women said they felt self-doubt about their career or performance, compared to just 31 percent of the men.

Women's leadership experts Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath and Mary Davis Holt, co-authors of Break Your Own Rules: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking that Block Women's Paths to Powerhave pinpointed four ways women's lack of confidence creates stumbling blocks for them in the workplace, and it will be no surprise to readers of this blog that they all involve speaking or speaking up in some way. The four trouble spots include being overly modest, not asking (for raises or advancement), blending in and remaining silent--and the antidote to all four is speaking, or speaking up. Here's just one example they cite:
When Sharon Allen became chairman of Deloitte & Touche USA in 2003, she not only became the highest-ranking woman in the firm's history, she also became the first woman to hold that role at a leading professional services firm. It may seem surprising, then, that even Allen learned this lesson the hard way. As a rising manager in her thirties, she was taken aback when she received a memo announcing the promotion of several close colleagues. She wondered why she didn't make the list. Allen stewed about it for a day or two, and then went in to see her boss. "I was surprised to see my name not included on the promotion list," Sharon said to him. "I have accomplished A, B, C, D and E and I think I deserved that promotion." Her boss replied, "Sharon, I had no idea you had accomplished all of those things. You didn't let me know." When Sharon tells the story today, she laughs and shakes her head. As she told us, "That's the very last time I ever let that happen."
Whether you need to get your point in during a meeting or speak privately to your boss to ask for a raise, workplace speaking is one of the most valuable kinds of public speaking you'll do in the course of your career. Do you experience these stumbling blocks? Share how you are overcoming them in the comments. (Hat tip to speechwriter and reader Allison Wood for pointing me to this article.)


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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

3 little leadership words every executive speaker should learn

Sometimes the most eloquent statements are the simplest. That's what Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter thinks. She advises those who want to succeed as business leaders to learn three little words:

There are three little words that extraordinary leaders know how to say, and I'm not thinking of "I love you" (but those are pretty good). The magic words are "I was wrong." Husbands and wives know that saying those words to each other can be even more endearing than endearments. When leaders say them to their teams in a timely fashion, they build confidence and can move on to a better path. The simple sentence "I was wrong" is the hardest for leaders to utter and the most necessary for them to learn.

Her post includes examples of business and political leaders who do well or poorly at using those three words (interestingly, all male examples) and how the ability to say "I was wrong" made or broke their careers at different stages. Practice this phrase so it's at the ready when you need it most.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

The all-in-one on workplace speaking and presenting: 13 resources & tips

Most of us do our "public speaking" in work meetings, conference calls, Skype interviews or video conferences. That doesn't make it easy. Women (and men) can boost their skills with these tips, resources and tactics for every kind of business meeting:

  1. Men are more likely to speak in meetings: Read "Who talks more: Men or women?" to get rid of a common myth about women and speaking, but here's your takeaway: Men are more likely to report out in meetings, women more likely to confide in smaller pairings.
  2. How do you start meetings? If you want to signal "Let's get down to business" without rolling up your shirtsleeves, here are some options designed for women.
  3. Keep an eye on your speaking options: Here's what it takes to get on the program as a woman speaker. Even if your profession is dominated by women, research shows that it's more difficult for women to present at their professional membership groups' conferences. The one plus: You stand out more on the program, but have to work harder to get there.
  4. Watch out for other women: Women often deter the progress of other women in workplace situations, so it pays to think about why and when that happens.
  5. Learn how to speak up in meetings: Women often don't do this, and a book that looked at research about whey women don't speak up in meetings tells you how to get better at taking your turn, using questions to get into the conversation and other practical tactics.
  6. Sometimes, you just need support: Send this memo to the boss on why you need training to make the case for improving your speaking and presenting skills.
  7. If you get talked over in meetings, you have good company. Even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg complains about it.
  8. Learn to dive in and interrupt in meetings: Madeleine Albright advises women to learn to do just that, but how? Here are 7 ways to interrupt to get your point across.
  9. Don't be too respectful. Hesitating might just hold you back, so learn how to be less respectful and more confident when you speak up in meetings.
  10. Young? Young-looking? You can still establish your credibility when your age and looks work against you. This is one of the best-read posts of all time on the blog, for a reason.
  11. On video, webinars or conference calls? Learn how to do better as a speaker on Skype calls or videoconferences, speak more effectively when you can't see the audience, and break into a discussion on audio or video calls by using a visual signal.

