Friday, February 5, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Queen Latifah's "Keep fighting for it"

The Screen Actors Guild statuette has no doubt graced many a fireplace mantel or awards shelf, but this week, Queen Latifah used it briefly as a barbell, pumping a few rounds with the famously heavy statue, as the audience applauded her 2016 SAG award for playing the lead in HBO's film Bessie, about the life of blues singer Bessie Smith. That was just the opening salvo in a powerful and brief acceptance speech that followed a simple formula: Clear and ample thanks to the voters, fellow nominees, HBO, and her family, with words of inspiration that sum up the perspective of one who has traveled a long way to get to this place. Queen Latifah ended with this dose of encouragement:
And I hope that anyone out there who does not come in the package that people say you should, keep fighting for it. Flip those rocks over. Keep pushing. Keep turning. You can do it. You build your own boxes. Not people. So knock that thing away and do you.
The speech was an immediate hit, and a refreshing, rousing example of what you can do with an acceptance speech. What can you learn from it?
  • Accept with strength: Pumping iron with the statuette was an inside joke about the heavy award, and a comic turn that created a visual during the applause. But it also conveyed power and strength, a great alternative for women in lieu of self-disparaging comments or sounding as if you're not sure you deserve the award. The silent gesture said it without looking or sounding boastful.
  • Don't curb your enthusiasm: Awards banquets can be deadly for audiences in the hall and viewing on television, so a lively acceptance like this one--with big gestures and a big smile--tells us we're watching a special moment. Remember, your audience will take its cues from you. If you're delighted, overcome with emotion, or ready to shout from the rooftops, show us how you feel so we know how to react. Don't overdo your emphasis. Just be genuine.
  • Keep it simple: Leading in with a sweeping phrase--"anyone out there who does not come in the package that people say you should"--and following with a series of staccato, short phrases of encouragement helped to build emphasis and energy at the close, just where you want it when you're giving a speech this short and powerful. Queen Latifah makes a great cheering section, all by herself.
You can read a partial transcript of her remarks here, and watch the video here and below. Thanks to Rune Kier Nielsen for sending it to me!

(SAG Awards photo)


Thursday, February 4, 2016

The 'women can't be funny' myth, and the power of making people laugh

A male speechwriter I know believes he can't put jokes in speeches he's writing for women because "women can't be funny." In 2016.

He should be ashamed of himself for believing and perpetuating this durable myth: As this "totally incomplete" Brief History of "Women Aren't Funny" notes, the concept goes back centuries, and stretches into the present day, not unlike slut-shaming and other methods of getting women to be silent. After all, if someone tells you that you can't be funny, you won't try, then, will you?

This myth is so ingrained that both men and women have trouble recognizing it as the silencer that it certainly is. Consider what comic Joan Rivers said of her fellow comedian, Phyllis Diller: "The only tragedy is that Phyllis Diller was the last from an era that insisted a woman had to look funny in order to be funny."

Gloria Steinem shares perspective on women and humor in her memoir, My Life on the Road, as she writes about her stint as the only "girl writer" on That Was The Week That Was, a political satire show on British, and later American, television in the 1960s. She writes:
...the power to make people laugh is also a power, so women have been kept out of comedy. Polls show that what women fear most from men is violence, and what men fear most from women is ridicule. Later, when Tina Fey was star and head writer of Saturday Night Live, she could still say, "Only in comedy does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity."
So it's a double-edged sword for women to be funny, in the eyes of men. They fear women might ridicule them. Steinem adds more reasons why humor holds power:
...laughter is the only free emotion--the only one that can't be compelled....laughter explodes like an aha! It comes when the punch line changes everything that has gone before, when two opposites collide and create a third, when we suddenly see a new reality....Laughter is an orgasm of the mind.
No wonder they want to keep it to themselves. In Speechwriters, don't write differently for women. Write differently for men, I asked speechwriters to stop including suggestive or misogynistic content in the speeches they write for men--much of which takes the supposedly harmless form of suggestive or sex-focused humor. I can see why a male speechwriter might think he can't write off-color jokes for a woman speaker, but that's no reason to blame her and say it's because she "can't be funny."

