Friday, September 4, 2015

Famous Speech Friday: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on likability

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is already one of my favorite women speakers: Her fierce TEDx talk, We Should All Be Feminists, is part of our Famous Speech Friday series. But when I heard about this speech, delivered as she accepted an award from the writing and mentoring program Girls Write Now in May, I knew she'd be on my blog again.

Never one to mince words or dodge the big points, Adichie used this short five-minute speech to give lavish praise to Girls Write Now and to the other speakers on the program, taking her time to make her observations thoughtful, vivid, and funny--and encouraging. But then she directed her comments to the girls doing the writing, the core of the program:
....I teach a writing workshop in Nigeria in every year and what I say to my students, and what I say mostly to the female students is, "forget about likability".

I think that's what our society teaches young girls and I think it's also something that's quite difficult for even older women, self-confessed feminists, to shrug off, is that idea that likability is an essential part of the space you occupy in the world. That you're supposed to twist yourself into shapes to make yourself likable. That you're supposed to kind of hold back sometimes, pull back, don't quite say, don't be too pushy because you have to be likable.

And I say that is bullshit. And so what I want to say to the young girls is, forget about likability. If you start off thinking about being likable, you're not going to tell your story honestly. Because you're going to be so concerned with not offending. And that's going to ruin your story. So forget about likability. And also the world is such a wonderful, diverse, multi-faceted place, that there's somebody who's going to like you. You don't need to twist yourself into shapes.
My recent post Did I just get public speaking advice? Shade? Or a virtual "shut up?" included an example of a young woman speaker urged to be more likable, and if that's happened to you, this speech is a great pep talk. It got plenty of buzz in the weeks following the awards. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Refute with an absolute: Adichie here wants to refute thoroughly the idea that girls should try to be likable, and by saying, "And I say that is bullshit," she uses a forceful, short, and powerful absolute to do the job. In the same way that a brief "Absolutely not!" would refute an specious idea better than several long sputtering sentences, her brevity is wielded as a cudgel and it's all the more powerful.
  • Reflect the realities: There's solid research to show that people think women can be competent or likable, but not both--in other words, if you're competent, we don't like you, and if we like you, you must not be competent. Talking about that phenomenon, and how to handle it by ignoring the yen to be liked, takes it out of the realm of the not-noticed and into the forefront, where we can all start dealing with it. And for women listening to this speech, it helps them to realize that criticism about likability isn't really about them.
  • Use a strong metaphor: Metaphors, when well-chosen, light up your mind's eye with a vivid image, and here, Adichie's choice of "twist yourself into shapes" does wonders in four words. That neat, short metaphor is worth its weight in gold, and gets her point across quickly and with force.
Watch the video here or below. This is Adichie's second appearance on Famous Speech Friday. Check out her TEDxEuston talk, "We Should All Be Feminists."

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 2015 Girls Write Now Awards Speech

I've got two small-group workshops coming up on Creating a TED-quality talk in Washington, DC, in January. Choose the January 14 workshop or the January 28 workshop. All you need to do is bring your one big idea for a talk in the style of TED. You'll learn how to plan, write, time, practice, and deliver it in a group limited to 5 people per workshop. Join us! You get the best discount if you register by October 30, 2015.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Reader Q&A: What if the audience already knows everything I have to say?

In the webinar I did earlier this year with the editors of Technically Speaking (@techspeakdigest on Twitter) one participant said, "I am a junior developer. I am not too nervous about actually delivering the talk, but my main block when applying to speak is that the audience will 'already know' what I am talking it common for people to feel that and how would you deal with it?"

I've certainly heard this before from junior and senior speakers, most often those in academic circles--so much emphasis is placed on narrowing you Ph.D. research to a wedge no one else has occupied that it sometimes carries over into the business of giving a talk or presentation. And even if you don't come from that world, you may be worried that you're not "the expert" in your field, the person who knows more than anyone else can know.

To which I always say, "You don't need to be THE expert. You just need to be AN expert."