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Friday, October 21, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Ann Richards' 1988 Democratic Convention keynote

She's remembered as a longtime governor of Texas, but Ann Richards was the state treasurer of Texas when she gave this keynote speech and a few years from the governorship. Even the state archives in Texas describe her "vitality and outrageousness," two qualities on display in this famous speech.

Richards was only the second woman to give the keynote convention speech in the Democratic party, something she tackled at the start of the speech by remembering fellow Texan Barbara Jordan's keynote. "Two women in 160 years is about par for the course" was her dry summing-up. And her opening included a then-unusual good evening in Spanish, quickly followed by this line: "After listening to George Bush all these years, I figured you needed to know what a real Texan sounds like."

The convention keynote follows a time-honored formula. It's designed to unite the crowd, remind them of the party's noble goals, acknowledge the party's nominees and serve as a major salvo against the opposing party's candidate. Richards fulfilled all those roles, but took the attacks on the opposing party to another level, using humor, vocal variety, gestures and folksy Texas style to do so. In this speech's most famous line, she said of George H. W. Bush, the Republican nominee:

Now that he's after a job that he can't get appointed to, he's like Columbus discovering America. He's found child care. He's found education. Poor George. He can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.

Now, you know a speechwriter or two was likely behind that. But Richards' delivery is what brought the house down--just one of several moments in this speech that did so. Here's what you can learn from this famous speech:

  • Make sure your speech and delivery are a reflection of you:  Far from trying to hide her accent, her sense of humor or her Texas roots, Richards embraced them in her public speaking. Her delivery's authentic, not automatic, and it made this speech stand out.
  • Use your voice as an emphasis instrument: From inflections to pauses to long drawn-out syllables, Richards offers a symphony of vocal variety in this speech. It's worth listening to it while looking at the full text (links below) to see how she does this. For example, you'll read the line "I'm a grandmother now. And I have one nearly perfect granddaughter named Lily." But what you'll hear is "neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeearly perfect granddaughter," an extending of the syllables that brings a laugh from the audience and keeps the line from being a cloying one.
  • Use props to keep your words concrete:  Richards reads a letter from a young mother during the speech -- and actually holds up a page and reads from it. In a room made for teleprompters, she turns away from the perfect camera angle to read it. In doing so, she makes the letter seem real, a tangible and simple tactic to bring the soaring rhetoric down to real life.

The one-woman play "Ann" will be performed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in December and January, featuring actress Holland Taylor (best known for her role on Two and a Half Men). It's a celebration of Richards, her speaking, her humor and more. You can watch the full speech in the video below or read the full text here. What do you think of this famous speech?



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Thursday, October 20, 2011

From the vault: Stay civil, but disagree with your audience

(Editor's note: A challenge from the audience can set many a speaker on her heels. This post from the vault has been updated with additional information to help you navigate difficult questions with care in speeches, media interviews and other speaker situations.)

It might happen in a meeting, during a media interview or in the question time after your presentation. Do you kick into defensive mode in a discussion? Find yourself feeling attacked or challenged and want to strike back, at least sometimes?  Then it's time to figure out how to civilize your responses.  Along with my 17 reasons to welcome audience questions to remind yourself why you do want questions, these 5 tactics for civil disagreement from Altitude Branding blog will help you avoid reacting, and just respond. These are particularly helpful if you face a difficult audience or have a particular challenger listening to your presentation, but in fact, these approaches can help you calm down when handling any kind of  Q&A. Here's my speaker's perspective on the 5 points:
  1. Make sure you heard correctly.  And make sure you do so with respect, rather than a "You talkin' to me?" tone. "Help me understand what you just said" is a nice neutral phrase to use.  There's a big chance you misheard or misunderstood, especially if the question is short, pointed or loaded with code words, so ask for help to break down the issue.
  2. Ask questions instead of retorting.  Sometimes it's irresistible to answer with a quick quip--but not if you are disagreeing with the questioner. So ask questions to get at her intent, and make sure they aren't leading or loaded questions.
  3. Depersonalize.  It's easy to feel like a target when you are standing up there alone, but in fact, most questions are posed to raise issues or express what someone else feels. Maybe your role is to let them do that.  This time, it's probably not about you.
  4. Listen, listen and listen again. (The original was "Read, read and read again," which works for email and social media.)  That's what asking questions of the questioner will help you do--and if you really listen to the answers, you may find out why it's not about you and information that will help you handle the questioner better than your first impulse.
  5. Call a truce.  You don't have to come to agreement, and your audience need not always agree with you--shocking but true.  Don't feel you have to bring everything to a peaceful conclusion.
Altitude Branding's piece is a good one to keep in your file on graceful ways with Q-and-A. If you find yourself getting caught up in the arguments and reacting to them, especially in anger or frustration, check out these tips from our sister blog, don't get caught, on how to respond rather than react when answering a challenge or tough question. The tips are designed for those doing media interviews, but are applicable to speakers with large or small contentious audiences.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What's holding you back from more or better public speaking?