The idea that women can't be funny limits women's speaking in insidious psychological ways. Its variant, that pretty or hot women can't be funny, sounds a lot like what both men and women report in surveys: We think women can be competent, or likable, but not both. After all, the ability to use humor well is part of what we consider "likability." But as has been said before on this blog, if you're worried about your likability, you can't tell your story.

The humor myth limits women's speaking in practical ways as well. Many speechwriters and speaking experts advise that speakers make use of humor, particularly self-deprecating humor, both to relax the speaker and help her connect with the audience. But for women, putting yourself down when you're not starting from a position of strength and credibility can be risky, even if it's done with humor. If women don't use humor, or are diverted or discouraged from using it, they may miss out on invitations to emcee or chair an event at which that quality is desired, as it so often is. If speechwriters won't write jokes for women, women won't get to tell them--and may not notice the omission, perpetuating the myth. And when decisions about women being funny are made by people who don't believe they can be funny, we in the audience are losing out, as well as the women speakers.

What can you do about this, eloquent women? Recognize that men fear your ridicule and are uncomfortable with your use of humor--and use humor, anyway. Seize that power to make the audience laugh, so you can better connect. Talk about this double-edged sword and call out those who say women can't be funny, so we may all learn how prevalent is this view. Exercise your funny bone by listening to, reading, and watching humor of all kinds. Practice your humorous turns and try them out on a variety of listeners to see what works. Make a study of comic timing, and using pauses for comedic effect. Just don't doubt your ability.

We've got some great resources right here on The Eloquent Woman for you:
I've got a Famous Speech Friday in the works on famous humorous speeches by women, and I'm up to nearly 20 speeches you will be able to use as examples. Don't let this myth stop you from trying a comic turn in your next speech. Start using your humor, eloquent women!

(Creative Commons licensed photo of panelists at "The Smoking Bra: Women and Comedy at 92YTribeca)

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Eloquent Woman's weekly speaker toolkit

If you want to keep up with my wide-ranging reading list about women and speaking in real time, follow The Eloquent Woman on Facebook where these links are posted all week long--or just head here on Mondays, where I summarize them all for you. Either way, you'll be expanding your understanding of women and speaking:

Friday, January 29, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Ellen Terry's lectures on Shakespeare's women

One advantage of the actor is the learned ability to command a stage, something many speakers envy. Here's how Virginia Woolf described the great British actress Ellen Terry in action:
When she came on to the stage as Lady Cicely in Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, the stage collapsed like a house of cards and all the limelights were extinguished. When she spoke it was as if someone drew a bow over a ripe, richly seasoned ‘cello; it grated, it glowed, and it growled. Then she stopped speaking. She put on her glasses. She gazed intently at the back of the settee. She had forgotten her part. But did it matter? Speaking or silent, she was Lady Cicely—or it was Ellen Terry? At any rate, she filled the stage and all the other actors were put out, as electric lights are put out in the sun.
Terry was considered the best Shakespearean actress of the late nineteenth century, and toured the world in performance. But it's her lectures on Shakespeare--particularly on the women in Shakespeare--that have given her a lasting presence in today's world.

Delivered between 1911 and 1921 in Great Britain, America, Australia, and New Zealand, the lectures came at the end of her acting career, beginning when she was 64. It's clear that she relishes the chance to relive roles that made her famous, as well as Shakespearean heroines she never got to play. From her lecture on the "triumphant women" of Shakespeare, she tackles feminism and the Bard's characters:
Wonderful women! Have you ever thought how much we all, and women especially, owe to Shakespeare for his vindication of women in these fearless, high-spirited, resolute and intelligent heroines? Don't believe the anti-feminists if they tell you, as I was once told, that Shakespeare had to endow his women with virile qualities because in his theatre they were always impersonated by men! This may account for the frequency with which they masquerade as boys, but I am convinced it had little influence on Shakespeare's studies of women. They owe far more to the liberal ideas about the sex which were fermenting in Shakespeare's age. The assumption that 'the woman's movement' is of very recent date--something peculiarly modern--is not warranted by history. There is evidence of its existence in the fifteenth century. Then as now it excited opposition and ridicule, but still it moved!
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, by
John Singer Sargent, 1889.
To place these comments, it's useful to recall that the lectures spanned the years of the suffrage movement for women's votes in both Britain and the United States.

