Friday, September 12, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Sue Austin's "most mobile person" at TEDMED

This morning, I'll be wrapping up a week of backstage speaker coaching at the TEDMED conference here in Washington. Last year at TEDMED 2013, British artist Sue Austin managed to bring the audience to silence before she ever got on stage. That's because a short film was shown the day before she spoke at the conference, featuring Austin's performance art: An underwater dive she took in a wheelchair off the coast of Egypt.

The video of that dive is mesmerizing. Only later do you learn that Austin, who lost her mobility after an extended illness, is using a National Health Service standard-issue wheelchair for the dive--with some souped-up technology attached.

Powerful as the film was, Austin's speech at TEDMED was one of the most talked-about at the conference. I was fortunate enough to work with her backstage, where we agreed that a speaker in a wheelchair has no more limits than one seated for a panel. She also has a few advantages, and you can see her take those advantages in the video below, where she spins around in her motorized wheelchair to evoke the movement she gets to make underwater as she describes what that feels like:
When I'm moving through the underwater spaces off the coast of Egypt it makes me feel free. Look what I'm doing: I'm not swimming, I'm flying. I can bank and roll, somersault, turn loop-the-loops if I want to. It's the ultimate freedom, it's the ultimate joy and exhilaration. So as both a scientist and an artist, I am brought here by a portal, by an underwater wheelchair that has become that portal. A vehicle for transformation, a fun-mobile, an electric wheelbarrow, a sub-aquatic machine. An object to paint and play with, leave traces of my joy and freedom, a facilitator of endless experimentation, a research tool that facilitates an ongoing journey, a thinking space that enables me to create new theory from that practice...enables me to ask unexpected questions and gives me the freedom to realize a previously unexpected dream.
What can you learn from this speech, which left many in the audience of 1,500 people saying, "I'll never think about disability in the same way again?"
  • Connect your experience to the audience: It would be easy, too easy, to dismiss Austin as unusual in her accomplishments or to see her as limited by the "cage" of a wheelchair. So she redraws the picture for the audience: "Sometimes the frameworks designed to free us become cages...cages that constrict our thinking, disabling us where there are no physical impairments, limiting our ability to see. What intellectual constructs are you strapped into? Maybe your restraints aren't physical, but I can guarantee you they are there. Maybe you want to get out of them. Maybe you want to turn them into a vehicle. Maybe you might dream of creating a space to fly free." It's a powerful moment in her speech, and a connecting one. Who's caged now?
  • Use all your advantages if they are relevant to your content: That well-chosen spin comes at a relevant moment in which she's describing underwater movement--otherwise, it might just be a gratuitous use of equipment. But since she could spin, and it fit her words, she did, adding visual interest.
  • Jump in with a strong start: Austin got an immediate round of applause for her opening line, "I am the most mobile person in this room." She used that to get the audience thinking differently about disability and mobility, saying that "to get this mobility in the physical world, first I had to get mobile in my thinking." 
You can watch Sue's TEDMED talk in the video below, and go here to see her underwater in the wheelchair. Read more about how she came to underwater dives here. As she says, just by reading about it and viewing it, now you're a part of this work of art. What do you think of it?



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, September 10, 2014

From the vault: 7 paths to success for panelists

(Editor's note: Since this post appeared in 2009, my own views on panels have shifted quite a bit. I now advocate for panels without slides and technology, so the panel discussion can be a real discussion--and my own preference is to attend conferences with few or no panels. But into each speaker's life some panels will fall, so you may as well be prepared.) 