When it comes to public speaking, what's holding you back? Your barriers to more or better public speaking might involve internal factors, like your skill levels, your lack of confidence or your lack of experience. But external factors also might stand in your way, things out of your control.

Do you think you'd be able to speak more, or speak better, if some barriers were removed? Put another way, what do you think is standing in your way? I asked readers to share the barriers they think are holding them back from more or better public speaking. Here's what a few readers on The Eloquent Woman on Facebook said:



    • Naieema Jackson When I get nervous I tend to get tongue tied and it's embarrassing for me
      October 9 at 10:42am ·  ·  1 person

    • Robin Ferrier ‎1. Time. If I'm presenting, I'm not getting work done and the work is still waiting when I get back. 2. Finding public speaking opportunities. That's work in and of itself.
      October 9 at 10:48am · 

    • Odumo Tari ‎1. Grammatical errors 2. pronouncitions
      October 9 at 4:44pm · 

You can help the blog today by sharing what's holding you back from more public speaking or better public speaking, in the comments below--you can always make your comments anonymous.  I'll be working on posts that help you break down those barriers, so your contributions will help shape content on the blog. Thanks for contributing!

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Reader question: What to do when the audience buzz distracts you

Recently, I asked readers to share an answer to "What are you looking for here about public speaking?" The post brought this question from reader Vivian Leber, who's focused on her audience--and its distracting qualities:
What do you suggest doing when there are a few audience members chattering away and making a distracting buzz? Do you pause? That might provide an opening for additional chatterers to start up. Comment on it? Ignore it?
Any time you're in a situation that requires you to step out of your presentation and confront an audience member, you risk derailing your planned mission, something I sense Vivian understands. At the same time, when you "have the floor" as the speaker, you're in control of the room and other audience members will expect you to manage the room and the audience to ensure that all can hear and enjoy your remarks. While your response will need to take many factors into account, try one of these subtle ways to bring the buzzing audience members back to attention:

  • Wait for silence.  Rather than shush the audience or ask for silence by yelling over the din, just wait quietly. This is especially effective at the start of a presentation, but you might also pause during a speech if the buzzing is especially distracting, and smile, looking at the chatterers until they realize they are the only people speaking. The rest of the audience will get what you're doing and wait with you, while coming to attention.
  • Move toward the noise.  One of many good reasons to stay mobile during a presentation is your ability to move into and out of the audience. You can move toward and stand directly in front of buzzing audience members while continuing your presentation, making eye contact with them until they  turn quiet--they'll realize that you've brought the spotlight directly to them quickly.
  • Have a funny line on hand that matches your remarks.  Take the time to come up with a quick one-liner or aside that will let the entire audience know that you can hear the whisperers, and get them to be quiet at the same time. "I know this topic is controversial, but there's no need to whisper about it--I hope you all will be vocal when it's time for questions," or "People are really talking about this argument. People are even talking about it here and now," followed by a wait for a laugh, are two ways to handle it verbally.

What are you looking for here on public speaking and presenting? Share your question in the comments.