While I say the lectures helped Terry's work stay alive decades after her death, as this writer notes, it's not easy to get your hands on the actual book of Four Lectures on Shakespeare, and in fact, this post waited until I could find my own copy. Those who can do the same will discover the insightful introduction by her female assistant Christopher St. John, who shares Terry's notes to herself on how to deliver the words, good advice for any speaker:
Get the words into your remembrance first of all. Then, (as you have to convey the meaning of the words to some who have ears, but don't hear, and eyes, but don't see) put the words into the simplest vernacular. Then exercise your judgment about their sound.
What can you learn from this famous set of speeches?
  • Share your expertise: The lectures are based on a lifetime of insight on Shakespeare's characters from the inside out, as it were. Terry made full use of explaining the roles from her perspective of a full career studying and interpreting them, and these talks are both clear and compelling as a result.
  • It's never to late to start a lecture tour: Terry began this tour when she was 64, and ended it when she was 74. Not only was it a smart way to stay on the stage as her acting career was waning, it opened a new avenue for connecting with theatre audiences. Terry notes in one lecture the conventional wisdom that, by the time an actress understands how to play Juliet, she's too old to do so--but in the lectures, that age-as-wisdom works just fine.
  • For the sake of us all, preserve your speeches: St. John notes that Terry never wanted to talk about publishing the lectures in her lifetime, preferring them to be heard, rather than read. But even with publication in book form, it can take super-human effort just to find a library copy today. Had St. John not compiled, edited, and published them, they'd have disappeared entirely.
That publication has helped the Terry lectures come alive another way: If you are in London and act quickly, you may be able to see the great Eileen Atkins recreate them at the candlelit Wanamaker Theatre at Shakespeare's Globe, a revival of a show she did in that theatre's inaugural season. It runs until 13 February 2016. Read this interview with Atkins about Terry, and how she was drawn to recreate the lectures, and watch the video interview below in which she discusses Terry:

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Making room for fear: Inspiration for speakers from Elizabeth Gilbert

Author Elizabeth Gilbert's latest book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, is about bringing your creativity forward, and at first glance, it may not seem like a book for public speakers. But that would require overlooking the words "beyond fear" in the title. And while listening to the audiobook (anyone surprised I like hearing authors speak out loud?), I caught this gem in a section on making room for--rather than running away from--your fear.

Gilbert uses the metaphor of a road trip for exploring your creativity, and suggests that you invite fear along for the ride, with some conditions. She even created a short "welcoming speech" inviting fear along. The speech gives fearful public speakers something they can read to themselves (and their fears) before embarking on the next presentation or speech:
Dearest Fear, Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you'll be joining us, because you always do. I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do in my life, and that you take your job seriously. Apparently. your job is to induce complete panic when I'm about to do anything interesting, and may I say you are superb at your job. So by all means, keep doing your job, if you feel you must. 
But I will also be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focused. And Creativity will be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring. There's plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home. But understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way. 
I recognize and respect that you are part of this family, so I will never exclude you from our activities, but still, your suggestions will never be followed. You're allowed to have a seat, and you're allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote. You're not allowed to touch the road maps, you're not allowed to suggest detours, you're not allowed to fiddle with the temperature. Dude, you are not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you're absolutely forbidden to drive.
Now that's a way to face down your fear. I think of public speaking as an immensely creative act, as well as one on which fear comes along for the ride. Try this out when you're coaching yourself for the next speech or presentation you do.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Eloquent Woman's weekly speaker toolkit

If you want to keep up with my wide-ranging reading list about women and speaking in real time, follow The Eloquent Woman on Facebook where these links are posted all week long--or just head here on Mondays, where I summarize them all for you. Either way, you'll be expanding your understanding of women and speaking: