Vital Speech of the Week

Woman, Spiel Thyself!

Address by DENISE GRAVELINE, blogger, The Eloquent Woman; delivered at the International Speechwriters Conference, London, May 16

Most people want to know: Why would you blog about women and public speaking? and if you told me 20 years ago that this would be my topic, I wouldn’t have believed you myself. It started with a client. She had just had her performance review, and she was told “Your presentations aren’t sexy enough.” And that message came from the all-male board that held her job in its hands.

If you could see her, you would see the consummate professional. She gives presentations every day in her work as a fund-raiser, and she raises millions of dollars each year for her organization. She was handling this as she needed to do, by using her own budget to seek training to “correct the problem,” so that she didn’t further jeopardize her position. I told her I couldn’t help her make her presentations “sexy,” but I thought we could do enough to make a change apparent. We did two half-days of coaching together, and midway through the second day, she burst into tears–tears of relief, it turns out. She could see that she’d be able to get through this, and that she wouldn’t have to leave her job, as she had feared.

I sensed that she’s not the only female executive experiencing this, and that led me to start The Eloquent Woman. Today, it’s a popular blog on public speaking, with thousands of page views and Facebook fans and readers on every continent but the North Pole and South Pole. It drives fully 50 percent or more of my coaching business.

When I started the blog almost six years ago, right at the start, I encountered a mystery–and it’s a mystery I’ve been trying to solve ever since.

Almost immediately, I started getting requests from other speaker coaches and speechwriters. And the request was always the same: “Do you have any good examples on video of famous women speakers that I can share with my clients…specifically, famous women speakers more recent than Eleanor Roosevelt and Barbara Jordan?”

Of course, Eleanor Roosevelt was the First Lady of the United States while her husband Franklin Roosevelt was president and she guided the passage of the UN Declaration on Human Rights.

She died in 1962. I was three years old.

Barbara Jordan, an African-American member of the U.S. Congress in the 1970s, may not be as familiar to you, but she too is an eloquent speaker. She died in the 1990s. I was getting these questions in the 21st century.

Surely there were more examples to be found. I set out to find them…and then I discovered that my speechwriting and coaching colleagues were correct: Good examples of women speakers–women from today–were hard to find. In many cases, good examples of women speakers in history were hard to find.

If I had to give this mystery a title, I would call it “The Lady Vanishes,” and it’s a complex tale. Today I want to take you through the clues, the motives and the solution to this mystery–and you’re part of that solution.

It turns out that we do a lot to keep women speakers invisible, and you can find the clues in the lists we keep of famous speeches. On American Rhetoric’s list of the top 100 women speakers, about 30 percent are by women–but in the top 10, only Barbara Jordan is represented. So that explains why she’s noticed. On The Guardian’s list of the 100 top speeches of the 20th century, just three women are listed: Margaret Thatcher for “The Lady’s Not for Turning,” British suffragetteEmmeline Pankhurst for a speech she gave in America, and Virginia Woolf for the lectures that became the book A Room of One’s Own.

· The most current woman speakers on those lists did their best in 1974 and 1980. I’ll just remind everyone that it is 2013 today. And so the lady vanishes.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson said, “History has many themes. One of them is that women should be quiet.” From ancient times until now, we have many more clues about why we don’t see women as public speakers. Women have more often been forbidden to speak in public than men throughout history. That’s been true from the first century, and it’s still true today in parts of the world where public speaking is still a luxury and not a right. When women did speak, they were labeled as whores, as androgynous, even as men disguised as women, because no women could speak that well. It’s been said that public speaking could prevent women from bearing children. Even today, the president of South Korea, Park Guen-hye, is called “the neuter president” because she’s perceived as a strong woman and public speaker. So we’ve taken away the womanhood of women speakers…and so that lady vanishes.

Today, we reduce the woman speaker to her wardrobe, particularly when female politicians are running for office. This is more subtle than banning women speakers, but it’s nearly as effective. In fact, a recent study showed that women political candidates whose wardrobes were the subject of media coverage were more likely to lose than to win their campaigns.

Hillary Clinton famously tired of coverage that only remarked on what she was wearing. When she ran for the U.S. Senate, she wore the same thing every day–a black pantsuit–to get reporters to stop the commentary. But she tired of that uniform. When she ran for President–the only woman in that race–her wardrobe often was the lead of news stories about the presidential debates, merely because she was the only person on stage not wearing a black suit. And so the lady vanishes again.

But the biggest clue to this mystery–where are all the women speakers?–is on the podium. At conference after conference, in today’s world, women are underrepresented as speakers. The World Economic Forum has a 20 percent quota for participation by women, which it has yet to meet, and Social Media Week, with events in 18 countries, has set the bar at 50 percent women speakers and participants for its events by the end of 2014.. The TED conference has achieved as high as 42 percent women on the program, but more often comes in at less than that. The German Marshall Fund’s Brussels conference recently offered child care to get rid of one possible barrier to women’s participation. And even the New Yorker magazine highlighted the problem in a cartoon that showed an all-male panel, with the moderator saying “The subject of tonight’s discussion is ‘why are there no women on this panel?”

Every good mystery hinges on a motive. Why do we seem to have a problem with women speakers? There’s lots of speculation that this is really women’s fault. They’re shy. They don’t promote themselves. They aren’t qualified to speak. We couldn’t find any women. There aren’t enough women speakers to go around. We don’t want to be overcompensating and get too many women. These are actual things that conference organizers say when asked about the lack of women on their programs.

But research shows a simpler reason is at work here. When you control for all other variables–such as level of education or status in the company or expertise–women are consistently viewed negatively by both men and women when they speak up in meetings. If you want more on this topic, read the excellent book “Women Speaking Up: Getting and Using Turns in Workplace Conversation” by Cecilia Ford at the University of Wisconsin.