Speaking as part of a panel is a great opportunity to speak without the full responsibility for holding an audience's attention...a great way to break into speaking...and a real headache if you don't plan it right. To be a sought-after panelist, try these tips to enhance your success:
  1. Stand down if you're one panelist too many: What? Turn down a speaking gig? Absolutely...if you feel the organizers have asked too many panelists. I'm most comfortable on a panel of three, but have been asked to sit on panels of as many as eight, a situation in which I was told each speaker would have precisely 2.5 minutes to make remarks! Do the math: When you add in all the introductions, moderator comments and questions, will you have enough time to make an impact?
  2. Interview the organizer or moderator: What presentation technology is available? How many panelists? How much time will each of us have? Do I need to prepare a presentation or remarks, or is this more of a roundtable with the moderator asking questions? If so, what are the questions? What's the panel setup--table with microphones or each of us taking a turn at the lectern? How many people do you expect in the audience? Can I bring handouts or takeaway materials?
  3. Provide your introduction and a bio for the program: I'm a big fan of taking charge of your introduction, but never more so than when you're on a panel. Check out this suite of introductions, and choose a shorter one for the verbal intro, and a medium-sized one for the panel--keeping in mind that more than one speaker will be featured.
  4. Keep it simple: Don't bring your video, a load of slides or your full-on I'm-the-only-speaker game. Instead, good panelists contribute as part of a group, responding to the other speakers and to the audience. Choose a handful of key points and take it from there.
  5. Find your niche: Take the time to figure out (with the organizer, moderator or the other speakers) the unique role you can play in this panel. Are you the naysayer? The surprise element? An outside observer? Once you know your role, you can focus your remarks.
  6. Don't pile on during Q&A: Some panelists seem to feel as if they must comment on every question (even if it's to say, "What she said..."). Don't be that panelist. Instead, hold your own on the questions where you can contribute strongly, and let the others handle the questions on which you're not the authority.
  7. Think how you look when you're not speaking: On a panel of three, you're not speaking two-thirds of the time...but still visible to the audience. Are you doodling? Checking your smartphone? Looking out the window? Something worse? Remember that you're on stage all the time as a panelist, and cultivate a thoughtful, listening look while your colleagues are speaking.
Related posts: 4 stepping stones to get speaking practice (including panels)

Everything in moderation (for panel moderators)

5 ways to renew your speaking skills

Speakers: 7 reasons I want you to talk more

(Creative Commons licensed photo by rosarodoe with words added)

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, September 8, 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:
This week, I'm coaching speakers backstage at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington for TEDMED conference. This will be my fourth time doing it, and I'm excited to see, hear and work with this year's great lineup, which is more than 50 percent female--something only the TEDxWomen conference has achieved among the TED conferences. So much for not being able to find women speakers, and especially in science and medicine.

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, September 5, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Debi Jackson on her transgender child

The Listen To Your Mother tour (motto: "Giving motherhood a microphone") is an important platform for women speakers, with events in more than 30 U.S. cities this year. Mothers get five minutes or so on stage, and cover every topic under the sun. In Kansas City in May, Debi Jackson's turn at the microphone captured listeners all over the world as she described her 6-year-old transgender daughter's transition from boy to girl at age four.

Jackson's short, simple and stirring speech describes that transition simply, in terms of what it felt like for her and her husband as well as for her child. The talk moves from internal feelings and a situation contained within their home to the moment when the changes happening became public:
Eventually we couldn't hold her back. She was showing signs of depression and refused to leave the house dressed as a boy. The day I let her go to school in girl clothes, she was happier than I had seen her in a very long time. The kids were great and the teachers were awesome, but then the kids went home and told their parents, and they weren’t so great after that. Adult bigotry had influenced them. We lost most of our friends and some of our family. We basically went into hiding for about a year, while my daughter grew out her hair to be the girl that she is. When we emerged again, it was with a very happy and confident daughter. 
Short as this speech is, it packs a punch, particularly in the passages where Jackson addresses six of the negative comments her family has endured. The last taunt on the list becomes the speech's conclusion:
Number six. God hates transgender people. They are sinners and going to hell. My God taught us to love one another. Jesus sought out those who others rejected. Some people choose to embrace biblical verses that appear to say transgender people are being wrong. I choose to focus on versus such as 1 Samuel 16:7 which says, "The Lord said to Samuel, 'Do not consider his appearance or height for I have not rejected him'.” The Lord does not look at things other people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. My daughter is a girl in her heart. She knows it, God knows it, and that’s good enough for me.
The speech went viral after it appeared on The Huffington Post, with tens of thousands of shares and hundreds of thousands of views, propelled in part by a tweet from singer Ricky Martin. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Adversity creates dramatic tension: From her daughter's internal struggle to the societal tug-of-war the family faced, this talk is loaded with tension and drama--without any effort to force it. Keeping the descriptions simple let the drama work its magic. 
  • Keep your point of view and speak for yourself: As befits a LTYM talk, every sentence in this short speech is decidedly from the mother's perspective. Jackson doesn't attempt to speak for her child or society, but shares her own reactions to what's said and done by others, clearly and convincingly.
  • Don't be afraid to show emotion: As anyone might, Jackson chokes up when she gets to number six and has to say "God hates transgender people." She handles it as you can, pauses, taking a breath, and continuing. It's no surprise to me that she's working from a text in this speech, a perfectly acceptable thing to do when you suspect the words you want to say will make you emotional.
Watch this short talk in the video 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 details and find out what previous participants say. Please join me!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Coaching a coach for a best man's speech

