Monday, January 31, 2011

Our top 10 public speaking tips for January


Did you start 2011 by unlocking new secrets to improve your public speaking? Lots of readers focused on this month's posts with improved speaking in mind--maybe working those resolutions? I welcome new readers and hope you'll explore all this blog has to offer. Here are the posts you made most popular in the first month of 2011:
  1. Do you auto-apologize? Time to do a "sorry" audit zoomed to the top of this month's top 10 posts. It's a guest post by Michael Melcher, who thinks women apologize too much when they speak--and looks at how we use "sorry." So many people read this post that it's now fifth on the list of most-read posts ever on the blog--what does that tell you?
  2. Ruby Bridges: Walking out of a Norman Rockwell painting to teach kids about racism profiled the woman who integrated New Orleans schools when she was just a child--and today uses the Rockwell portrait of that time to introduce herself when she speaks. A December post that revved up in January.
  3. Famous Speech Fridays kicked off a new series with a post on Coretta Scott King's "10 Commandments on Vietnam" speech, delivered just weeks after her husband was assassinated. A reader suggested the series, and by the looks of it, you like it--it's our third most-read post this month.
  4. 5 things speakers should ask the meeting planner reminds you not to overlook this useful source of information before your next gig. Meeting planner Jennifer Collins shared her insider perspective in this well-read guest post, covering everything from the backdrops to your content.
  5. Ursula K. LeGuin's "left-handed commencement address" was another in the Famous Speech Fridays series. One speechwriter-reader wrote in: "This speech by Ursula LeGuin is dy-no-mite!! Very brave, isn't it? I wonder if women think the same of society speaking in the 'language of men' today as they might have back int he 80s. At any rate, I loved her speech, and thank you so much for brining to our attention." LeGuin has linked to this post on her website, I'm happy to report.
  6. Davos forum to set quota for women at meeting looked at a new gender diversity policy for the high-level, expensive-to-attend Switzerland gathering of the World Economic Forum. Not everyone agrees with the policy, but it underscores the continuing difficulty women have getting into and on the programs of significant conferences in all fields.
  7. How can I take my presentation style to the next level? looked at all the factors that will upgrade your presence and presenting--all skills covered in our "Good On Your Feet" workshops.
  8. Speakers, are you afraid of...success? was a popular guest post by Selena Rezvani, author of the NextGen Women's blog. She examines what she calls "our adult fear of being great." Do you do that?
  9. What should I do with my hands when I'm not gesturing? reminds us that eloquence doesn't just consist of pretty words. Feeling and looking at ease when you speak matters, too--and this tip will help you do that, plus speak more fluently.Just a reminder: The Step Up Your Speaking free monthly email newsletter comes out next week, so now's a great time to sign up. Check out the links below.
  10. Women's voices: Are you speaking too low? is a guest post from vocal coach Kate Peters that challenges notions about where to pitch your speaking voice. Turns out that in correcting a too-high voice, you may be harming your vocal chords by setting your speaking too low. A useful post!
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Friday, January 28, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Sheila Widnall on women in engineering

Sheila Widnall's a rock star and a rarity in engineering, a field where women have traditionally been underrepresented.  An MIT professor and the first female secretary of the Air Force (shown here in a flight suit as part of her official duties), Widnall has been a frequent speaker for decades.

But it's her speech Digits of Pi: Barriers and Enablers for Women in Engineering that's become a classic. It was delivered to a southeast regional meeting of the National Academy of Engineering in 2000. Despite the title, there are no long strings of numbers in the speech, which focuses instead on the real, everyday barriers that women engineers face. Here's one story she tells with great effect:


I once got a call from a female faculty colleague at another university. She was having trouble teaching her class in statistics. All of the football players who were taking it were sitting in the back row and generally misbehaving. If she asked me for advice on that today I don't know what I'd say. But what I did say—that worked—was that she should call them in one by one and get to know them as individuals. This evidently worked and she sailed on....I believe that all women faculty members have such challenges to their authority in ways that would never happen to a man. Students will call a female professor "Mrs." and a male professor "Professor." I told one student that if he ever addressed Sen. Feinstein as Mrs. Feinstein, he would find himself in the hall. If it is happening to women faculty members, I'm sure it is happening to women students, this constant challenge to who they are.


More on why I like this speech so well, and why it can be useful to you:

  • The language couldn't be simpler, clearer or (as a result) more powerful.  Aside from the reference to pi, you'll be hard-pressed to find much of the technical in this talk by an engineer. She's not out to impress the audience with her knowledge or long, complex, formal titles. It's loaded with active verbs and short, simple descriptions. This allows her message to stick with the audience, and makes the talk work for any audience, although it was delivered to engineering colleagues. That's one reason it has had such staying power on the web and in speech anthologies.
  • She gives us the barriers and the solutions to the problem she describes: Widnall uses four "top 10" lists to describe the barriers she sees for women in engineering, as well as the opportunities or "enablers" that will help eradicate the barriers someday. In between, she weaves stories and adds a judicious amount of data to illustrate her points. The result is a balanced call to action. Like many other speeches I admire, this audience didn't leave the room wondering what she wanted it to do.
  • She tells stories on herself.  Perhaps most powerful is her description of a meeting she had with a project team of two students, one male, one female. Widnall says, "...I found myself directing my comments to the guy whenever there was discussion about building, welding, or cutting. I caught myself short and consciously began to direct my comments evenly. I went to my departmental colleagues and said: "This is what happened to me. If I'm doing it, you surely are." Telling a story on yourself is a powerful type of sharing. No one can say you've got it wrong, and it demonstrates a high level of self-confidence as well as humility.

