Friday, August 1, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Rashema Melson's high school valedictory speech

Try this sometime: Go to high school, working hard and rising to the top of your class. Get into Georgetown University. And do it while you're living in a homeless shelter. Rashema Melson of Washington, DC, did it, and that journey propelled her to the valedictory speech at Anacostia High School in June, with a speech and story that captured worldwide attention.

The first few minutes of Melson's speech are a charming recitation of thanks to the teachers and administrators who helped her achieve her ambitious goals. The rest of her speech was brief and inspiring--something many commencement speakers fail to achieve--so here it is:
Throughout my journey here, I have learned that time doesn’t wait, pity, or adjust for or to anyone, and life is not fair. Life is not fair. But despite that harsh reality, you must keep striving for success through the pain, tears, and feeling of lost hope. People say life is short, live it up; I say life is endless, turn up, earn it up, but don’t burn it up. Your life decisions lead you to where you end up. 
For the longest I was in the struggle, trying my best, but I started to think it would never be over. I started to give up, but then God gave me a sign that he wasn’t putting me through this to punish me, but to show others how to be resilient and persistent in the goals of life. 
I see a promising future ahead, and I didn’t do it all alone. I had gracious help, for which I will be forever grateful. Before I receive my diploma and head on to Georgetown, I just want to leave you all with a piece of advice, class of 2014; always be who you truly are on the inside, never be afraid to go after your dreams, and regardless of the negative forecast that has been predicted upon us, beat the odds and let the sun shine. The future lies within reach of our hands, and if we keep striving and don’t let anyone knock us off our path or deter us from our goals, we can do anything we put our mind to, no matter what. Resilience, perseverance, discipline, determination, and dedication is the key to your success. Each step we take is paved with possibilities. Now go unlock the door to your future.
What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Rhetoric works, and you should use it: "People say life is short, live it up; I say life is endless, turn up, earn it up, but don’t burn it up," is a classic example of epistrophe, a figure of speech in which you repeat words or sounds at the end of a series of phrases or sentences. (Anaphora does the same, but at the beginning of a sentence or phrase.) Epistrophe puts the emphasis at the end, and it's a powerful construction, used well here.
  • Use equal doses of hope, reality and restraint: Melson never refers to her homelessness. "I have learned that time doesn’t wait, pity, or adjust for or to anyone, and life is not fair. Life is not fair," is as bracing and real a sentence as one could want here--and all the more powerful because it sums up her experience with a deft touch. When she turns to her hopeful message, that, too, is not overdone or cloying. If she can keep this up, she has a wonderful speaking career ahead. The simplicity here works.
  • Make that call to action: Compact and compelling, "Now go unlock the door to your future" is a wonderful call to action, suggesting that the graduates must act in order to achieve their futures.
Many of you know that I advise speakers not to load up a litany of thanks in their speeches, but here may be an occasion in which it actually works--and Melson is thorough in thanking those who helped her. In the context of her amazing achievement, the thank-yous are a gracious touch.

You can watch the video at the link below. What do you think of this famous speech?

Video: The Moving Commencement Speech From Student Who Became Valedictorian While Homeless

I'll be leading Be The Eloquent Woman, my day-long workshop on women and public speaking, as a pre-conference session at the European Speechwriter Network's autumn speechwriters and business communicators conference in Amsterdam. The workshop is 23 October and the conference is 24 October. You'll learn how to speak with confidence, content and credibility to subvert the common expectations of women speakers. Please join me!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"How do you wean yourself from the lectern?" 4 ways

"How do you wean yourself from the lectern?"

That was the good recent question from one of the Science and Technology Policy Fellows, brought to Washington by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to work in federal and congressional offices on science policy. We were in a workshop about communicating with non-technical audiences, and I'd been talking about the types of public-speaking tactics scientists generally don't use--but which better suit public audiences. Leaving the lectern and making a closer connection with the audience was among my recommendations.