So it’s as simple as that. A long history of limiting women’s ability to speak has left us with a negative view when they do speak. You see something similar in research on women negotiating for pay raises. They don’t ask for them–not because they’re shy or they think themselves unworthy, but because they’ve correctly sized up the situation and sense that both male and female managers are less likely to give a pay raise to a woman.

Today, however, I think there’s another powerful motive at play, and it involves the audience. One of the wonderful serendipitous things about Twitter is that it gives the speaker’s audience a microphone…and the audience has noticed that there aren’t a lot of women speakers on the program.

For almost two years, I’ve been tracking tweets that mention the number or proportion of women speakers on conference programs.

I don’t track conferences that are focused on women or women’s issues, as those typically have plenty of women speakers. Some would call those conferences a ghetto for women speakers, but I’ll just note that in the U.S., women’s conferences are numerous because they make money and get excellent attendance. Imagine–conferences with lots of women speakers making money.

But at other conferences all over the world, the conferees are getting the programs in advance of the conference and finding that they advertise appallingly low numbers of women speakers. 5 out of 99 speakers. No women speakers. 17 percent starts sounding like a high proportion.

Interestingly, complaints about the lack of women speakers occur not just in professions dominated by men, like high technology, but at conferences for professions dominated by women, like nursing and library conferences. And so the lady vanishes.

Recently, TechCrunch announced speakers for a New York conference, with a lineup that included no women speakers at all. When this was called out on Twitter by a male observer, a female executive from TechCrunch responded rather defensively, along the lines of “we do too have women speakers. We just haven’t publicized them.”

And that resulted in the rejoinder: “Secret women await at the TechCrunch conference!” Again, the lady vanishes.

I think all that activity on Twitter is a positive sign that we might be able to solve this mystery together.

First, let me tell you that I’ve taken up the challenge on The Eloquent Woman blog. For the last two years, I’ve researched and written about a famous speech by a woman every Friday—we call that series “Famous Speech Friday.” I’ve written about historic speeches and speeches of today. The women speakers are not necessarily famous, but the speeches are. And I set myself an extra bar to reach, so wherever possible, the focus is on a speech about women’s issues in some way. I’m pleased to tell you that fully 35 percent of the speeches in this collection are from women speakers outside the U.S., including many from Europe and the U.K.

Today, there are more than 100 speeches we’ve collected in this way in The Eloquent Woman Index, and where possible, these posts include the full text, audio and video, so that women speakers have more resources and role models. There’s an intriguing new study out that suggests that young women do better at public speaking if theysee photographs of powerful women speaking—and the photos used, by the way, were of Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton. So we need those role models.

I think speechwriters can play a critical role in helping women speakers fulfill their potential—and in creating a more level playing field for them as speakers.

It starts with keeping in mind what they’re faced with, including the likelihood that they won’t be well received. This is not a surprise to them, by the way, but it should prompt a smarter discussion between you and the speaker you’re working with. Knowing that it’s not her fault is vital.

You may need to change how you write—not just for women speakers, but for all speakers. If we audited your speeches, would we find that you don’t mention women at all? That you never quote women, but only men—or more precisely, only Winston Churchill? If the lady vanishes from your speeches, you might want to put her back in. Hillary Clinton, in her first 20 weeks as U.S. Secretary of State, mentioned women more than 400 times in her speeches, so it can be done.

When you do refer to women, are you referring to them only as “mothers, wives and daughters?” That’s a favorite line for many political speechwriters. In the U.S., voters sent President Obama a petition after his last state of the union address to demand that he stop doing that very thing. Remember, the audience is watching—and in the U.S., at least, that audience is 51 percent women.

I know many political speechwriters who opt for talking about mothers because it’s seen as safer and less controversial than speaking about women’s issues on a wider scale. But some of the most powerful women in the world are effective speakers precisely because they speak on women’s issues in personal terms. Christine Lagarde likes to say she’s spent the last 30 years with too many men in the room. Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the American Supreme Court justice, describes how she gets talked over by the men in the room—and has throughout her career.

The novelist Ursula Leguin has given some amazing speeches, and in one of them, she shares the perfect metaphor for women speakers. She says, “We are volcanoes” and says that when women share their experiences, the truth from their perspective, that “the maps move. There are new mountains.” So don’t be a speechwriter who fears the volcano that is a woman speaker.

There’s no better example of why this strategy works than Julia Gillard, the Australian PrimeMinister, who gave a cracking good speech in Parliament, accusing the opposition leader of misogyny–a speech so powerful, some dictionaries changed their definition of the word on the strength of that speech. It was clear she worked with a prepared text, but took advantage of some wonderful extemporaneous moments, too. It’s a pointed, fiery speech and it’s had 2.3 million views on YouTube, putting it at the audience level of the most-watched TED talks.

You also might keep your eye on the volcano who is Viola Davis, the American actress. She’s a fantastic extemporaneous speaker—she says even attempting to write down remarks makes hermore nervous. And she has just bought the rights to a book about Barbara Jordan, and she intends to play her in the movie that will be made.

Finally, the best way to make sure the lady does not vanish is to make sure your speeches are published—by you, if not by your clients. And make sure that’s particularly true for women’s speeches. As one who is looking for famous speeches by women, I can tell you that the biggest barrier I face to writing about them is the lack of documentation. Time after time, I’ll hear about a speech or speaker, only to find no text, no transcript, no video, no audio of the speech. Please don’t assume that someone else is doing this—often, they are not, and we’re losing many great role models in the process. That lack of recorded speeches is the true way the lady vanishes, for all time.

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