Finally, all those qualities combine to make this a memorable speech--one audience members can quote with ease. It has the emotional power of personal testimony, repeatable stories and a strong call to act.  What do you think about this famous speech, on a Friday?




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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Get 'Good On Your Feet' as a speaker in our March 2-3 workshop


Whether you're making a focused business presentation or an inspiring speech, you want to do more than read your text or your slides. How will you remember what you want to say, without looking at notes? What if you get a question out of left field--and freeze? How can you look confident and relaxed, instead of pinned to the lectern?

Those are the skills you can learn when you attend our next Good On Your Feet! workshop on dynamic public speaking and presentation skills, March 2 and 3 in Washington, DC..  It's a small-group, two-day intensive training that will show you how to get ready, relaxed and resilient in dealing with all kinds of speaker situations--while looking and feeling more prepared and confident.

Here's what participants in the last Good On Your Feet! workshop had to say:
  • "I feel more confident in my ability to give presentations--thanks!"
  • "I found useful the Q-and-A response tactics and a pausing technique that I can use."
  • "Most valuable: practicing with feedback from Denise and the other participants."
  • "Most valuable for me were the graceful ways with Q-and=A, critiques, video recording and moving around (walking and talking)."
You'll get takeaway materials, plenty of practice and coaching and continental breakfast, lunch and breaks each day of the workshop. Subscribers to our newsletters get a 25 percent discount on registration. Use the links below to subscribe, then reserve your place in the next Good On Your Feet! workshop here.

And if you 're a speaker wanting to know how to use social-media tools to promote your next gig, check out a February 18 lunch-and-learn, The Networked Communicator, in Washington, DC. You'll learn about which online profiles help you promote your speaking gigs, and how to make the best use of them.

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What should I do with my hands when I'm not gesturing?

I often ask participants in my presentation or public speaking trainings where they think their hands belong when they are not gesturing. Most people immobilize their hands, gripping them together or grabbing both sides of the lectern. Some hold them together, lower than the waist, in what we call "fig leaf" and "reverse fig leaf" when they're behind your back. You know who you are. And others--mostly men--put their hands in their pockets, thinking this looks casual and solves the problem. In fact, they may be doing more harm than good.

Your hands will best serve you during a speech or presentation if they're available for your use at a moment's notice--and that means you should hold them at rest with your elbows bent, and fingers touching, but not gripping, those of the opposite hand. You can rest one hand on the other lightly, but don't grip.

This option helps you in three ways:
  1. Your hands and arms are now free to gesture up or down without having to travel a long way (distracting to you and your audience). If you're not immobilizing them, they're ready to move.
  2. On camera or when speaking behind a lectern, you'll need to be gesturing near your face if your hands are to be seen. Holding them at your waist keeps them closer to the place they need to be.
  3. You'll speak more fluently. If you grip your hands or otherwise hold them still, you're more likely to make a verbal error.
Once you practice this, it will help you look relaxed and natural, giving you the appearance of a calm, collected speaker. This technique also works for people with the opposite problem, those who gesture too much. Holding your hands at the ready can feel like a gesture and give your hands something to do other than flapping.

Related posts:  How gestures contribute to your message

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Do you auto-apologize? Time to do a "sorry" audit

(Editor's note: The other day, a young woman seeking speaker training called me...and apologized.  For calling, for needing training, for apologizing, even. That's when I knew I needed to share Michael Melcher's post "Sorry for saying this...(well, not really)" with you--and do so here with his permission. He's the author of The Creative Lawyer: A Practical Guide to Authentic Professional Satisfaction. Take the time to read this and reflect on how you use the words "I'm sorry," then share this post with a friend or colleague, and start discussing it. This is as important a skill for women speakers as gesturing or message development. I'm grateful that Michael was able to capture and analyze it so well. Will you do the "sorry audit" he suggests?)

Here’s a really effective way to diminish your credibility in the workplace and reduce your own confidence: say “I’m sorry” a lot.

People – and by “people” I mean “women” – say "sorry" all the time. Most professional women say it far more than they are aware. It creeps into all kinds of conversations:

“Sorry for interrupting . . .”

“Sorry I didn’t get this to you sooner.”

“I’m sorry you didn't have time to finish this.”

“I’m so sorry that [train delay, argument, spill] happened to you!”

In addition to actually speaking the word “sorry,” it’s possible to communicate “sorry” with many nonverbal behaviors, the embarrassed shoulder shrug (usually accompanied by closed-mouth exaggerated smile) being the most prominent.

“I’m sorry” can mean lots of things. It can mean “I did something bad” like cutting you off, cheating on my taxes, or not leaving a final muffin on the communal plate. Mostly sorry-as-apology seems to apply to non-tragic situations where it's not clear that anything has even happened. It has the meaning, “Maybe I should have been more considerate, but I wasn’t, so I want you to know that I’m aware of my shortcomings.”

“Sorry!” can also mean, “I think you just criticized me, and I feel awkward and embarrassed being criticized, and I'm not sure what to say, but I need to say something, so I'll say I'm sorry.” Example: “Joan, there were a few typos on the prospectus.” “Sorry!”

"I'm sorry that you ..." can be an expression of disapproval. "I'm sorry that you didn't have time to review the documents" is an example. Most listeners would find this to be a pretty clear criticism (albeit a passive-aggressive one); yet my impression is that many speakers of such words are quite sure that they mean nothing of the sort.

