Friday, June 28, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: Carol Burnett's live audience Q&A

Actress and comedian Carol Burnett, whose popular television variety show ended in 1978, is most well-known for her slapstick skits and performances, all played for laughs. The under-12 daughter of a friend, watching old Burnett shows, couldn't believe that one person was behind all those characters.  But when I think of Burnett as an adept public speaker, I think of the question-and-answer sessions she used to open her shows, all of them recorded in front of a live audience.

It was a high-risk choice for the same reason many speakers fear Q&A: It's that time in a speaking engagement when anything can happen. Fortunately for the audience in the theater and watching on TV, anything did happen--and Burnett was a master at handling the unexpected. Here's how she explains the genesis of putting the Q&A session at the top of her hour-long show:
"Our executive producer, Bob Banner, bless his heart, said, 'Carol, I think you should go out and be yourself at the beginning of the show, before you start putting on the fake body suits and the wigs and blacking out your teeth, you know,'  I said, 'What would I do? I can't tell jokes--I couldn't tell a joke to save my soul,' and he said, 'Well, you should do questions and answers'."
There are scores of these question sessions from The Carol Burnett Show, which ran for more than a decade. I have two short compilations below for you to watch of Burnett, who will receive the Mark Twain Prize for Humor later this year, being interviewed about the Q&A sessions and fielding questions. You'll see there's a mix of high humor, along with getting the audience members onto the stage, bringing out backstage crew, and answering specific and practical questions about which the audience is curious. What can you learn from this famous speaker?
  • Consider putting questions at the start of your session: You might want to put the questions at the start to let the audience get familiar with you--and it's also a good tactic if you have an angry audience or contentious issue to discuss, or you just want to get a handle on who's in the room and what they're thinking about. No live audience shows up without questions. Getting them out in the air early might be the smartest thing you'll ever do as a speaker.
  • Go out and be yourself: Burnett's producer had the right idea in asking her to "be yourself" with the audience before she began pretending to be someone else in the acting portions of the show. By letting the audience have direct access to her as she was, engagement with the show was high, both in the hall and in viewers' living rooms. If you look at Q&A as a time when you're pressured to look smart or glib or polished, take the remedial action of watching Burnett gain credibility and fervent fans merely by being herself. It's about being authentic as a speaker.
  • Inject some humor into your answers: I'll turn to Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for U.S. President Ronald Reagan, to explain what humor does for the speaker. Here, she was doling out advice to another presidential candidate, but the points work for us all: The audience member who is "laughing is half yours, and just received a line he can repeat next weekend over a beer at the barbecue or online at Starbucks....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. We are a political nation. We talk politics. So fill that area with humor: sly humor, teasing humor, humor that speaks a great truth or makes a sharp point." A bonus for any speaker: Humor will relax you as well as put the audience at ease


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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Is your #publicspeaking strength also your weakness?

Maybe you've developed some of your speaking skills to the point where you feel they're actual strengths, or you've examined your approach to speaking so that you can take advantage of those strengths you already possess. Can that be a bad thing? Is your public speaking strength also the source of potential public speaking weakness for you?

In Don't Let Your Strengths Become Your Weaknesses, the authors of Fear Your Strengths: What You Are Best at Could Be Your Biggest Problem describe some examples:
We've seen virtually every strength taken too far: confidence to the point of hubris, and humility to the point of diminishing oneself. We've seen vision drift into aimless dreaming, and focus narrow down to tunnel vision. Show us a strength and we'll give you an example where its overuse has compromised performance and probably even derailed a career.
How does this play out for public speakers and presenters? It's worth considering a few factors:
  • Personality preferences: Extroverts--those good at thinking out loud--may find themselves backed into a corner or tripped up by words that might have been better thought through. Likewise, introverts may lose their chance to speak up if they hesitate too long. And both types will revert to their opposite in times of stress, something important for you to keep in mind.
  • How you handle stress: A little stage fright or nerves before speaking is normal, and can help you focus and energize on the strength of the adrenaline. But if your nervousness keeps you on the sidelines, that's not a plus.
  • Strong preferences about speaking style or logistics: If you always insist on speaking at a lectern, and arrive to find there isn't one, or like to engage with questioners rather than give the formal speech that's wanted by the conference, sticking to your guns may lose you that speaking gig or gain you a reputation for being inflexible.
  • A fondness for technology: I've seen many speakers--too many--unable to give any part of their talk without their slides when the venue's technology failed. (And when I speak, I always let the organizers know that I can work with or without them, no matter what happens.) Clinging to a particular technology, be it the need for a remote to the inability to speak without slides, limits you as a speaker. Worse yet, it often happens at the last minute. A strength here would be developing a high comfort level with many tech options, as well as none at all.
What speaking strengths do you have that might turn into weaknesses, or vice versa? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Monday, June 24, 2013