For a UK-US wedding, Union Jack socks, blue tie,
and cufflinks with image of the first American flag
British speaker coach Peter Botting and I live on opposite sides of our partner desk called the Atlantic Ocean, but when he learned a best man's speech would bring him to Washington for the union of a British groom and an American bride, he asked for my help.

I can guess why Sarah and Matthew, the bride and groom, wanted Peter to speak. He's played a key role in their relationship, and he'd be a built-in speaker coach for the groom. But more than that, Peter speaks with passion, taut language and nuance. He uses surprise, cheeky jokes, and heartfelt insights. He takes his work seriously, but doesn't take himself too seriously. Or at all. Most important, this speech mattered to him, deeply--he's written a Prime Minister's speech at the United Nations General Assembly, but said this best man's speech would be the most important speech he had ever written and delivered. That's a good thing for a speaker, and a challenge.

In Peter's preview post about the task, he notes the expectation that a speaker coach and speechwriter would deliver a spot-on speech. The groom's brother piled on the pressure and said, "If you were a carpenter and gave a crap speech it would be ok. But you aren’t!” Venue and guests were no less intimidating, set at Mount Vernon, estate of George Washington, the first President of the United States, with attendees including political heavyweights working in the Obama White House, the UK Parliament and more. So here's what we worked on together:
Left to right: Best man, photo-
bombing bride, and groom on a
tour of the White House
  • Keeping it simple: Peter's draft speech, sent to me before his arrival, was nearly where it needed to be, and what he said that day was almost indistinguishable from the first draft. His words didn't need embellishment. Peter coined one of my favorite reminders for speakers, "Big ideas don't need big words." It's a riff on one of our favorite authors, Ernest Hemingway, who said, "Big emotions don't need big words." When it comes to speeches at weddings and funerals, the emotion and the event heighten the words without any extras. A simple, heartfelt delivery is best at moments like this.
  • Speaking while emotional: Not crying was high on his wish list for this speech. I get all the easy tasks, right? So I reminded Peter that crying and blushing, once begun in earnest, can't easily be stopped. I taught him my tricks for emotional moments: Shut your mouth, breathe through your nose, swallow, and pause however long you need to. Breathing through your nose is less visible and audible, but provides needed air at the right time and can help interrupt a full-on cry, as does swallowing. Shutting your mouth helps block a sob. Pausing is an underused tactic. If you're midway through an emotional speech, a pause is understood and respected. So are tears, for that matter. Later, I learned that the wedding party was passing around the "breathe through your nose" tip like a plate of hors-d'oeuvres. In the end, tears were shed, and tissues passed, but they didn't derail anyone's remarks. Peter paused a lot. But the room stayed silent. This was all fine--after all, you wouldn't want wholly unemotional speakers at your wedding, would you?
  • Be funny and a little bit risky: You have to balance the tears and emotional moments with humor, in part as catharsis and in part to entertain. And then there's also the goal of yanking the groom's (and perhaps the bride's) chain just enough, then making them feel amazing. In his speech, Peter described his effort, speechwriter-like, to run jokes past the bride and her repeated ruling-out of his choices, which hinted that they were more than a little risky. Noses were tweaked. Dennis the Menace has serious competition here! Personalized humor, rather than off-the-shelf jokes, makes a big difference. But after each joke at the expense of the bride or groom came praise and tribute, lest the best man leave the impression that the joking image was the one the guests should take away. It's a diplomatic touch many best men forget at their peril.