“Sorry” can also be fishing for appreciation or expressing a complaint. “Here's the draft of the offering memorandum; I worked on it until 6 am but then had to go to an 8 am doctor's appointment, sorry I wasn't able to reschedule it.”

“I’m sorry” has a totally different use, as an expression of sympathy. It shows that you understand that an unfortunate thing that happened to a fellow human being, whether that’s an annoying conversation or something actually serious, and you want to show your sympathy. It’s a bridge expression, combining a feeling of “that sucks” with “I am concerned.” The problem is that it is vastly overused, and in my own experience, tends to add a distracting emotional element to things I think are pretty trivial. If I say, "I got totally wet in the one-block walk from the subway stop to my office" and a colleague responds, "I'm sorry!" I think, "huh?"

Men, by the way, use “sorry” approximately one-zillionth the frequency women do, at least in the professional world. Barbara Annis, who wrote an interesting book on gender differences in the workforce called Leadership and the Sexes: Using Gender Science to Create Success in Business,
says that women use “sorry” as a way of bonding and creating harmony. She says further that women don’t always mean they are actually sorry when they say it – it’s just an accepted nice thing to say.

One of my professional goals is the empowerment of all women (especially those in the developing world, but that’s another story). So I will just lay out my opinion: women, you’ve got to STOP saying “sorry.” Just get rid of it. It’s holding you back, especially because most of the time you use it you are probably not even aware of it. For the time-being, our work norms are male-dominated, so if you say "sorry” a lot in professional settings your words are going to make you seem ineffectual, uncertain, and frequently wrong.

Do a “sorry” audit and figure out how often you are using it, and in what situations. If what you really mean is, “I apologize for something significant” then it might be okay. But if it doesn’t rise to that level, don’t say it. Second, save your “I’m sorry about your _____” expression of sympathy for things that actually matter. Saying “I’m sorry” when a colleague complains, “the traffic sucked,” doesn’t count. And if you hear female colleagues, especially younger ones, boarding the sorry express, clue them in. There are better uses for their energy than being sorry. (Affiliate links)

Related posts: Do women speakers apologize too much?

Jump in, don't apologize: Tina Fey on using improv skills to speak up

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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Women’s voices: Are you speaking too low?

(Editor's note:  When vocal coach Kate Peters and I got together here in Washington, we traded stories and tips about speaking--and she brought up an intriguing view, that women are more likely to lower their voices too much and cause damage. Since so many women focus on whether their speaking voice is pitched too high, I thought this would be an important issue to discuss here, and Kate has generously shared this guest post, addressing both issues. Read and learn!  You can follow her blog, Kate's Voice, for more vocal tips.)

When I was growing up, my mother was active in the feminist movement. After going back to college when I was in high school, she eventually took that experience and turned it into a career. She helped women get back in the work force. In a sense, she helped women find their voices. Today, we are out there in the work force raising our voices and being heard in places my mom and her generation only dreamed of. However, in order to be taken seriously, I suspect that we have made some adjustments in order to compete with men. When it comes to speaking, some of those choices are actually detrimental to success.

Are we trying to sound like men?

Since 1945, the pitch of women’s voices in the United States has dropped significantly, so that, on the average, women now speak only 2/3 of an octave higher than men instead of a full octave, which was the norm before 1945. Swedish women speak lower than Americans and the Dutch speak lower than all others. This indicates that in the western world, there is a belief that a powerful voice is a low voice. I realize that a small percentage of women have low enough voices to sound like men whether they want to or not. However, the average woman’s voice is a second soprano, not an alto.

But is the most powerful voice a low voice? A recent study at the University of Pennsylvania showed that men with a deep, masculine voice were seen as more dominant by other men. However, that study did not include women. For each of us, the most powerful voice in the world is our mother’s voice. This has been confirmed in many research studies. One study revealed that smoke alarms that use a mother’s voice instead of a bell wakes kids faster. . Another showed that just hearing the sound of your mother’s voice can reduce stress. . And finally, a recent study in Montreal showed that Mom’s voice is key to language learning in children. The point of citing this research is that the low pitch of a voice has nothing to do with power. It has to do with our perception of power.

Using an average speaking pitch that is too low or too high for extended periods of time (like all day!) puts a strain on the vocal folds, causing chronic hoarseness, limited range, and a husky vocal quality. You may like the ‘sexy’ effect, but it is actually a sign of a health problem. If not addressed, the vocal abuse that creates a husky voice will eventually manifest larger issues such as nodules or polyps.

Speaking too high is just as bad. How often have you heard someone complain about a woman’s voice that is whiny or shrill? Clearly a high, shrieky voice is powerfully irritating, but this is probably not the kind of power most women are seeking! In general, a voice that is pitched either too low or too high has less flexibility for expression, less resonance, and puts you at risk for health issues. So, how do you know whether you are speaking too high or too low?

A pitch perfectly poised to project your personal power

There is a speaking pitch that is best for your health, creates powerful resonance, and allows for true vocal variety. Centering your voice on that optimum pitch will create the kind of vocal power you want without damage to your vocal image or your vocal health. Better yet, you can easily find it. Here’s how: say “MMM-hmm (yes!)," out loud, with energy. Observe how it sounds and feels. When we say that as Americans, we usually say it at the optimum pitch for our voice. Try it. Listen to the pitch and also feel where it resonates. You will probably feel it vibrate in the front of your face, or “the mask.” Now start speaking at the pitch you just discovered and try to keep that buzzy feeling in the mask as you say a few words. I am not suggesting that you should speak in a monotone or on one pitch. Instead, center your pitch in the optimum pitch area, and use inflection to deviate from it as desired for expression.