Worrying that your audience will already know what you are speaking about has many layers for the public speaker. There's a presumption that, knowing all, your audience will be immediately bored or unimpressed by your talk. And in an elliptical way, it also may be a way of expressing the fear of getting a question to which you don't know the answer: If the audience already knows everything you're going to say, won't they ask questions that push well past that limitation?

But before you jump to those assumptions, the reality is both more mundane and delightful. Audiences may know your topic well, but be looking for a different perspective--yours. The smartest people I know, include some Nobel laureates, go to talks hoping to learn something new to them, not necessarily new to all. And even if we're closely familiar with the type of work you do, you can make it unique by highlighting your particular experience and perspective.

Here are a few more tips to plan your talk so that you avoid this mental trap:
  1. Work on your nerves and your confidence: Second-guessing yourself in this way won't help either one. Instead, try some of my easy, evidence-based ways to work on your public speaking nerves, and submit that proposal to speak. Especially useful when you fear your audience will be evaluating you is power posing, but any of these tactics will work.
  2. Beat them by being more thoughtful: Via Swiss Miss blog, I love this Frank Chimero quote. It's about design, but could work for any speaker on any topic: “If you can’t draw as well as someone, or use the software as well, or if you do not have as much money to buy supplies, or if you do not have access to the tools they have, beat them by being more thoughtful. Thoughtfulness is free and burns on time and empathy.”
  3. Remind us all of what we don't know: Some of the best talks I've heard have been those that remind us of all the things we don't know in a particular area. In this way, your topic becomes the great equalizer between you and the audience.
  4. Don't discount your own stories: Facts are facts, but instead of numbing the audience with numbers and data, why not share your stories related to your topic? In addition to being personal, they add the unknown and unique to your presentation.
  5. Use "I" statements: Don't couch your conclusions or observations with "we" (as in "as we all know") statements. Instead, speak only for yourself. "In my experience," "what I've observed," and "my own thinking is" will help you focus your remarks and make it clear you are sharing your own perspective.
  6. Know that you don't need to know everything:  Learning how to say "I don't know" with ease--try "I wish I knew that"--is a skill every smart speaker should have. Check out my 7 tactics for losing your fear of Q&A for more ideas.
  7. Consider what makes you unique: Shift your focus from trying to be smarter than everyone else to what makes you unusual. It might be your age, gender, experience (life or work), interests, location, and more. Highlighting what makes your perspective unusual helps you differentiate yourself so you're not trying to compete with the crowd.
You also could try a creative approach to being an "expert of nothing," the title of this talk by Jessie Char at NSConference. Thanks to Technically Speaking for the pointer to this talk. It's a clever, deep, fun look at what's behind this feeling.

Expert of Nothing - Jessie Char from NSConference on Vimeo.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Medialab Katowice)

Got a panel coming up? Whether you're a conference organizer, speaker, or moderator, you'll have a better panel--and a sparkling discussion--if you plan with The Eloquent Woman's Guide to Moderating Panels. At just $3.99 in all ebook formats, it's like having a coach with whom you can prepare and bring on stage with you.

Monday, August 31, 2015

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:
Got a panel coming up? Whether you're a conference organizer, speaker, or moderator, you'll have a better panel--and a sparkling discussion--if you plan with The Eloquent Woman's Guide to Moderating Panels. At just $3.99 in all ebook formats, it's like having a coach with whom you can prepare and bring on stage with you.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Famous Speech Friday: Toni Morrison’s 2011 commencement address

(Editor's note: Many readers know that my sister Elaine died this summer. Not long after, fellow speaker coach Kate Peters got in touch to offer me a guest post for the blog, choosing this Toni Morrison speech to add to our collection. Here's what she wants to say to you: "Several years ago, Denise was kind enough to offer a post for my blog as a “Web 3.0 casserole” when my partner was going through medical difficulties. I offer this in the same spirit and suggest to the readers of this blog that it’s a great tradition!" And I agree. Please enjoy Kate's choice and her analysis of this wonderful speech, which carries a deeper level of meaning for speakers as storytellers. Thank you, Kate, for the casserole!)

Toni Morrison is one of the most revered authors of our time. She gives us imaginative stories, and characters that both inspire, delight and horrify us. But is a great writer also, naturally, a great speaker? If you are a fan of Audible, as I am, you know that the two do not necessarily go hand in hand.

One of the things that made Morrison’s 2011 Rutgers address notable is that she was paid $30,000 for that appearance– a steep fee for anyone, but especially for a fiction writer. Still, as the New Yorker pointed out in an article written to highlight commencement addresses by writers, her speech was called “stirring, soulful, and at times playful, and measured with outrage and hope—[with] a value that is hard to quantify in financial terms.”  In fact, this commencement address is considered among the best in modern times and one would expect the value to be found in the words she chooses on this auspicious occasion. While that is true, there is more to it.

Morrison’s address to Rutgers’ 2011 graduating class is a guide to crafting your own story in a world that is in dire need of better stories. Morrison is the mentor who makes statements that are memorable, repeatable and clearly directive. Early in the speech, she sets the graduates on their course:
There is serious work, truly serious work, for you to do. I know you have been blasted with media designed to change you from citizens to consumers, and most recently, simply tax payers; from a community of engaged civic life, to individuals with hundreds of electronic friends; from a yearning for maturity to a desire for eternal childhood…Every true heroine breaks free from his or her class—upper, middle, and lower—in order to serve a wider world.
At first listen, Morrison’s words are poignant and relevant, but her voice is not remarkable. In fact, it is soft and foggy at times, and her pace is slow. Still, we find her voice haunting, distinctive, even if, at times, also monotonous. Surprisingly, she makes an impact with her voice that is equal to the words she uses, and this is the added value of her talk for speakers. Whether possessed with a great voice or not, we can all learn from her by studying her use of three techniques for great delivery; she demonstrates that sometimes the most powerful sound is silence, she aligns her delivery with a deep intention, and she connects her words with meaning.

  • Be comfortable with silence. The art of reading aloud is often used in commencement addresses because the speakers want to make sure they get their important statements just right. It is perfect for Morrison, whose words define her in our eyes. Yet how much more are we impacted by a writer, reading her own writing, who pauses once in a while? We listen and hear what isn’t being said, the depth of the words as they apply to our own lives. Pausing allows space for the audience to listen and take it all in. Listen to how she uses silence to create discomfort in the audience and underline her words. 
I have often wished that Jefferson had not used that phrase, ‘the pursuit of happiness’, as the third right—although I understand in the first draft was ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of property.’ (pause) Of course, I would have been one of those properties one had the right to pursue, so I suppose happiness is an ethical improvement over a life devoted to the acquisition of land; acquisition of resources; acquisition of slaves. Still, (pause) I would rather he had written life, (pause) liberty (very long pause) and the pursuit of meaningfulness (pause) or integrity (pause) or truth.
  • Align your delivery with your intention. Every good talk has a purpose, or an intention, as I prefer to describe it. An intention is “an aim that guides action.” Morrison’s intention is to persuade, inspire, and even enrage the young people enough to convince them to create the stories of their lives with enough imagination to do the serious work of making a better world. Her alignment with this is demonstrated when you listen to her stress words (in italics below) that convince us of the urgency of her point of view.
I know that happiness has been the real, if covert, goal of your labors here. I know that it informs your choice of companions, the profession you will enter, but I urge you, please don’t settle for happiness. It’s not good enough. Of course, you deserve it. But if that is all you have in mind—happiness—I want to suggest to you that personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life, it is a trivial one. It's lookin’ good instead of doing good.
  • Connect your words with meaning. The use of inflection or vocal variety is powerful in communication. It connects to the meaning behind what is being said. This is a technique Morrison uses throughout her talk, but listen to how the meaning behind her words pops as she uses several types of vocal variety to talk about what people in the future might think of the state of the world in 2011. 
Just think of it. A century from now, its quite possible that people 100, 200, 300 years from now will be stunned by the things that were taken for granted in 2011 America. (tone as a variant) They might laugh or shake their heads and wonder with dismay at our notions of progress, justice and the value of work and of life. (pace as a variant) 
‘What?’ they might exclaim, ‘You mean to tell me that people back then had to borrow money, work several jobs, save in order to pay for their own education? (pitch, pace and tone as variants) An education that is the wealth of the nation? I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you.’ (Volume and pitch as variants) 
‘How could a wealthy nation put the financial burden of improving the level of its own citizens in the market place?’ (percussive accents and pitch as variants)
We don't have a proper text, but there are quotes in the New Yorker article linked above, and this listener did a transcript on her blog. You can watch the video here, or below.