The Eloquent Woman's weekly speaker toolkit

Readers who are fans of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook see these good reads, resources and ideas from other sources there, in addition to posts from the blog. Want to keep up with them? Here are the finds I shared in the week just past:

  • About the quote: PCI Global's Women Empowered helps to address barriers that get in the way of things like public speaking--more elemental problems that stand in the way of speaking up for women around the world.
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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Why register for the European Speechwriter Network Brussels conference?

Residence Palace, Brussels
One of the most productive and enjoyable conferences I've ever attended was the most recent European Speechwriter Network conference in London this May. I came away with a rich array of resources, ideas, challenges and new colleagues and collaborators from this well-organized session. (See my notebook on the London conference here and my London keynote on women and public speaking here.)

This time around, I'll chair the conference, the first time it will take place in Brussels, home of the European government. You can see details on the ever-growing lineup of speakers here. I'm excited about chairing such a talented group of speakers, including:
There's also a full-day workshop that precedes our day of speakers: Martin Shovel and Martha Leyton will lead the popular Nuts and Bolts of Speechwriting workshop. See some testimonials from recent attendees here; space for the workshop is limited. My personal tip: Don't skip the social hours and events. The discussions after the speeches are long and lively.

The entire conference is conducted in English, although many European traditions will be represented. For my American colleagues, this is a conference worth considering, despite the distance. It will give you a world view on speechwriting that you won't forget--and one you will put to use once you return home.

Will you join us? Registration details for the conference are here. Note that the early bird discount ends on July 15--just over two weeks away--and space is limited to just 60 participants.

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Friday, June 21, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: Essie Washington-Williams: "I feel completely free"

She waited until she was in her late seventies to speak in public about it, and even though the facts were known by many, she'd kept them secret even from members of her own family at different times during her life.

But when Essie Washington-Williams stepped to the microphone to say that she was the daughter of a black domestic worker and U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond, a white segregationist and campaigner against civil rights, the news was a shock to listeners. For starters, Thurmond had never publicly acknowledged her, though he supported her financially and met with her many times. She waited until six months after his death to step to the microphones and tell her story.

"My name is Essie Mae Washington-Williams," she begins, and much of her statement is just as plain a recounting of the facts of her life: where she was born, where she eventually went to live, and how her life progressed through school and marriage and raising her own family. This speech rivets precisely because of the simplicity of the tale: It needs no rhetorical flourishes to make it dramatic, already possessing mystery, drama and surprise aplenty, along with a firm knowledge of its place in history. She said:
There are many stories like Sally Hemings' and mine. The unfortunate measure is that not everyone knows these stories that helped to make America what it is today.
"I feel as if a tremendous weight has been lifted," she concluded. "I am Essie Mae Washington-Williams, and at last, I feel completely free."

This is an unusual speech, but I still think you can learn from it:
  • Share the "why" of your statement--what's your motivation? Particularly when you have a
    difficult message to deliver, but really in any speech, we want to know what's prompting your remarks. When the issue is controversial, we might well question your motives and guess wrong. "My children deserve the right to know from whom, where and what they have come,” she said.“I am committed in teaching them and helping them to learn about their past. It is their right to know and understand the rich history of their ancestry, black and white.” In this case, explaining her motives answered the questions on many minds: Why had she waited so long to speak, and why now?
  • Keep it simple: When the facts are dramatic, keep the language clear and simple. If the secret is about you, use "I" statements--no one can speak for you in this matter. This was a tale that needed no extra window-dressing. In fact, an over-the-top array of adjectives and adverbs would have turned it into a parody. Straightforward speaking made this tale more gripping, not less.
  • Acknowledge open secrets: On the surface, this is a speech about a secret, but Washington-Williams goes further to reveal that in fact, this wasn't a secret to everyone. In retelling her interactions with the senator and his staff, she said, "All of those on his staff knew exactly who I was," making clear the open-secret aspects of her life as well as their willingness to participate in keeping that secret. The revelation adds a layer of complexity to this announcement, and lets her right two wrongs.
Washington-Williams died earlier this year at age 87, but before her death, wrote about her experiences
Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond. You can see her statement below. What do you think of this famous speech?