How to cultivate the habit of speaking at the right pitch

Once you have found your optimum speaking pitch, there are two good ways to develop the habit of speaking there.

Get a pitch pipe,find your pitch on the pipe, and remind yourself of that pitch by sounding it on the pitch pipe often throughout the day, humming the pitch, and then speaking a few sentences on that pitch.

Begin a new sentence with MMM-hmm and focus on keeping the pitch of your voice at about that same pitch level after the initial MMM-hmm. Repeat several times. Do this several times throughout the day. You will gradually become more aware of pitch in your voice and be able to keep your speaking voice at your optimum pitch level.

Finding the right pitch for your voice is a way of centering your voice, much as you center your self psychologically. Finding your optimum pitch cultivates a healthy core to your sound that is resonant and vibrant. Through your vocal image, the perception given to others is that YOU are centered, vibrant and resonant, and that’s powerful!  (Affiliate link)

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Using humor to connect with your audience

When I asked readers on The Eloquent Woman on Facebook about the one thing they want to improve about their public speaking, Deborah Barbara Adams and Kelly Tran both said "using humor to connect with your audience."

I love to use humor when I speak--in everyday life, presentations, and formal speeches. It's worth considering why this is a good thing, and when to use it before you plunge in.

Speechwriter and commentator Peggy Noonan wishes more speakers used humor wisely and well. Speaking about political campaigns, but applicable to your next speech, she says:
A voter laughing is half yours, and just received a line he can repeat next weekend over a beer at the barbecue or online at Starbucks. Here is a fact of American politics: If you make us laugh we spread your line for free....When two people meet, as they come to know each other as neighbors or colleagues, one of the great easers, one of the great ways of making a simple small human connection is: shared laughter....fill that area with humor: sly humor, teasing humor, humor that speaks a great truth or makes a sharp point.
So, just how do you do that, as a speaker? Here's my guidance:
  1. Don't confuse making fun of someone with humor: Humor that hurts others or undermines them isn't funny--particularly when they're sitting right in front of you, and you have the microphone. You may make yourself laugh, but you'll distance yourself--rather than connect--with the audience. A quick test: How would you react if you were in the audience and your worst enemy said that about you while she was speaking? If it doesn't pass that test, don't use it.
  2. Consider how well you know your audience:  Humor is nearly always a risk--so think first about what you know about your audience and tailor the humor accordingly. This need not hold you back from using humor, but consider it when you decide how far to take your humorous contribution.
  3. Deadpan:  Deadpan humor takes work, and requires that you know your audience and whether they'll get it. But when it works, it's delightful. (Think of Leslie Nielsen's "Don't call me Shirley.") Deadpan humor can be a great way to keep a situation or exchange from being too tense or heavy.
  4. Summarize with humor: I gave a talk about using social media for professional career networking, and got a tortured question from an audience member who had been told by a colleague that if she posted a profile on LinkedIn, "everyone will think you're job-hunting."  There was a lot I could say, but I kept it to two points: "That person probably wanted to keep you from being his competition. Listen: Employers are fickle. Social media is your friend." That got a good chuckle from the audience, and summed it up better than anything else I could have said.
  5. Use the humor when it can bring the audience together: I like to use an icebreaker that gets a small group up on their feet, and tricks them into choosing someone else to be the actual volunteer.  Everyone laughs once they get the joke, and I usually say, "I just made five new friends" of the people who didn't actually have to come up front. (We also give applause to both groups.)
  6. Fill an awkward gap:  When a speaker brushed past a large Irish crystal award intended to be presented to the evening's honoree and sent it off the stage, breaking into a million pieces, the emcee turned to the honoree and said, "You're going to receive more pieces of Irish crystal than anyone in history." If you can make lemonades out of lemons in that way, go with the humorous take.  I've done the same when I've been ill during a conference, and fellow attendees knew it; when I got to speaking, I said, "Normally I like to display a lot of infectious enthusiasm about my topic, but if you don't mind, let's skip the infectious part and get on with the enthusiasm." It was a gentle way to acknowledge, then dismiss, my illness and keep it from interfering with the presentation.
Be sure to check out the posts below, which go further into how to use humor--and why you shouldn't turn it on yourself. How do you use humor?

Related posts:  Don't make yourself the joke: Jerry Brown shows speakers how to recover

Marlo Thomas dissects humor, and how the pros use it

When self-deprecating humor doesn't work for you

The joke-teller's memory problem: Why not to start with a joke

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Friday, January 21, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Hillary Clinton's concession speech

It wasn't the speech she wanted to give and it wasn't the speech her followers wanted to hear. So Hillary Clinton ended her candidacy for the U.S. presidency and opened her concession speech with "Well, this isn't exactly the party I'd planned, but I sure like the company."