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Friday, October 14, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Anita Hill's Senate testimony about Clarence Thomas

Twenty years ago this month, Anita Hill, then a 35-year-old law professor, appeared before a Senate committee considering the confirmation of nominee Clarence Thomas as a U.S. Supreme Court justice and ignited a firestorm that still smolders today: She accused the nominee of sexual harrassment in formal testimony, describing situations in which they worked together while Thomas headed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the very government body intended to work against workplace harrassment and discrimination.

The hearing was highly charged from the outset. It was an unusual second confirmation hearing, forced by news reports about the allegations, which had been ignored by the committee in its first review of Thomas. Carried live by major television networks all over the world, the hearings brought sexual harrassment issues out into the open as never before.

Early in her testimony, she introduced not just the start of the harrassment, but the difficulty she experienced in speaking about it:
After approximately 3 months of working there, he asked me to go out socially with him. What happened next and telling the world about it are the two most difficult things, experiences of my life. It is only after a great deal of agonizing consideration and a number of sleepless nights that I am able to talk of these unpleasant matters to anyone but my close friends.
Speaking about the issue came up again at the end of her opening statement as well:
It would have been more comfortable to remain silent. It took no initiative to inform anyone. I took no initiative to inform anyone. But when I was asked by a representative of this committee to report my experience I felt that I had to tell the truth. I could not keep silent.

Anita Hill's statement and testimony brought a new women's topic out in the open and put it on the table, with lasting impact. NPR notes that EEOC sexual harrassment cases climbed in the years following the hearing, and that more women ran for and were elected to the Senate than ever, prompted by the frank discussion of a common but underground problem:
Before the hearings, women didn't talk about their harassment experiences. Often, they were embarrassed and blamed themselves, says Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics' Center for American Women and Politics. There "was a beast out there," Mandel says. "But it was invisible and it hadn't been named." According to University of Colorado Law Professor Melissa Hart, "the hearings certainly brought this issue into the public eye, and people started being willing to say, 'This happened to me.'"
The backlash against her began almost immediately. Thomas called the testimony and the hearing a "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves," and the committee chair, then-Senator Joe Biden, chose not to call witnesses to appear who might corroborate Hill's account. Here's what you can learn from this famous statement:
  • Difficult topics make the most powerful content: As I note in my essay on finding your voice as a speaker, you'll have especially compelling and riveting content if you can bring yourself to speak about the topics you find most difficult to discuss. This testimony proves that tenet. Hill's testimony riveted television viewers and spurred intense debate and discussion, particularly because sexual harrassment is so often not discussed publicly--something on which harrassers rely.
  • Sharing your difficulty in speaking can be important to your credibility, especially for women: While I often coach nervous speakers to avoid sharing their nervousness with the audience, in this case, Hill needed to establish her credibility and her motive in coming forward, in order to connect with not only the committee, but the audience watching on television. Mentioning that she did not seek to testify but was asked to do so, that she found it difficult and painful, and that she had not even informed anyone officially all helped answer questions that would otherwise have immediately been raised. Even with these points made, the backlash against her accusations was swift and angry in many quarters.
  • Simple language is best to convey complex issues: Hill is a learned and accomplished attorney, but this testimony is notable in the simplicity of its language--a quality that helped her frame the issue and the episodes she wanted to describe clearly, leaving no room for confusion.
Thomas was confirmed and serves today on the court; Hill is now a professor of social policy, law and women's studies at Brandeis University. You can see the transcript of Anita Hill's famous testimony here, and read an interview from last month in which she reflects on the testimony and what followed. I've included the video of her opening statement below. What do you think of this famous speech? Share your thoughts in the comments.



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Thursday, October 13, 2011

What are you looking for here about #publicspeaking?

From time to time, I like to ask readers to answer a couple of questions: "Who are you?" and "What are you looking for here about public speaking?"

Readers have answered these questions in many ways, from young speakers looking to appear more credible to senior speakers hoping to accomplish a specific task or correct a longtime problem. Some share goals or roadblocks, others great accomplishments.

