Thursday, February 11, 2016

Instead of wincing, 10 things to look for on the video of your talk

(Editor's note: The first talk videos are emerging from TEDMED 2015 and I promised many speakers I coached there that I'd republish this post, which originally appeared in 2010 and has been updated annually ever since. You can use this list to spot problems, see what you did right, and make improvements, based on your own video. If you've just spoken at a TED conference, you also may find useful my list of 9 things to do with the video of your TED talk. Can't wait for you to see the videos of these wonderful speakers!)

A longtime friend and colleague just completed a special speaking event, giving a sermon at his church. But when I was telling him how well he'd done on the video, he admitted he hadn't looked at it and didn't want to--so much so, he hadn't even listened to the audio.

He has that in common with the best in the business: Any professional newscaster, actor or performer will tell you that they hate how they look and sound when recorded, so it's no surprise we ordinary mortals do, too. New research suggests that if you hate the sound of your own voice, there may be a physiological reason for that.

As a coach, I see it differently: If you're lucky enough to be recorded when you speak--whether you do the recording or someone else does--you've got a golden opportunity to learn things you might never otherwise know about how you speak.  If a video is made available to you, take the opportunity. Or rig your own ultralight camcorder or a pal with a smartphone, and take charge of your own recording.

Rather than torture yourself with how bad you think you look, focus instead on these cues and clues that would be hard to discern without help from a camera. This list is what I coach my clients to look for when viewing video of their speaking, whether it's in practice or the real deal:
  1. Visual "ums:"  Instead of saying "um" when you're pausing to think, you may look to one side or up or down; make a repetitive gesture over and over; or move in a pattern, if you're on your feet and away from the lectern. It might be putting a hand to your face, a wink, a grimace. Watch for those patterns--freeze-frame if you need to catch them--and work on buying yourself time to think with new phrases, or work more on your message in advance and practice. If you're doing a gesture repeatedly, like putting a hand to your face, put your clicker or your note cards in that hand to interrupt the pattern. It helps to watch the video sooner rather than later after your talk to catch this slip-up, since you'll be better able to remember what you were thinking at the time your visual "um" occurred--and that may help you avoid repeating it next time. Often, the visual "um" happens when you haven't quite got your message down, or forgot something you wanted to include, just like a verbal "um."
  2. Invisible gestures:  You may be gesturing like a windmill, but if it's below the height of the lectern or out of camera range, all the audience will see is your body moving slightly. That's great if you're gesturing to keep your speech fluid, since gestures help you avoid "ums" and stumbles. But if you wanted your gestures to help get your point across and hold the audience's interest, make sure we can see them. Typically, that will mean gesturing at shoulder or chest height. Practice will make that more comfortable for you. Also watch for the reverse problem: Gesturing right in front of your own face. If that's happening, gesture a bit lower. We want to see you!
  3. A body with a mind of its own:  Some speakers planted in one place will sway from side to side, and some who like to move around wind up drilling a path into the floor as they pace back and forth, back and forth, in an unrelieved line. Either one calls for a change:  You may need to focus on keeping your core body stable, or move in different directions if you like to roam the audience. If you are going to move your body, vary the pattern--think triangle, rather than straight line--and plan places in the talk where you pause verbally and stop physically, to break up repetitive moves. TED conferences have a reputation for speakers who move around, but in reality, it's not encouraged, and sometimes a simple shift of your weight from one foot to the other is enough to convey motion.
  4. How you react to interruptions:  Listen for those unexpected noises--door slams, crying babies, audience laughter, applause, sneezes--during your talk. How do you react?  It's a great chance to catch your immediate reaction, and to think through how you might handle that next time.  While you're at it, pay attention to how you react when you're asked a question; your face may give a different answer than your mouth does, showing apprehension, for example, when you don't need to do so. And when you get applause, you have two choices: Talking right through it, a forceful tactic called "surfing the applause," or pausing to let it happen. My preference? Don't step on your applause. Let it happen! Knowing your unforced reactions helps you plan better for the next time the interruptions happen.
  5. Expressions that match your words:  Your face is part of your connection with the audience, but it gets confusing, at best, if you look like you're grimacing when giving praise or sad when talking about something exciting.  Since it's not at all unusual for speakers to feel disconnected from their facial expressions, video helps you focus and fix that. Most people's mouths, when at rest, are either flat-lined or slightly downturned, making you look bored or sad. Smiling, even a little, corrects that natural downward turn.  You get to decide how much to smile, but smile at least somewhat. Bonus: It also helps reduce stress and makes you feel better.
  6. Gesturing. Yes, it's a good thing: Gestures are good for both speaker and audience, helping your brain form language fluently and helping the audience understand you, even if the gesture is random and doesn't match your word. But a little gesturing goes a long way. Think of gestures as a condiment: If you gesture for every word, or every syllable, you're weakening the impact. Don't over-salt or over-pepper your talk with gestures. Try counting your gestures on the video, watching for the repetitive single gesture that could be a visual "um." If you're not gesturing, or if you are immobilizing your hands in your pockets or by clasping them tightly, you may observe on the video that your speech is less fluent. And when your talk is being recorded on video, remember to keep those gestures small and less theatrical. Don't play to the back of the theater. Play to the YouTube viewer.
  7. Your posture and body language:  Are your shoulders up around your ears, or slumped? Can we see your stress in your expression or your body? Are you leaning in one direction? Are your arms crossed in a defensive posture? Is your head down when you should be looking up at the audience? Turn off the sound for this review, and see what your body language says.
  8. Do you really look nervous? Do you look at ease? You may be surprised:  Most speakers find they feel nervous, but don't look as if they are. If you're not sure, ask a friend to watch and tell you what she thinks, but most of the time, the audience can't tell that you're nervous. Many TEDMED speakers told me this was the tip that helped them "nerve up" the most before going on stage, so keep it in mind for next time.
  9. Can you hear your message clearly throughout?  To find out, you may need to just listen to the audio once, then watch the video.  Do you find it hard to follow your progression? Did you forget to include a key point? Did your gestures, movement, facial expressions and props help get that across? What can you notice that will help you next time in terms of clarity and focus?
  10. What did you do that was wonderful? You may need some outside perspective on this, but try looking for your successes in the video. Did you nail a great laugh line, pause with effect, gesture with aplomb? Did you feel and look poised and in command of your subject? What did the audience like and react to positively? Did you stay on time? Take the time to note what went well, so you can make a point of doing it again--and so you know you can focus on another skill the next time you practice.
There's an even better reason to embrace that video: More and more, conference organizers tell me they want to see that video of you speaking to an audience before they extend an invitation to join the program. Once you've reviewed your video, don't hide it! Share it on social networks, repost to your blog or website, and share it when you are seeking a speaking gig in the future.

(Photo of Barbara Natterson-Horowitz speaking at TEDMED 2014 via TEDMED)

Monday, February 8, 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, 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: