Friday, October 24, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: 1994 lecture by Miep Gies, Anne Frank's protector

I'm in Amsterdam today for the autumn conference of the European Speechwriter Network. I'm excited about the conference, and eager to see the Anne Frank house for the first time. As I do, I'll be thinking about Miep Gies, an adopted daughter of Holland.

She died at the age of 100 in 2010, and her obituary in the New York Times notes something unusual about this woman speaker: She didn't begin her speaking career until she was in her 80s, after the publication of her memoir Anne Frank Remembered. The book shared her role in hiding the Frank family from the Nazis, as well as in saving the journals and papers that became The Diary of a Young Girl, as she describes in this gripping passage from her 1994 lecture:
People sometimes call me a hero. I do not want that because I told you already that those in hiding were the bravest people. I also don't like it because people should never think that you have to be a very special person to help those who need you. I myself, am just an innocent woman, I simply had no choice. I could foresee many, many sleepless nights and a miserable life if I had refused to help the Franks. Yes, I have wept countless times when I think of my dear friends, but still I am happy that these are no tears of remorse for refusing to assist those who were in trouble. Even if help might fail, it is better to try than to do nothing....I'm grateful that I could save Anne's diary. When I found it, scattered all over the floor, I stole it. I decided to store it away in order to give it back to Anne when I should, when she should return. I wanted to see her smile, receiving the diary. I wanted to hear her say, 'Oh, Miep! My diary, wonderful!' But after a terrible time of waiting and hoping, word came that Anne had died. At that moment, I went to Otto Frank, Anne's father, the only one of the family who had survived. With the words, 'this is what Anne has left.' Can you understand how this man looked at me? Lost his wife, lost his two children...he had a diary. I pushed him out of my office. 'Please, go to your private office.' After an hour he phoned me, 'Miep, I don't want to see anyone.' My answer was, 'I have taken care of it.' Otto in turn gave the diary of Anne to the world and I feel that this was the right decision.
If you don't know Gies's story, here's an attempt to recreate the day when Frank's family was discovered and taken to the concentration camps. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Women speakers can contribute at any age: I don't know many women who'd start speaking in their eighties, but I'm glad that Gies did. It gave her a 20-year career as a speaker, something I'm sure you aren't considering when you say "it's too late to start." 
  • Find and share a different perspective: Throughout the speech, Gies talks about the perspectives of children, citing what Frank said and what she herself experienced as a child growing up in Austria and Holland--all to put the lie to some of the things parents commonly tell their children about who deserves help or blame. Similarly, she speaks frankly about being an Austrian ashamed of the atrocities committed by Germans and Austrians, and how those feelings were challenged by others. If you've got a perspective that's not among the usual suspects, it will add contrast, drama and perhaps surprise to your speech. Put it in!
  • Sometimes, speaking in your second language is a bonus: Gies delivers the lecture, which took place in America, in English, sometimes seeking help from a colleague and using simple language. She doesn't need complex sentences to describe this complex situation. The power of what happened propels this speech, no embellishments needed.
You can see the video and read the transcript here or watch the video below. Because it took place on the occasion of Gies being awarded the Wallenberg Prize, there are several introductions before her remarks begin at about the 19-minute mark. Don't miss the gem of this particular lecture: A question-and-answer session with Gies follows her remarks. What do you think of this famous speech?


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

From the vault: So, do you start sentences with so? If so...

(Today, since the word "so" is taking a beating in others' posts, a more detailed and nuanced look at whether this is, indeed, a filler word you should omit. The original post appeared in 2010.)

The word "so" brings out strong feelings, it turns out.  A public radio host who interviews scientists, when asked what they should do differently, sees it as a repetitive distraction. He says, "Stop starting every discussion with the word ‘so.’ You ask a scientist, 'Why is the sky blue?' and they say 'So...'."  On The Eloquent Woman on Facebook, Carolyn Bledsoe chalks it up to a mental pause, a replacement for "um." She said, "the more sophisticated speaker have stopped saying ums, ers, and ahs. Instead they have started using 'and,' 'so,' 'then.' When evaluating these speakers, I remind them of sentences that became paragraphs because of these words. Instead of a period, they now need pauses."  Maria Elena Poulos came to the defense of "so," saying, "SO used correctly in a sentence or presentation can be most can connect the speaker with a direct point." And many of us wince when we hear the sing-song so that sounds like a Valley Girl attempt to advance the narrative: "So then I said he should leave. So he did..."