I hope you'll take the time to share something about yourself and your hopes, fears, challenges or questions about public speaking, or just your experiences. If you have a question, I'll post answers to it here on the blog, so please feel free to pose one--or more. And thanks for reading.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

For Wednesday: Step Up Your Speaking newsletter


You don't need a fortune cookie to find the right words for your next presentation, speech or off-the-cuff remarks. Instead, be sure you're signed up before tomorrow for Step Up Your Speaking, the free monthly newsletter from The Eloquent Woman blog that focuses on a unique speaking topic in-depth each month. This month, it's all about the words you choose and how you use them to your advantage. From jokes and metaphors to speaking longer or shorter, from rhetorical flourishes to words that give you credibility and confidence, we've got it all. Sign up using the links below, and please share them with a speaking friend or colleague.

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Monday, October 10, 2011

What Prohibition did for women and public speaking

If you watched the Ken Burns documentary Prohibition, based on Daniel Okrent's book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, you might have noticed the active role women played in what was called the temperance movement--and the major role they played in public speaking on the issue. That was all the more unusual because, at the time, women rarely had the opportunity to speak in public.

In fact, their inability to speak in public on issues related to temperance spurred some women--like Susan B. Anthony--to go on to fight for votes for women. Over time, temperance (like abolition of slavery and other social causes focused on families) became a safe topic for women to speak about in public, and women in many cases led the movement against drinking alcohol. They were fueled by the Women's Christian Temperance Union, which emphasized public speaking:
Women began speaking about temperance because they believed it would control alcohol, and improve conditions for women and children. The national Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was formed in 1874 with the goal of improving conditions for women. Their motto, “For God, and Home, and Native Land,” reflected their views about women’s roles in society. All members and officers were women-unusual for the time-and their goals were to educate women in rhetoric, public speaking, and other useful topics, as well as found training schools for women and youth.
The PBS special highlights a few of the women who figured in the temperance movement and Prohibition. No surprise, public speaking turns up as a part of their experience. The women featured include:
  • Eliza Jane Thompson, moved to protest and organize protests against drinking after listening to a stirring speech. 
  • Mary Hunt, put in charge of lobbying and public education on temperance by the women's movement.  She caused thousands of classes of schoolchildren to listen to classes on temperance and the evils of drinking.
  • Frances Willard, longtime president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, who "claimed she had spoken in more than 1000 American towns, including every single city with more than 10,000 citizens--and most of those with only 5,000."
  • Mabel Willebrandt, an assistant attorney general of the United States in charge of enforcing Prohibition under President Harding. She took to the campaign trail for Hoover, giving speeches attacking his opponent and helping him win the election--but when he didn't appoint her Attorney General, she resigned and went into private practice. She's described as being the most famous woman in the country who wasn't a movie star.
  • Lois Long, a reporter assigned to cover New York nightlife for the New Yorker, described as the epitome of the flapper.
  • Pauline Sabin, an heiress and wife of a successful businessman, and the first woman to serve on the Republican National Committee. She started her own women's temperance group after growing disillusioned with both the movement and the politicians.
  • Carry Nation, the emblem of temperance who understood the value of using media coverage to achieve her goals--and used an ax to make her point, smashing up saloons. Watch this clip from the documentary about Nation. Nation was hated, mocked and ridiculed for her willingness to attract attention in a violent way, but never missed the opportunity to spread her message.

Watch the full episode. See more Ken Burns.


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Friday, October 7, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai's hummingbird fable

She started a movement to reforest Kenya, provide jobs for women and stop damaging erosion, paying women a small sum to plant the trees--and eventually, caused 30 million trees to be planted, helping 900,000 women. No wonder Wangari Maathai, who died in late September at age 71, won the Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai, who spoke in forums large and small all over the world, also suffered for speaking out: She was hit with tear gas and beaten unconscious when protesting in Kenya. Her obituary notes that "Her husband, Mwangi, divorced her, saying she was too strong-minded for a woman, by her account. When she lost her divorce case and criticized the judge, she was thrown in jail."