This speech had competing goals that would be tough under any circumstances. It needed to thank volunteers and supporters and acknowledge their hard work. It had to reflect the disappointment, but move the crowd to support for Barack Obama, who would become the Democratic nominee. And it needed to reflect the historic nature of her candidacy, coming so close as it did to bringing the U.S. its first woman president. In this speech, she changed her standard answer about being a woman candidate:
....when I was asked what it means to be a woman running for President, I always gave the same answer: that I was proud to be running as a woman but I was running because I thought I'd be the best President. But I am a woman, and like millions of women, I know there are still barriers and biases out there, often unconscious. I want to build an America that respects and embraces the potential of every last one of us. I ran as a daughter who benefited from opportunities my mother never dreamed of. I ran as a mother who worries about my daughter's future and a mother who wants to lead all children to brighter tomorrows....You can be so proud that, from now on, it will be unremarkable for a woman to win primary state victories, unremarkable to have a woman in a close race to be our nominee, unremarkable to think that a woman can be the President of the United States. And that is truly remarkable.
Here's what worked so well about this speech:
  • She shortened the distance between herself and her audience:  Clinton closed the gap in two ways, physically and with her words. In a hall with soaring ceilings, she chose the shortest possible podium and stood at a lectern elevated only slightly higher than the supporters on the floor.  And knowing that the women supporting her saw something of themselves in her, she spoke to them as a friend, saying, "To those who are disappointed that we couldn't go all the way - especially the young people who put so much into this campaign - it would break my heart if, in falling short of my goal, I in any way discouraged any of you from pursuing yours."
  • She let the audience participate, despite the size of the crowd:  With a crowd this big, applause and cheers are the audience's ways to play along. Clinton let them express themselves. In paragraph three, she begins, "Young people....," and the young people break into a prolonged cheer. She smiles and gestures widely as if to say, "See, there they are."
  • She was generous and positive:  Concession speeches usually run the gamut from dry to less than effusive, and some candidates skip them altogether.  Clinton was more than just diplomatic. She used the speech to make clear her support for Obama and to ask her supporters to do the same, and told them why they should. Even when describing her (and her supporters') disappointments, she kept the tone positive. It's why the speech works--not just for the audience, but in positioning her for her next steps.
  • She drew a picture of the future and made a strong call to action to refocus the crowd: Refocusing the crowd was the order of the day. Clinton reminded them of the common cause they had with the rest of the party, and urged them to put their considerable energy into making that happen. No one left that day without an idea of what she'd asked.
Watch the video of the speech below.
(Photo from EvinDC's Flickrstream)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Let a future speaker tag along and learn how to prep

One of my former employees asked me out to lunch recently. To my surprise, she wanted to recall something I'd almost forgotten: The time I invested in training her in presenting and public speaking.

She worked for me early in her public relations career, and her sociable personality made us think she'd do well in an outreach position, working with members of our nonprofit association. The job required her to run a training workshop to show those members great ways they could do community outreach and public relations within their local chapters--and to speak at gatherings to recruit members to this activity. Only problem? She was both untrained in, and daunted by, public speaking.  And I mean daunted.  She seemed confident and self-assured, but confided this was her stumbling block.

Instead of thinking we'd made a mistake, we invested -- in training with a speaker trainer, in coaching her ourselves, and in encouraging her to take on more training through Toastmasters and any opportunity to speak.  Now, more than a decade later, she shared two things that were valuable for her in that process:
  1. "You took me with you." After she'd had a formal half-day training, focused on a presentation she'd be giving over and over again, we tag-teamed her first few presentations in front of a real audience. We worked on a presentation that would let her shine, but that we shared, taking some of the pressure off her. If a tough, unexpected question came up, I could field it. If she faltered, I could chime in. That level of "I have your back" made a big difference, as it turned out.
  2. "You insisted on preparation." She recalled a most-memorable moment from our tag-team days. We were at a member meeting, and presenting in the after-lunch session. At lunch, with a table full of fellow staffers, I looked at her and said, "Let's go check out the room" about 15 minutes before the end of the luncheon. The other staff members asked why, saying, "But you guys always do great presentations." My reply: "That's because we prepare." We had also spent the morning in my hotel room, going over the presentation, our hand-offs and transitions, and figuring out any rough spots. The 15 minute prep in the room was our audio-visual prep, our chance to walk the room and see how it would work when we walked into the audience, and our last-minute chance to get comfortable in the setting.
Today, this former employee of mine works for a public relations firm where she's involved in business development--meaning lots of team presentations that will make an enormous difference in the firm's bottom line. It's a high-impact job with the potential to propel her even further, and she's ready, having the tools to prepare herself.

I can't describe how gratifying it was to hear this feedback--but it reminded me of the important role management can play in creating confident, skilled speakers and presenters. We take for granted that people can pick up presentation skills, but showing them firsthand how it's done can make a world of difference in boosting confidence and making the experience meaningful. Investing in your early career staff members, not just with professional presentation and speaker training, but your own encouragement and coaching, pays off.  Take the time to model the behavior and walk the talk. You'll be thrilled with the results.

Related posts: Memo to the boss: 8 reasons I need training

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

5 things speakers should ask the meeting planner

(Editor's note: Jennifer Collins is the president and owner of The Event Planning Group, one of the Washington Business Journal's top 25 meeting and event planning agencies in the Washington, D.C. region. A frequent speaker herself, she's organized every kind of event, from intimate to large-scale. She's also extraordinarily committed to mentoring women, serving as an advisory board member of Enterprising Women Magazine, and volunteering with public service organizations Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated and Girls, Inc. of Washington, DC – an organization providing educational programs to young girls in high risk, underserved areas. I asked Jennifer to share her insights for speakers--perhaps the most practical advice you'll ever get--from her vantage point as a meeting planner. And she delivered.)