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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

From the vault: 7 secret advantages of the speaker who practices

(Editor's note: Published last year, this post is one of the most-read-ever on the blog--and it's one I share with my trainees again and again, in the hopes they'll discover these bonuses for themselves.)

As a speaker coach and trainer, I can tell you that the one thing I always recommend is the same thing my trainees rarely do: Practice, and lots of it.

I don't just recommend practice for your speech or presentation because it sounds good. I know there are seven secret advantages--some of the best advantages in public speaking--reserved for speakers who practice. And by practice, I don't mean flipping through your slides an hour before the presentation. I mean run-throughs, full of stops and starts, until you're able to deliver that talk as you envision it. Helpful observer friends and cameras optional, although they both can help the practice process. Whether you do it solo or with a team, practice will help you:
  1. Look like you didn't need practice: Call it the Great Irony of Public Speaking: The speaker who practices winds up looking relaxed, unruffled, at ease and extemporaneous. The speaker who gets up to speak without preparation looks like, well, she isn't prepared. The unprepared speaker is more likely to run overtime, stumble, forget and otherwise look forced. You can only get that extemporaneous, casual look through practice--and it's the biggest practice advantage.
  2. Remember more of what you wanted to say: No question about it, repetition through practice means your brain will retain more of what you wanted to say. Every speaker has those moments when her mind goes blank. Practice means that the words have a better chance of coming out of your mouth, anyway. 
  3. Roll with the punches: If your slides don't work, you can still speak. If the room changes, the mic doesn't work, or you wind up with lots of other last-minute public speaking snafus, you can still speak. Knowing you have practiced your speech--including what might go wrong--keeps you cool under difficult and changing circumstances.
  4. Work out your stumbles ahead of time: Keep tripping over that troublesome word or phrase? Hesitating to say that strong, pointed statement? You'll get better at it with practice. And who doesn't prefer to make the mistakes in private, rather than into a microphone? If you're working with a speechwriter, let her sit in on your practice so lines can be rewritten on the spot to make them easier to say.
  5. Try a new speaking skill with lower risk: If you're trying something new to you, from storytelling to speaking simply about technical topics, practice makes that first foray less risky...because it won't actually be your first foray after you've practiced many times. 
  6. Build a stronger structure for your speech or presentation: Want a strong, fast start to grab and hold your audience's attention? A big ending? A section of your keynote that gets the audience engaged and active? Practice can make sure you have the time to plan, try out and perfect those key sections of the presentation.
  7. Hit those grace notes: Whether you want to polish the delivery of that special quote to use your vocalizing well, maneuver the stage smoothly, or get creative with your special thanks and acknowledgements, grace notes are practice-worthy. The things that can take your speech from good to great are best nurtured with time to practice.
Don't think you have time to practice? Check out my 5 stealth ways to find the time for public-speaking practice. You can do this.

I'm delighted that Andrew Dlugan's great Six Minutes blog chose this article for his weekly roundup of the best blog posts on public speaking for the week ending July 14, 2012. Thanks, Andrew!
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Monday, June 17, 2013

The Eloquent Woman's weekly speaker toolkit

Readers who follow The Eloquent Woman on Facebook are already used to seeing links to good reads, resources and ideas from other sources there, in addition to posts from the blog. On Mondays, I summarize that extra content and put it here on the blog, so all readers can benefit. Every weekly speaker toolkit has a mix of the practical and the inspirational for speakers, especially women speakers. Here's a look at the week just past:
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Friday, June 14, 2013

More ways to use The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Women's Speeches

With more than 100 speeches and counting, The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Women's Speeches is a powerhouse resource if you're looking for quotes, speech examples or inspiration and training help from women speakers. This year, we're slicing the Index to make it more useful. Check out these posts that share famous speeches by type of speaker, speaking style and topic:
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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

TEDMED editor Lisa Shufro on fear and the first-time speaker

Lisa Shufro on the TEDMED stage
In a Huffington Post essay, TEDMED managing editor Lisa Shufro shares an insight into fear and the first-time speaker -- and while it may seem to be a story about magician David Blaine and how he prepared for a TEDMED talk, it's about Shufro, too. That's because she and Blaine belong to a small but amazing club: They both gave their first-ever public talks from the stage of TEDMED.