The same persistence that she showed in her work comes through in a story she told again and again in speeches, a fable about the hummingbird, who alone among the animals affected by a forest fire, attempts to put the fire out, as tiny as it is. Here's what you can learn from this storytelling speech:
  • A fable works in settings sophisticated and simple: Fables, an ancient teaching tool, are analogies in story form, replacing humans with animals. They're the oldest of old-school storytelling tactics, and have fallen out of favor in modern times. But for Maathai--who spoke in tiny Kenyan villages to illiterate women and in major international diplomatic forums--this story worked wherever she went.
  • Move your story forward with your voice and your gestures:  The rise and fall of her voice and her gestures--here, the flitting hummingbird going back and forth, there, the elephant's trunk--means Maathai needs no slides and no video to put across the story. The gestures underscore what she's saying, and they make sure the audience will more readily recall parts of the story.
  • A fable makes a strong ending: Some speakers trail off and ask for questions. But by using a fable  to tie her remarks together, Maathai ensures that her audience will be left with strong imagery, an easy-to-repeat story, and a straightforward lesson and call to action. "Be a hummingbird in your community, wherever you are," Maathai tells the audience. After this story, who would say no?
Watch Maathai tell this tale in the video below:

(Photo from World Agroforestry Centre's Flickr photostream)

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

"How do you want me to sound?" Should speakers alter their accents?

A few years ago, I was working with a senior scientist--one who'd had a long and illustrious career. He was delighted to have been asked to speak at his alma mater, to the 500 science majors there, and he asked my help in preparing for the big address. We talked about how to be relevant to a diverse group of young science students, what examples and stories he might use, a prop that might get the audience buzzing. And then he asked, "How do you want me to sound?"

At first, I didn't understand, and asked him to explain what he meant. That's when he told me that, as the child of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, his accent had always been noticeable--and that he was put through "elocution" courses in his youth. "What was the goal of those?" I asked. "They wanted you to sound like a white kid from Ohio," he said.

I told him he should just sound like himself, then took that speech a step further. He was going to speak to a melting pot of students from many countries, many of them immigrants of the modern day. One of his themes was how his profession was embracing diversity, so we decided he'd tell the story of those elocution lessons and their unachieveable goal. (The students were incredulous, and amused.)

But accents can hurt you when you're speaking in English in the U.S., research shows. (It's one of three ways your language shapes your speaking.) And I thought of my scientist client when I read this report on a civil rights complaint against Arizona's schools for having "accent police" who monitored teachers who speak English with an accent. "How do you want me to sound?" is a highly charged question, and one that creates a layer of anxiety for speakers whose first language is not English.

This issue mixes politics, insecurity and the things that make us different. I'm biased in favor of accents, as the child of a mother for whom French was her first language--and whose accent is still evident after many decades of living in the U.S. I'm curious about readers of The Eloquent Woman, who hail from many nations: What do you experience if you speak in accented English?  Share your thoughts in the comments, anonymously or not. Do you feel your accent is a liability or an asset?

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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

From the vault: 6 ways to speak about a contentious topic

(Editor's note: It happens a lot to political campaigners--and to ordinary speakers who just happen to face angry audiences over difficult issues. Whether you're campaigning or just trying to get through a meeting, tough topics add extra layers to your task. I've updated this longstanding post to reflect today's concerns for speakers addressing difficult subjects and contentious issues.)


You may not like to speak in public. You may fret over your delivery, voice, outfit, the lighting. Or perhaps you're a happy speaker, ever willing and comfortable. But when your topic or subject creates the difficulty, you're facing the great equalizer, the challenge that might thwart both the confident and the shy speaker.

And the definition of "tough topic" rests with you, the speaker. It may be tough for you personally--the eulogy of a parent who's died, or the toast to a child on her wedding day. It may be tough for you as a speaker, if you face a contentious topic or audience that might explode, or if you're especially nervous. Tough can be a momentary but pointed political debate, an argument impossible to win, your nerves about the topic, the circumstances of the day, a politically incorrect issue and more. So how to plan and prepare? Here are six ways to take the plunge:
  1. Listen: If your audience is angry, taking sides or otherwise a tough crowd, engage them from the start by listening, rather than talking. Tell them you'll begin in a few minutes, but you want to hear right from the start from them. It may not disarm them completely, but it will help them vent--and help you get a better sense of where they stand. Then work their comments into your presentation. No need to answer things at this point. Just listen before you speak. My twist on this: I tell the audience I want their questions up front. I'll answer some on the spot, or promise to get to them during my remarks.