Who's right here?  Is "so" really the new "um" -- and is that wrong?  Turns out, they all may be right.  "So" has many uses, according to this analysis in the New York Times.  And, as with any term of art, you need to think through your intent in using "so" to make sure it's working for you and not against you:
  • As a logical connective word, which is how software engineers in Silicon Valley began using it (and, many believe, how it came to dominate the start of a sentence).   It suggests authority, and indicates an explanation is coming, which is why scientists may be using it.
  • As an empathetic connection, indicating that you've chosen what you're about to say because it's relevant to your listener, as in, "So it might be helpful to know that...."
  • As a pause to think.  If so, it's acting like an "um"--which, by the way, is a normal part of speech.  But repeating one time-buying phrase like "so" over and over causes your audience to start counting (and it's too short to buy much time to think).
To understand more about "so," check out my "all in one on ums" post, which offers more on how to replace it with time-buying phrases and why we "um" in the first place.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by rosarodoe with words added)

Monday, October 20, 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:
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. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

8 famous speeches by young women in The Eloquent Woman Index

They ranged in age from 12 to 25 when they gave these famous speeches, but each of these young women had enough impact to make it into The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Speeches by Women. From causes like education and the environment to personal revelations and skilled storytelling, these young women are speakers to watch. In each post, you'll find video, text and tips you can take from their outstanding speeches:
  1. Severn Suzuki's 1992 UN Earth Summit speech happened when she was just 12 years old, making her the youngest speaker in the Index. She cuts right to the point, schooling her elders who were in Rio arguing over what to do when. For her, the answers were clear.
  2. Kayla Kearney came out to her high school assembly at age 17, using the theme about talking about things that matter as the entree to sharing her difficult topic. It's a short but powerful tour de force.
  3. Sarah Kay's "Tshotsoloza" showcases this popular young storyteller's art in a spoken word piece that she created after seeing a photo in a South African museum. It's a rhythmic and mesmerizing piece, her trademark speaking style.
  4. Devon Brooks used a TEDx talk to share her sexual assault and to change the conversation about sexual violation. Just 25 when she shared her story, she made sure it would reach her peers as well as the more senior adults who can do something about her cause.
  5. Lily Myers's "Shrinking Woman" speech debuted at a spoken-word poetry slam when she was 20. It's an observant and uncomfortable insight about women and men, the space we take up, and body image.
  6. Malala Yousafzai's UN address on youth education took place on her 16th birthday. It's a decidedly feminist speech and one that went viral with her positive focus on education for girls and boys everywhere.    
  7. Malala's first public statement since her shooting is the briefest of these speeches, given when she was 15 and just a few months after the Taliban attacked her. Contrast this one with her UN speech to see her amazing progress.
  8. Rashema Melson's high school valedictory speech wowed audiences worldwide because she was at the top of her class despite living in a homeless shelter. But the speech itself is compact and compelling, demonstrating restraing and good rhetoric.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Why "but all my slides are pictures" isn't a smart public speaking strategy

When I'm coaching executives who are using slides in their presentations, I feel as if I've heard every excuse in the book. Most of them are designed to justify an enormous number of slides--often, too many to get through in one sitting. But of late, one excuse seems to recur with frequency, and I think it's a dangerous one: "But all my slides are pictures." And no, these speakers aren't photographers for National Geographic.

I'm not a fan of all-or-nothing solutions in general, and when it comes to presentations, it's rare that they work. But what bothers me is the subtext I can hear behind that "all my slides are pictures" rationale. Often, it seems as if it's about something other than images. Think again if these real reasons are behind your embrace of an all-image slide presentation:
  1. You know I'm going to object to a large number of slides. Sadly, making all your slides pictures doesn't soften the blow of a 300-slide deck. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but 300 pictures? More like a memory blur for the audience.
  2. "I notice that those TED speakers prefer pictures in their slides." Please don't blame TED and TEDMED for your picture-mania. Many people, myself included, think that the best TED talks are those without slides. What's more, the TED Commandments for speakers don't mention slides at all (a hint, perhaps) while TEDMED's speaker guidance says "I will use visuals to enhance my words, not duplicate them." TED speakers most often use pictures for things their words can't capture, not as repetition.
  3. You have one slide for every point you want to make, and think it won't be noticed in pictures. Many coaches, seeking to make each slide simpler, advise "one point per slide." But no one advocates one slide per point, even if they are visual. Trust me, we'll still notice.
  4. You're using your slides as cue cards. Many, if not most, speakers rely on their slides as cue cards. News flash: The audience can tell that you're doing it, and visuals don't change that.
  5. You think a picture makes the point better than you can. This can be true--just not on every slide. If you think you need a picture for every moment of your message, let's work instead on your confidence in yourself as a speaker. 
  6. You can't tell me why all your slides need to be pictures. What's the real rationale? Because just having all pictures is not a rationale for a good presentation, in and of itself.
I'm not against pictures, but they are not a magic medicine to be sprayed all over your presentation. I'd much rather see you challenge yourself to use your words to create what I call invisible visuals, the word pictures that are so vivid we can see them in the mind's eye. Those are the pictures that will stick with your audience long after your talk is over.

Monday, October 13, 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:
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.