Lecterns accomplish many things, from providing a platform for your notes and technology to hiding most of you from the audience, useful if you're in fight-or-flight mode. They give the audience and any cameras one place on which to focus, and keep you from wandering into the path of the projector light. For many speakers, they make the speech feel more important. But they also serve as a barrier between you and the audience. It's far easier to sense audience reactions, make eye contact and engage the audience if you're liberated from behind the bench, so to speak. You'll look more approachable and less like you're trying to school the audience, two good tactics for technical speakers to adopt when addressing non-technical audiences.

Here are some ways to work with the lectern without breaking away completely, if you're just starting to experiment with moving around while you speak:
  1. Plan your escape: Choose a couple of spots in your speech or presentation as the points when it would make sense to step away from the lectern. You can choose a point when gesturing would help underscore your remarks, or a moment when you're telling a personal story, since you shouldn't need notes to relate what you've already lived through. Return to the lectern and your prepared remarks when you're done.
  2. Keep a hand on it: Rest one hand or one elbow on the top of the lectern while you stand to one side of it. You can do this for the entire lecture or talk, as this scientist does in her public lecture, or choose particular portions of the talk for this treatment.
  3. Walk away from it, then return: Perhaps you need to demonstrate a movement or want to emphasize something in your presentation. Moving a few steps away from the lectern--to one side or in front of it--lets you do that. The moment you start to move, the audience's attention will soar. After all, you might do anything at that point. Make sure you use this for a point that deserves that attention.
  4. Answer a question down in front: If you get a question from someone in the front of the audience, step out from behind the lectern to answer it and make eye contact, then return to your post. Again, it's especially effective to use this when you have an answer you wish to emphasize.
Over time, if you are able to move away from the lectern, you'll need to have rehearsed your talk so you can deliver it without notes, a companion challenge. Looking at your slides is not a good solution to this.

Two more things to keep in mind when you're working on using or losing the lectern: If you're an introvert, moving closer to the crowd will feel exhausting, so it's even more important that you take time alone before and after your speech or presentation, to replenish your energy. If you're an extrovert, you may benefit from programming a return to the lectern from time to time, to check your notes and make sure you're not veering off-course.

All of these tactics take practice before your actual talk. Rehearsing these moves over and over will make them seem less awkward and foreign, and will let you find out in advance which work best for you. Then, over time, you can spend more and more of your speaking time without that barrier in front of you.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by David Gallagher)

I'll be leading Be The Eloquent Woman, my day-long workshop on women and public speaking, as a pre-conference session at the European Speechwriter Network's autumn speechwriters and business communicators conference in Amsterdam. The workshop is 23 October and the conference is 24 October. You'll learn how to speak with confidence, content and credibility to subvert the common expectations of women speakers. Please join me!

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Eloquent Woman's weekly speaker toolkit

Fans of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook see links to good reads, resources and ideas from other sources there, in addition to posts from the blog. But you won't miss a thing, since I'm summarizing that extra content and putting it here on the blog for all readers to see. Here's what I shared in the week just past:
I'll be leading Be The Eloquent Woman, my day-long workshop on women and public speaking, as a pre-conference session at the European Speechwriter Network's autumn speechwriters and business communicators conference in Amsterdam. The workshop is 23 October and the conference is 24 October. You'll learn how to speak with confidence, content and credibility to subvert the common expectations of women speakers. Please join me!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Theresa May takes the Police Federation to task

I always thought it was odd that the initial focus when Theresa May took office was on her fashion choices instead of her policies, because Britain's Home Secretary is a decidedly unglamorous job. That's despite it being one of the four "great offices of state" in British government. The cabinet post is responsible for national security, immigration, policing, citizenship, and other internal affairs. But it's also seen as a poisoned chalice, the kind of appointment in which you're likely to be sacked for the deeds of others, as many of her predecessors have found. And May is one of only four women in British history who have held any of the four great offices. So the role's unpopular, and a woman in it unlikely. But you can now add "unyielding" to that list of adjectives, thanks to a speech she gave earlier this year to the Police Federation at its 2014 conference.