Full disclosure: Shufro is a longtime reader of The Eloquent Woman and my client, since I coach TEDMED speakers, thanks to her. She leads the editorial team that finds, selects and preps TEDMED speakers, who range from celebrities to unknowns, patients as well as physicians, scientists and policymakers. But to my mind, her biggest accomplishment was her first speaking gig on a stage where the stakes were high:
Two years later I gave my first talk in public from the stage of the Kennedy Center Opera House. In front of two hundred thousand people. Many of them were accomplished doctors and scientists. I was now the Managing Editor of TEDMED -- without a formal degree in science or medicine. As a musician, I'd been on stage thousands of times. But never without a violin between the audience and me. Right before going on stage, my words drained from my mind. I started holding my breath.
If you're a first-time or would-be speaker--or just remember the first speech you ever gave--you'll love this essay. Shufro writes it in the manner of a good TED talk: It's personal, and follows a path from one first-time speaker to another. She uses a visual you can picture in your mind's eye, a playing card on which Blaine had written a note for his talk, which he gave her once his talk was done;  later, she took that card onstage when her turn came to speak. Lovely symmetry there. This is a story full of small, intimate moments, juxtaposed against the looming, large stage they shared. And for speakers, it's a good discussion of risk and fear and how they come into play during preparation and that moment when you step on the stage. I'm so delighted Shufro has shared this story with us.

(TEDMED photo)

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Monday, June 10, 2013

The Eloquent Woman's weekly speaker toolkit

Readers who follow The Eloquent Woman on Facebook are already used to seeing the "extras" I share there: links to good reads, resources and ideas from other sources, in addition to posts from the blog. I'm summarizing that extra content and putting it here on the blog, so all readers can benefit. Here's a look at the week just past:
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Friday, June 7, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: Robert Kennedy on the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

If I'm going to blow up the rules for Famous Speech Friday, it will be for this speech. I saw it broadcast live 45 years ago, and it stands among the best impromptu speeches I know. Normally, this series brings you famous speeches by women, but I find myself unable to let this one pass unnoted this week: Yesterday was the 45th anniversary of the speaker's own assassination, an indelible memory for me.

In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was running for the presidency of the United States, and on the campaign trail.  His brother, President John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated just five years before. He arrived in Indianapolis to learn that civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. He was to speak in the heart of the city's black neighborhoods, and it was feared that citizens would riot. Kennedy threw away his stump speech and spoke to the moment in brief, extemporaneous and simple, yet elegant, language--words designed to unite the crowd at a divisive moment:
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black. 
So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King -- yeah, it's true -- but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love -- a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.
Anyone might follow this speech, which deals with the minutiae of the moment and hints at a larger vision of what this means for America. It quotes Aeschylus but stays close to the emotions of the crowd. It's a quiet speech, not at all anxious, but appropriate in its sadness, regret and respect for the events of the day.

What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Speak from your heart, not from your notes when the moment is tense and emotional. You can see Kennedy fidgeting with what must have been notes--he had a plane ride's worth of time to craft notes in between learning that King was shot and learning that he'd died--but this speech didn't rely on them. 
  • Heal with the song of poetry: Kennedy calls this his favorite poem, and the Greek poet he quotes blessedly translates into the simplest wordsEven in our sleep, pain which cannot forget/falls drop by drop upon the heart,/until, in our own despair,/against our will,/comes wisdom/through the awful grace of God. In effect, he's letting the audience offload its emotion into the poet's words and subtly reminding them that these powerful feelings are ancient as well as current. And--so like the ancient Greek poets-- the poem is bracing and forthright, not maudlin and weepy. It fits the moment. This also works because Kennedy stays true to himself by sharing his favorite poem, a well-worn, well-known-to-him stanza, one he's unlikely to forget in the moment.
  • Be willing to face the music: A dogged campaigner, Kennedy could have gone ahead with his prepared stump speech, but he even tells the fans "Could you lower those signs, please?" in the first phrases of his remarks. This speech speaks forthrightly about the tragedy, and aims to help the listeners make sense of it in real terms. "In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black -- considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible -- you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge," said Kennedy, laying out the realities. "We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization -- black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love."
Would that we all could pull ourselves together as speakers in such a moment as this, and so effectively. His words carry all the more power for us today because, two months after this event, Kennedy himself was assassinated.