  2. Acknowledge: It doesn't matter whether you agree or disagree with angry or contentious questioners or comments. Thank each audience member for sharing her views. Acknowledge that the situation he's describing is difficult, frustrating or a conundrum. In many cases, your tough crowd just wants to be recognized--and sure that you know how its members feel. Make sure they know you've heard them. This isn't actually about your views, but theirs.

  3. Emote: No need to hide your feelings if you are speaking to a topic fraught with them. Yes, you can cry, pause when you're overcome by emotion, or give a rousing cheer for an exciting development. And if someone says something preposterous, feel free to laugh--then explain why. But no need to bring your poker face.

  4. Ask: You can use this tactic a couple of ways. I've coached speakers who had to address contentious crowds with conflicting goals and lots of political tripwires, and often, I'll suggest that the speaker simply state the contentious questions...without answering them. That's especially effective if the speaker won't be in a position to address all the issues completely, but wants to be sure to demonstrate an understanding of the issues. It's another form of acknowledging the crowd's issues.  This article on speaking differently to people skeptical of climate change offers some concrete examples of how to engage an audience that thinks it's against you. Don't forget: If you insist, instead of ask, you risk hardening your audience's opposition.

  5. Reflect: Add some perspective, and reflect aloud for your difficult audience or on a troublesome issue. Remind your listeners of similar problems that occurred long ago--especially if they sound eerily similar to today's issue, or if they demonstrate how much worse things were long ago. Talk about your own wrestling with a tough issue, so they understand more of your thinking. Or share a memory only you have, one that will help them see a new side of what you're describing. Finally, when faced with a question about what you'll do--one you can't answer today--tell the group you want to reflect on it before making a decision, and ask for their input on the spot.

  6. Respond, don't react:  Contentious issues are often a test of your patience, and some provocateurs in the audience want nothing more than to see you react--it almost doesn't matter what the reaction is, it'll get dissected, sneered at, celebrated, whatever. Instead, focus on responding. Check out these tips on our sister blog, don't get caught, in Do you react or respond? How not to get caught in an answer.
Related posts:Speaking challenge: Deliver your mother's eulogy

Graceful ways with Q&A

Handling hecklers: How to do it

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Monday, October 3, 2011

September's top 10 #publicspeaking tips and issues

In September, readers zoomed in and focused on these public speaking and presenting tips--as well as several inspiring examples of great women speakers. Here are the month's most-read posts:
  1. Michelle Obama's speech to young African women leaders, one of our Famous Speech Friday posts, took the top spot in this month's popular posts. 
  2. Do you under-explain? 3 ways to check whether you're saying too little focused on the speaker whose reticence might be holding her back.
  3. Why speakers should let audience members doodle, which includes a video of a TED talk on doodling and its impact on listening, also struck a nerve with readers--this post was widely shared on social networks.
  4. Do you end sentences with an upward inflection? 3 ways to sound sure of yourself considered a speaking habit many listeners find annoying--or worse, an erosion of your credibility. I offer you some practice tips for getting rid of this habit, and information on intonation to help you think it through.
  5. No projector? No problem--Use QR codes and SlideShare to share your slides offers a high-tech but simple way to recover when the projector breaks--or just isn't there.
  6. I declare: Use language to sound confident as a speaker helps you reorganize your sentence structure to come across confidently.
  7. Nellie McClung's "Should Men Vote?" was a popular Famous Speech Friday post about a funny, bold Canadian suffragette who turned the tables on detractors--and helped advance votes for women. A great reader suggestion led me to this post, which will make you laugh and learn at the same time.
  8. Lucille Ball's acceptance speech at her Variety Club tribute showed this funny lady striking a balance between humor and composure--and can teach you some tips for handling award acceptance speeches with style.
  9. Get insider tips on debating, moderating shared newsman Jim Lehrer's new book about his 11 turns as moderator for televised U.S. presidential debates. It's loaded with stories, tales of his and others' mistakes, and lots of insight and advice for moderators and debaters.
  10. Princess Diana and the ban on landmines, our final Famous Speech Friday for September, was quick to make this list. The post looks at a speech given three weeks before her death, in which she strove for--and achieved--a more serious, substantive look and voice.
Thanks so much for reading this month!

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