Noting that this would be her fifth speech before the group, May makes a straightforward start, saying, "In each of my previous speeches, I've had to deliver some pretty tough messages. I know you haven’t always liked what I've had to say. And to be honest, you haven’t always been the easiest of audiences." It signaled that this speech would be neither easy nor fun to deliver. After talking about past efforts to work together with the Federation, May enumerated 15 different scandals, negative trends, and official investigations of the British police, then shared some needed detail that would resonate with citizens:
Such behaviour – which I am told is often encouraged by the Federation – reveals an attitude that is far removed from the principles of public service felt by the majority of police officers. It is the same attitude exposed by HMIC [Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary] when officers, called to help a woman who had suffered domestic violence, accidentally recorded themselves calling the victim a “slag” and a “bitch”. It is the same attitude expressed when young black men ask the police why they are being stopped and searched and are told it is “just routine” even though according to the law, officers need “reasonable grounds for suspicion”. It is an attitude that betrays contempt for the public these officers are supposed to serve – and every police officer in the land, every single police leader, and everybody in the Police Federation should confront it and expunge it from the ranks.
May also used the speech to outline unequivocal actions her office would take immediately, but put the responsibility for reform on the police, reminding them they had a choice in the matter:
I do not want to have to impose change on you, because I want you to show the public that you want to change. I want you to show them that you have the best interests of the police and of the public at heart. But make no mistake. If you do not make significant progress towards the implementation of the Normington reforms, if the Federation does not start to turn itself around, you must not be under the impression that the government will let things remain as they are.
Press coverage noted that while she received polite applause at the beginning, she left the lectern to a silent audience. Her speech was described as having "stunned" them, even as it was hailed as a needed statement. But May also was said to have "shown more balls than the entire male ­population of ­Westminster could muster between them."  In another of our Famous Speech Friday posts, British classics scholar Mary Beard said in her speech on the public voice of women, "It is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice, they don’t hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather they have not learned how to hear authority in it." Why else reach for male anatomy to describe the power of her speech?

I think many speakers try to avoid speeches they know will be unpopular. Government officials don't have that luxury, and this speech didn't hurt May's support. Far from it: Just a few weeks after she delivered it, she surged ahead in polling as the person Conservative Party members see as their future leader (aka, future Prime Minister), an advance seen as a direct result of this strong statement. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Let your speech take, and display, responsibility: Having served as a senior public official in the Clinton administration, I know that speeches first and foremost have jobs to do. This speech delivers a serious and unpopular message about a government service that affects every citizen. The sense of responsibility is where its importance lies.
  • Be straightforward and persuasive: This is a speech without sugar-coating and flourishes. It minces no words. Read the text to hear how it hammers home its points. May makes use of Monroe's motivated sequence, a rhetorical structure that's important when you're trying to persuade. In the section of her speech subtitled "Police reform is working and crime is falling," she describes both the results of reforms and what would have happened without them, the "visualization" portion of the sequence.
  • Make your opinion clear: Opinions are so often dodged in public that it would take a mighty calculator to add up the many times speechwriters have been asked to write speeches without them. Not so this speech. Notice how May alternates between expressing her strong views in "I" statements and referring to the common goals in "we" statements. "I" statements underscore that the speaker is taking responsibility for her viewpoints. The "we" often refers to the government and the citizens, the affected audience not gathered in the room.
You can read the full text of May's speech here, and listen to the audio of its delivery here and below. What do you think of this famous speech?