Being a public speaker is more than just hanging out your ‘shingle’ and advertising that you’re now available for gigs. As a meeting planner, I’ve worked with a wide assortment of speakers. And I always appreciate those who go the extra mile in researching the exact scope, environment, audience and other details to help them best deliver their message. You might think that’s pretty standard – and it probably should be – but unfortunately that’s not always the case.

Before making the next commitment, here are the top 5 things speakers should know from a meeting planner:
  1. Identify room setup. You should ask questions about the room setup, for instance, will you will be behind a podium, or on a panel? If on a panel, will there be seating behind a table or in separate chairs? If chairs, what kind? This may sound rather anal; however, I’ve seen many presenters on panels who did not know they would be sitting in director’s chairs. If you’re a female in a skirt that happens to be too short or doesn’t easily move when you sit down, this could be rather uncomfortable and potentially give the audience a bit too much to see. Or if your preference is to appear behind a podium and organizers expect you to roam the stage in delivering your remarks, it’s probably best to know that before you arrive.
  2. To allow AV or No AV…that’s an important question. Have you ever showed up with PowerPoint in hand only to learn that there’s no equipment for such use? It may happen more often than you think. Finding out the overall format of the presentation is critical as well as allowances for audio visual equipment, including internet access. Sometimes lack of AV could be a budgetary consideration. At other times, it simply may not suit the program. Make sure to ask about it.
  3. Timing is everything. There’s one timeframe I least enjoy speaking within at select events. It’s immediately after lunch. It seems that pesky little onset of drowsiness seems to take hold of many in the audience. Therefore, find out when you’re on…and if it’s right after lunch, know that this probably is not the time to deliver an overall dissertation. But it also could prompt you to be more creative with your presentation. I found the following tips to be good points on livening up the presentation.
  4. Know your audience. I realize this sounds so generic, but I remain amazed at how many speakers simply have “canned” presentations they unleash on any audience. Remember, the point is for the audience to take something away, whether it’s learning something new, gaining a fresh perspective or encouraging a behavioral change. Whatever the case, make it relevant.
  5. A little background knowledge is key. And I’m not referring to knowing your audience as previously discussed, rather what will the stage backdrop look like? Some might consider this to be rather vain; however, this makes a difference for such activities as video recording. For instance, white is not a great color for videotaping or photography – on camera it presents a washed-out look. So it would be a good idea not to wear white or appear in front of a white backdrop. Another item I notice quite frequently is the use of black drape behind the podium. First, there’s nothing wrong with black drape. We certainly use it for many of our meetings and conferences at The Event Planning Group, LLC. However, if you happen to wear black, and your hair color is a dark color or potentially black as well, then you’ll blend in with the drape. I’ve seen this many times where the outline image of the person’s face is the only aspect coming through because of the blending effect. So consider asking about the backdrop color so that you’re not only heard, but seen as well.
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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"How can I take my presentation style to the next level?"


Good public speaking and presenting skills don't come naturally. They take practice--something lots of managers avoid or can't seem to set aside time to do.  But practice lets you try, make mistakes and correct them fast, and gives you a safer place to fail than a real-life presentation. And the more you practice, the better you'll be on your feet. Practice and training help you make it look effortless.

If you're looking to step up your presenting game and take it to the next level, you'll want to master such skills as:
  • Relying less on the lectern or standing in one place, and replacing that with confident movement around the room--a way to keep your audience's attention and even emphasize key points;
  • Using gestures and props strategically, to make your message stick in the minds of your listeners and to help you speak more smoothly (a trick you can take advantage of);
  • Speaking without notes while still remembering your key points--and making it easier for your listeners to remember them; and
  • Handling Q-and-A with ease, ready to answer questions or handle difficult questioners without getting anxious.
Those are the skills we'll work on in the next "Good On Your Feet" workshop on dynamic public speaking and presenting skills from The Eloquent Woman, March 2 and 3 in Washington, DC. You'll be able to find out how to structure your presentation or speech to help you work without notes, and get plenty of time delivering a message using dynamic movement and gesture while you rehearse a Q-and-A session.  The intensive two-day workshop is a small-group training, so you can ask lots of questions and get plenty of time to practice and master skills.  Continental breakfast, lunch and takeaway materials are included both days.

Here's what participants in the last Good On Your Feet! workshop had to say:
  • "I feel more confident in my ability to give presentations--thanks!"
  • "I found useful the question-and-answer response tactics and a pausing technique that I can use."
  • "Most valuable: practicing with feedback from Denise and the other participants."
  • "Most valuable for me were the graceful ways with questions and answers, critiques, video recording and moving around (walking and talking).
Register today for the workshop--spaces are limited! I look forward to working with you.

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Davos forum to set quota for women at meeting

The World Economic Forum's gender diversity committee has announced that the exclusive meeting has imposed a minimum quota for women's participation at the meeting in Davos, Switzerland. From the Guardian:
The forum's "strategic partners" – a group of about 100 companies including Barclays, Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank – have been told they must bring along at least one woman in every group of five senior executives sent to the high-profile event. Strategic partners account for 500 of the 2,500 participants expected this year at a gathering where David Cameron will rub shoulders with the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, historian Niall Ferguson, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, at least one member of the Saudi royal family and countless business supremos and members of the academic elite....Fewer than 3% of chief executives of the world's biggest 500 companies are women, and a little over 15% of ministerial and parliamentary positions are occupied by women, the WEF said today.
This gets women in the room, but not necessarily on the program. Go here to see all our posts about getting women on the program as speakers. What do you think about this diversity move?

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Monday, January 17, 2011

"I Have a Dream" speechwriter shares tales of famous speech


Attorney Clarence Jones, who helped to write Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famed "I Have a Dream" speech, has written a new book, Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation. In this interview with NPR's Fresh Air, Jones shares some of the behind-the-scenes stories leading to King's iconic speech.

Among them is the story of how the order of speakers that day was determined.  King wanted to speak last to conclude the program, but didn't want to say so. In negotiating with the many groups' representatives involved in the planning, Jones merely said, "Do you want to follow Martin Luther King?"  The interview also includes a winning tale of how King used a public sermon to convince Jones to change his mind about helping the civil rights movement, an artful use of a public speech to convince one audience member. (Affiliate link)


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On MLK Day: Put yourself in the shoes of a famous speaker

It's not often that you can put yourself in the shoes of a famous speaker, but you can come close if you visit Washington, DC's Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall.  The spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech is marked so you can stand there and look out over the mall as he did on the day of that famous speech.  From Wikipedia:

The "I Have a Dream" speech is such a part of the Lincoln Memorial story, that the spot on which King stood, on the landing eighteen steps below Lincoln's statue, was engraved in 2003 in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the event.
If you do visit the Lincoln Memorial, the National Park Service does daily programs about the "I Have a Dream" speech at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. daily.  And it's worth noting that women had no speaking role on the day of the "I Have a Dream" speech, although prominent women from the civil rights movement like Rosa Parks were present.

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speaking continues to inspire the speakers of today, as this TED Talks compilation shows--there are links so you can listen to his "I have a dream" speech as well as speeches inspired by him.
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Friday, January 14, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Ursula K. LeGuin's "left-handed commencement address"

I've been reading the writings of Ursula K. LeGuin almost all my life, and this "left-handed commencement address"--delivered in the 1980s at the Mills College commencement--has all the qualities I've come to love in her writing. It is not your mother's commencement address. The tone is direct, amused, serious, intellectual and plainspoken, all at once.

We had to have it here, on The Eloquent Woman, because she tackles the challenges of women and public speaking, right out of the box. She opens by thanking the graduating class of this women's college "for offering me a rare chance: to speak aloud in public in the language of women."  Here's part of paragraph two:
Intellectual tradition is male. Public speaking is done in the public tongue, the national or tribal language; and the language of our tribe is the men's language. Of course women learn it. We're not dumb. If you can tell Margaret Thatcher from Ronald Reagan, or Indira Gandhi from General Somoza, by anything they say, tell me how. This is a man’s world, so it talks a man’s language. The words are all words of power. You’ve come a long way, baby, but no way is long enough. You can’t even get there by selling yourself out: because there is theirs, not yours.
Here's why I like this famous speech, and what you can learn from it:
  • There's not an ounce of fat in it.  Commencement addresses are full of round, plump, caloric words and empty phrases that put distance, often unwittingly, between the speaker and the audience. This one is the opposite. Its words are plainspoken--but not one ounce less intellectual, understandable or moving. Writers should be striving for this. Speakers should insist upon it.
  • She varies her sentence lengths throughout:  Whether you write for yourself or someone else, varied sentence lengths can make a speech dynamic--even if it's read from the sheet.  Varying the lengths helps to create a cadence that avoids the sing-song, and plants surprises for the listener's ear.
  • As a result, it's written as if someone were actually going to say it out loud. I'm sorry to say that many speeches do not sound as if they were meant to be spoken.  This one achieves a conversational tone with ease. (Yes, of course, the writer was the speaker in this case--and yet this is not an easy art to master, even for yourself. Maybe especially for yourself.)  LeGuin has a strong, established voice and it shows. Go ahead--read that text aloud for yourself and put some personality into it, and record it. See how that sounds in your voice.
  • She makes the case for why women should speak in women's words, rather than imitate men.  The 1980s were a time when women were taking high-level political office at a rate not seen before, all over the world. LeGuin here joined other women observers of language and politics in noting that adopting men's language was like putting on men's clothing--for the most part, it doesn't work for women speakers, and avoids letting women sound natural and genuine.
  • She carries that point through by telling the grads in real terms how to proceed.  If you adhere to the tradition that the commencement speaker needs must share advice with the newly minted scholars, LeGuin delivers. She tells the young women to think of the world of women as its own country, then says:  "So what I hope for you is that you live there not as prisoners, ashamed of being women, consenting captives of a psychopathic social system, but as natives. That you will be at home there, keep house there, be your own mistress, with a room of your own. That you will do your work there, whatever you’re good at, art or science or tech or running a company or sweeping under the beds, and when they tell you that it’s second-class work because a woman is doing it, I hope you tell them to go to hell and while they’re going to give you equal pay for equal time. I hope you live without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated. I hope you are never victims, but I hope you have no power over other people. And when you fail, and are defeated, and in pain, and in the dark, then I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is."  Using "I hope" keeps this a wishful, positive vision--and sets up the repetition that brings the listener along.
On top of all that, this speech is a message of pride, encouragement, reality and common sense...just what graduates need, in abundance.

To my delight, LeGuin, 81, is blogging; she's not answering most correspondence, however. Her website could not be more thorough or conversational, and is encyclopedic without seeming so...just like this speech.  Share your reactions to it in the comments, please.  I'll be writing to alert LeGuin to this sharing of her speech (something she asks for on her website), so perhaps she'll see your thoughts here.