  • Figuring out the job your story has to do: Peter also was to relate a moment when the groom supported his absence from a campaign so Peter could handle his uncle's funeral. His expression, understandably, was somber as he spoke about this dark moment. But every story has a job to do, coaches say, and this one was not just about a difficult time in Peter's life, but a testament to the groom's generosity, loyalty and support. I urged him to end with a smile to give the audience its cue card about how to react--not with tears, but with appreciation. He ended that story with the line, "And that's the type of guy Sarah married today."
  • Thanking people lovingly and not by rote: Peter's speech began with a litany of thanks and acknowledgments, my least favorite way to start a speech, but necessary here. He did the right thing by making them not rote thanks, but individualized and special and funny, peppered with some insider jokes and the sly tone noted above. 
  • Ending strongly: Peter didn't have an ending when we began coaching, but did have a million-dollar anecdote at the end of the speech. He was describing the night Matthew wanted to talk through proposing to Sarah, during which Peter finally handed him a Post-It note that said, "Stop talking and propose to the girl - before she gets her eyes checked." (The anecdote was properly drawn out and hammed up for dramatic effect during the speech.) He ended with: "So now I'm going to take my own advice. And shut up. And propose. A toast. All happiness, Sarah and Matthew." Even with an expert speechwriter doing the speaking, a good coach can contribute to a speech's content, helping with grace notes and transitions and building on the authentic content that's already there.
  • Sharing a secret that captures the feeling of the day: The closing anecdote had something else going for it. I often tell speakers giving wedding speeches or eulogies to share something about the principal that only you and the honoree know--it's both connected and surprising, grounded and exciting. In speeches rife with platitudes and cliches, this kind of content rivets the listener. That worked so well here that the bride turned to the groom in front of all to ask whether it really happened, a priceless moment.
All that preparation was richly rewarded, in part because the wedding party decided to put the speeches during a stand-up reception early in the proceedings, rather than after a meal or while guests were trapped at tables. Everyone was alert and attentive, both speakers and listeners. As a result, Peter spent the rest of the evening getting feedback like, "Home run!" and "The speech!!!" I'm told you could hear a guest say during his remarks, "I need to hire that guy to be my best man!"

Peter turned out to be more than right about the pressure of being "the speechwriter" and "the speaker coach" who'd be speaking, an easy target. Even the staff at the venue told him that his speech was being hyped a lot before it was given. Everyone in the wedding party who spoke referenced it, and he was the last to speak. But the best feedback of all came afterward from the groom's brother: "You're no carpenter."

In the end, I am sure that his speech succeeded not just for its structure, well-chosen anecdotes, cheeky jokes and practiced delivery. This speech was full of heart and honesty, two aspects of authenticity that absolutely cannot be faked. It drew everyone in the room closer to one another and let them feel connected. It was no surprise to me that Peter was told by a guest, "This is the most intimate wedding I've ever attended," even though the crowd numbered 140 people. That's the feeling you get from his speech. For every best man who pulls a stock speech off the Internet, this set the bar very high, indeed.

The speech's ability to forge strong connections also reflected our coaching process. When another speaker coach hires me as a coach, a fellow professional says, in effect, "I need to prepare, and I trust you enough to let you see me prepare," with all the false starts, objections, questions, changes, cold feet, anxiety and other loose ends any speaker might have. We both know all too well what might happen, and the need for help. I've coached a couple of fellow coaches, and have learned that that's what makes this exchange special. When we can help each other be vulnerable, present and emotional, it's a real victory. I'm so delighted to have been able to contribute to this special day, speech and speaker.

Monday, September 1, 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!