I'll be leading Be The Eloquent Woman, my day-long workshop on women and public speaking, as a pre-conference session at the European Speechwriter Network's autumn speechwriters and business communicators conference in Amsterdam. The workshop is 23 October and the conference is 24 October. You'll learn how to speak with confidence, content and credibility to subvert the common expectations of women speakers. Go here to see more about the workshop and what previous participants had to say. Please join me!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

'Be The Eloquent Woman' at my October speaking workshop in Amsterdam

I'll be leading Be The Eloquent Woman, my day-long workshop on women and public speaking, as a pre-conference session at the European Speechwriter Network's autumn speechwriters and business communicators conference in Amsterdam on 23 October.

The day-long workshop is designed to help women executives and politicians to improve their public speaking, using smart strategies that build on the information you get right here on the blog. You'll learn about the research as well as the realities that women face--the perceptions that stand in the way of your success and undermine your confidence--along with the practical advice that will help you subvert those expectations and succeed as a speaker. Our focus is helping you build confidence, content and credibility as a woman speaker.

Participants will learn:  
  • Techniques for overcoming fear of big occasions 
  • How to structure a talk
  • Strategies for speaking with or without notes
  • Advantages women bring to public speaking and how to bring them to the fore
  • Lessons from outstanding women speakers
  • Putting together a "message wardrobe" to be prepared for any speaking situation
  • How to get more speaking opportunities and make the most of them
  • What conference organizers are looking for in speakers, and what's preventing women from achieving parity on conference podiums
  • How women speakers are perceived, in public settings and in the workplace, and how you can subvert expectations
Previous participants in this workshop include executives and leaders from companies like Google, Clifford Chance, Little Brown Publishing, and Procter & Gamble; from government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and U.S. congressional staff; and from nonprofits, universities, medical practices and research labs. The workshop is conducted in English, and has included participants from France, Great Britain, Greece, Ireland, Panama, Switzerland, and the United States. Here's what they have to say about the workshop experience:
  • "Loved the discussion and doing the exercises on my speaking style. This allowed me to think about aspects of my work I hadn't thought about before."
  • "[Most valuable were] the practical tips on introductions, negotiating fight/flight, the structure of presentations, how to be assertive when someone talks over you or is age/sexist."
  • "The information has given me a renewed enthusiasm for my next talk. I'm feeling back in the driver's seat."
  • "[Most valuable were] the message wardrobe--particularly prepping Q&A and focusing on the questions that you want before the questions that you fear. Also the fountain of information, from historical references to contemporary events and examples from Denise's clients, research and experience."
  • "My talks were extremely well received, something which I attribute significantly to Denise’s help. In the workshop, I defined what eloquent meant to me as “poised”, which is exactly the word a conference organiser used to describe me on stage. I recommend Denise wholeheartedly to all the people I meet who are nervous about getting up on stage."
Be The Eloquent Woman will be offered in Amsterdam on 23 October as a pre-conference workshop at the Autumn Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference of the European Speechwriter Network, which takes place 24 October. Click on the links to find out more about this unique professional development opportunity, and see the latest on speakers recently added to the program here. I'm especially happy that my client and friend Marcus Webb, chief storytelling officer for TEDMED, will keynote the conference--you may recall his interview for our Inside Voice series. You may register for the workshop, the conference, or both. You'll get a significant early bird discount if you register by 15 August. 

I hope you can join me for this unusual professional development opportunity--and that you'll also share this information with women you know who might benefit from it.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Eloquent Woman's weekly speaker toolkit

Fans of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook see links to good reads, resources and ideas from other sources there, in addition to posts from the blog. But you won't miss a thing, since I'm summarizing that extra content and putting it here on the blog for all readers to see. Here's what I shared in the week just past:
I'll be leading Be The Eloquent Woman, my day-long workshop on women and public speaking, as a pre-conference session at the European Speechwriter Network's autumn speechwriters and business communicators conference in Amsterdam. The workshop is 23 October and the conference is 24 October. You'll learn how to speak with confidence, content and credibility to subvert the common expectations of women speakers. Go here to learn more about the workshop and what previous participants have said. Please join me!