(I asked readers what they'd like to see more or less of on the blog in 2011, and one suggested "Famous Speech Fridays - famous women who have given exceptional speeches and excerpts of them."  I'll be looking for speeches by women that include words about women, so you'll get not just good examples but words to inspire you. Got a favorite speech I should include? Leave word in the comments.)

(Photo copyright © by Marian Wood Kolisch)

Related posts:  Finding a quotable eloquent woman, which shares this LeGuin quote about women speakers: "We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains."


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Thursday, January 13, 2011

The all-in-one on graceful ways to handle Q&A

Plenty of speakers can make it through their prepared remarks or presentations. But the question-and-answer session that follows can trip up even an expert speaker.  Handling Q&A with grace and ease--rather than getting rattled by questions or that answer you can't put your finger on--is a sought-after skill, from the boardroom to the lecture hall.  That's why handling Q-and-A is a big part of The Eloquent Woman's upcoming "Good On Your Feet" public speaking and presenting workshop, March 2 and 3 in Washington, DC.  We'll work on all the skills that lead up to a great question session, from working without notes and using a planned message to dynamic movement, how to relate to your questioners, and how to think--and talk--on your feet, even when the question is one for which you're not prepared.

To hold you over in the meantime, here are the blog's best posts on handling questions, another in our "all-in-one" collections:

"Good On Your Feet" isn't a typical public speaking workshop. The skills in this workshop will help you in  a variety of situations: public speaking, presentations, media interviews, even important conversations. It's guaranteed to be a small-group session, and one in which you'll have plenty of time for your own questions, practice and lots of coaching.

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

4 great speaking resources you've never heard of


Sometimes the biggest help for a speaker can come from a small or surprising source. That's true for this quartet of resources that will help you solve specific speaking issues. Check out these four finds:
  1. Nail those pronunciations of difficult names of famous folks:  The Associated Press Stylebook Online, a $25 annual subscription for individuals, offers authoritative phonetic pronunciation guides to hard-to-pronounce names of public figures.  You can also follow APStylebook on Twitter.
  2. Pull together a do-it-yourself speaking tour with Google Maps:  Best-selling author Rebecca Skloot chronicles how she put her own book-promotion speaking tour together using social media tools like Google Maps. It can be done!
  3. Cite a TED Talk video correctly in a written document:  TED shares the correct citation method for its popular video talks here.  Useful if you're citing others' talks--or on your online profiles, after you've given your TED talk.
  4. Collect and organize inspiring quotes you want to use later:  Quotabl.es, described here on Lifehacker, is a bookmarklet app that lets you clip, save, store and organize quotes you're saving--whether they're just to inspire you or to inspire a future audience.
Got a good resource to share? Leave it in the comments.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Guest post: Speakers, Are You Afraid of…Success?

(Editor's note: Selena Rezvani writes the NextGen Women's blog: Leadership and a Latte and her focus is women and the workplace. I follow Rezvani on Twitter (she's @nextgenwomen), so I know her goal is "to help women thrive at work, and be inspired to take the professional risks necessary to lead." And when I read this post, Are You Afraid of Success? I knew it would accomplish both for you speakers and presenters. Rezvani graciously agreed to let me repost it here for you, so share your comments after this good read.)

Many of us live in fear of screwing up. The possible consequences are all too familiar: embarrassment, a damaged reputation, and of course, what “they” will think of us.

But what happens when we’re afraid of succeeding? How strange it is to think that at times, each of us is uncomfortable with our own potential. Consider the experience of Pulitzer Prize winning author, Harper Lee. After releasing To Kill a Mockingbird to great fanfare, Lee confessed, “I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.”

Our adult fear of being great makes us particularly interesting creatures. As kids, we don’t have any compunction about excelling at something. In fact, we do more of it, enjoy the applause, and move on. Success becomes much more personal as we age however. Many of us start to see success or failure as the building blocks of our identity and as a result, we begin to insulate ourselves from risk.

And yet, if you really consider who around you is most successful, you’ll see they have one thing in common. They allow themselves to be vulnerable. To be great, they are open to screwing it all up and going down in flames, in the name of pursuing their dream or actualizing their goal. They understand what Brene Brown and Voltaire told us; that “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” and that banking on flawlessness can leave you squandering your ideas and talent.

As you think about who you have yet to grow into, don’t let your own potential frighten you. You have this power now, and you’ll have more of it in the future.

You might see yourself as an improve actor. Improvisation troupes understand the beauty that can emerge from taking risks and being vulnerable. Just like they create an architecture for succeeding, complete with rules (i.e. You don’t have to be funny and Make your partner look good), so too should you. Your own guard rails could be, “Let me take on this challenge and uncover a new strength of mine – however small or seemingly insignificant” or “I don’t have to do this perfectly.”

If you’re going to ratchet your way to your most outlandish goals, thicken that skin, get out there, and make it happen.

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Monday, January 10, 2011

Workplace public speaking: Are your messages being heard?

In this New York Times blog post, "Are Your Messages Being Heard?," you'll find 7 concrete suggestions for how to make sure you get your point across or reach your target, from why you should smile to why the three-point message works:
There is evidence that humans can only accept seven bits of information in a moment. If you give us eight, we’ll reject them all (see “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” a paper published in 1956 by George Miller, a Princeton professor). Three is holy — we can all remember three points.


The first suggestions, "ask for permission," might make women hesitate. After all, shouldn't women stop asking for permission to speak? But that point simply notes that you're asking whether the listener is willing to hear more. In that light, consider it a "check-in" with your listener. What do you think of these tips? Share your thoughts (and your own tips) in the comments.

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