University Commencement

Author of Can You Hear Me Now? Harnessing the power of your vocal impact in 31 days, Kate Peters has helped prepare and strengthen TEDMED, TED and TEDx speakers to perform with confidence and, as an executive coach, her clients include executives at Fortune 50 companies. Prezi lists her blog, Kate’s Voice, as one of the top Public Speaking Web Resources, globally, and Kate has been voted one of 30 Global Gurus in Communications by in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Her blog can be found at

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Use a script or transcript to manage your speaking speed

Whether you routinely use a script or just speak off the cuff, you can use text as a tool to manage your speaking speed and increase your understanding of it. It's a smart project for anyone who hopes to speak regularly in public, a key type of data about yourself as a speaker that you should be monitoring. Here's how to do it:
  • Write the script to a standard speed: The speechwriters' rule of thumb is about 120 words per minute. That means 600 words for every 5 minutes of speaking. You may speak faster or slower, but if you write your script with this in mind, you'll know whether you are faster or slower than the standard. Use the word-count function in your word-processing program to find out the number of words.
  • Record a reading: This might be a recording you make for practice, or the actual recording of the talk as delivered. Either way, that audio or video won't lie: You'll now have the actual reading time of your talk in hand.
  • No script? No problem: If you had no script, but did get a recording of your talk, you can have that transcribed to get the written version of what you said. (Here's an easy way to generate a transcript with YouTube.) Then run it through a word-counter to get the total of your actual spoken words. Divide the total by the number of minutes, and you'll know how many words per minute you speak on average.
Next comes some analysis:
  • What's your actual speed? Keep a log of this, whether it's based on practice readings or real delivery. It's good to know your actual average speaking speed for speeches. Keep in mind that while we aim for 120 words/minute for speeches, you may speak closer to 400 or 500 words per minute in conversation. We do need you to slow down for speeches.
  • If your script was written to 120 words/minute, did you come close to that mark in actual speaking? I wouldn't worry if you are 15 seconds faster or slower, but if your recording differs significantly more than that, you are speaking either too fast or too slow.
  • Are you faster without a script? It's great to compare your speed reading from a text or winging it. You may be surprised by the results.
  • Do your off-the-cuff additions add to the time significantly? Here's where it helps to have a transcript of your actual delivery, even if you used a text. Your asides, jokes, and off-the-cuff additions may be adding minutes to your total, and this is the best way to find out.
  • Were you nervous? Many speakers report speeding up consciously due to nerves or the simple desire to "get it over with." If that was the case in the speech you're reviewing, it can have a real impact on your speed. Ditto those moments when you saw the clock and realized your time was running out.
The easiest way to slow yourself down is to follow the rules of punctuation. Any sentence with a hard stop (period, exclamation point, colon, question mark) should have 2 silent beats after it, and before saying the next sentence. Watch out for list sentences, with items separated by commas, and make sure there is a distinct silent beat between items in the list. Those two tactics will do more to slow you down appropriately than anything else. Mark up that script or transcript to indicate where to pause and how many beats, then read and record it again to find out whether you were successful in slowing down.

This takes practice, but in the end, ensures that your audience will actually hear what you are saying--and isn't that the point?

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Tory)

Got a panel coming up? Whether you're a conference organizer, speaker, or moderator, you'll have a better panel--and a sparkling discussion--if you plan with The Eloquent Woman's Guide to Moderating Panels. At just $3.99 in all ebook formats, it's like having a coach with whom you can prepare and bring on stage with you.

Monday, August 24, 2015

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:
Got a panel coming up? Whether you're a conference organizer, speaker, or moderator, you'll have a better panel--and a sparkling discussion--if you plan with The Eloquent Woman's Guide to Moderating Panels. At just $3.99 in all ebook formats, it's like having a coach with whom you can prepare and bring on stage with you.