You can read the text of this famous speech and hear the audio here, and the video is below. What do you think of this famous speech?


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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Follow @NoWomenSpeakers to track conferences with few or no women on program

I just gave a speech about women and public speaking in which I pointed to the tweets I see on Twitter, every day of the week, in which people are complaining about the lack, or dearth, of women speakers on conference programs. And I was confronted by a male audience member who dismissed the premise, telling me it must be "rare"--it's just not a problem he sees.

While it's normal to think first of one's own experience, we none of us attend all the world's conferences (thank heaven). About this time last year, I blogged about the growing Twitter buzz about conferences with few or no women, and at that time I said:
About 150 days into 2012, you can say that, on average, more than a tweet a day can be found complaining about the lack of women on conference programs. On some days, that means dozens of tweets; on others, just a few. But the drumbeat is persistent, and growing.
Since then, I've continued to collect tweets mentioning few or no women speakers. The file's bigger, and it's my sense that these types of tweets are gaining in frequency, both from prospective attendees and those sitting in the audience.

I think that's an important distinction if you think of these tweeters as the dissatisfied audience--make that the dissatisfied paying audience--for any conference or meeting. It stands in contrast to the rise of women's conferences in the U.S., which are highly profitable and well attended. Imagine, as I said in my London speech: Profitable conferences featuring lots of women speakers and seemingly finding no difficulty in locating them. Isn't that something?

Some conferences have heard the drumbeat and started setting very public quotas for women speakers: The World Economic Forum has a 20 percent quota for participation by women, which it has yet to meet, and Social Media Week, with events in 18 countries, has set the bar at 50 percent women speakers and participants for its events by the end of 2014.. Other conferences have started tweeting defensively, pointing out their good ratios of women speakers, or defending the lousy ratios awkwardly, as in this exchange. TechCrunchDisrupt New York announced a roster with no women speakers:
When a female executive from the conference replied defensively that "there are women speakers we haven't announced," he added this wry headline:
No surprise, the next day, those secret women speakers were added to that program. Let me be clear: Tweets are anecdotal evidence, but when the issue is one of invisibility, that actually makes these tweets valuable.

Since last year, I have been archiving and sharing tweets that mention no or few women speakers in this publicly accessible Evernote notebook, and it's a great resource to have on hand--but not as nimble and transparent as I'd like it to be. After my recent speech and that reaction, it occurred to me I could use Twitter in a different way, to help me do the tracking and to more finely and publicly curate the kind of information I'm storing in that notebook. The bonus: You can all watch this phenomenon with me, as it occurs, and Twitter will help us keep track.

So beginning on May 24 this year, I've launched another Twitter account, @NoWomenSpeakers. It is already focused on retweeting mentions of few or no women speakers on programs of all kinds--except for women's conferences, where we may expect plenty of women speakers. This account also will share mentions of conferences where the balance is better, or at least being mentioned, as well as coverage of this trend. Mainly, I'd like you to be able to see the stream that I see, to build awareness of the issue. I will focus on sharing just the original tweet, although many of these types of tweets are re-shared frequently. Handily, Twitter keeps track of that for us, so you can click on "expand" and see the number of retweets.

Please follow and share this new account, and send your examples to @NoWomenSpeakers directly, to help build the database of tweets. I'm looking forward to this new way of sharing the issue and the data directly with you.

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Monday, June 3, 2013

The Eloquent Woman's weekly speaker toolkit

3 speaker coaches put their heads together.
Readers who follow The Eloquent Woman on Facebook are already used to seeing links to good reads, resources and ideas from other sources there, in addition to posts from the blog. I'm summarizing that extra content and putting it here on the blog, so all readers can benefit. Here's a look at the week just past:
If you found this post useful, please subscribe or make a one-time donation to help support the thousands of hours that go into researching and curating this content for you.