Thursday, June 26, 2014

And you thought beginning was hard...

Every summer I take a respite from coaching and consulting and go back to camp. Well, not camp, really: it's Discover the World of Communications, a summer program at American University. Sarah Menke-Fish, visionary Professor of Communications, created this program for driven, directed high school students 15 years ago. And I have been lucky to be a part of the DWC family for nine years now.

The past two weeks I have been working with DWCers in my Speaking for Impact class. They are smart kids, from some of the area's best schools, so it isn't Intro to Public Speaking. Most have made many speeches, and know they will make more in the careers they hope to have. However, I am struck by how often I need to point out that their speeches don't really have endings. And that's not just generational; many of my older clients have difficulty ending their speeches and presentations as well. (A good example of "what not to do" can be found at the end of Ellen DeGeneres' funny yet poignant 2009 Tulane commencement speech. But be warned: she is a comedian with impeccable timing. A less gifted person would never get by with a conclusion that concludes the conclusion.)

Just as you need a "hook" to engage the listeners, to get them interested in your topic or to pique their curiosity about how you will handle your subject matter, you also need a "coda" at the end to wrap everything up. Common methods for doing this include referring to the story you used in your hook, answering the pointed question you asked in the beginning, or citing the intriguing quotation you opened with. Other "codas" can be structured using rhetorical devices. I had a student this week end her "Don't Text While Driving" speech with a wonderful use of repetition: three sentences that started with "Be the one who...." It's a classic technique, but it works.

Ending your speech definitively may seem like a no-brainer, but it is surprising how many speakers sputter to a close, as if they have run out of steam (or time). They don't end with a strong finish and that is too bad. Your closing is another opportunity to make your point. Even if you have lost your listeners somewhere along the way, your message will be remembered if it is reinforced by the last words your audience hears. Make them count! 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Madeleine and Audra

Madeleine Albright shows off her Wellesley Blue sneakers
"Be yourself."

You have heard it before. Everyone has said it--from your mother sending you out the door on your first day of school, to your BFF giving you a pep talk before that big job interview. But when this is the advice offered to women leaders from Madeleine Albright, you somehow hear it in a new way. And it doesn't seem trite at  all.

I was at Wellesley for my college reunion, and Madeleine (Class of '59) was speaking in conjunction with the opening of Read My Pins, an exhibit at the Davis Art Museum. Following a fascinating talk that combined stories detailing how she used her pins to convey diplomatic messages, the floor was opened up for questions. A few questions arose about how best to be a woman leader in a world that still applies a double standard. Her response? "It is annoying when men do that but that's just the way it is. Be confident in what you are doing, and don't take such criticism personally." You can best do that when you are Being Yourself. By that I think she meant that in a leadership role you need to know your strengths and play to them. Trust your instincts and your homework. Do not feel the need to become someone else's idea of what a leader should be. And I would extrapolate even further (to summarize a point I have read in other books on women's leadership) that you are a leader because you are a leader. No need to second-guess. Be bold. Be confident! I was lucky to see many examples this weekend of classmates who were the embodiment of just that kind of leadership. They we enjoying themselves immensely, being themselves.

And then I came home and watched the Tony Awards. I watched Broadway stars, people who role-play for their living, celebrating their community. The surprise of the evening was, for me, the way the stunningly talented Audra McDonald was so overcome with emotion at winning her record-breaking sixth Tony that she cried throughout her acceptance speech. McDonald's profession depends on her self-knowledge and self-possession, yet she felt free to be undeniably herself.

In moments of heightened emotion (or heightened stress) we can give ourselves this gift. If we do not stand outside ourselves, worrying about how others will judge us, we can act on what our preparation and our inner guide tell us we must do. Great leaders know that being authentic, even when it means being vulnerable, is a mark of strength. Great actors do, too!

Monday, June 2, 2014

A speech that stuck

Nora Ephron speaking at Wellesley College

Now that it's June we can all breathe a sigh of relief. We begin an 11-month respite from snarky commentary about Commencement speakers and their speeches, from newspaper columns and blog posts that say, "no one remembers their Commencement speaker, let alone the speech." To those of us who study best speech practices and train others to speak, those comments sound like sour grapes (from people who were not invited to speak) or laziness (from those who were but do not want to put in the time to fully prepare).

I remember the speech delivered at my own Commencement very well--and it was a long time ago! But that is probably because it was written by one of the smartest women ever to put two words together, delivered with an energy that held us spellbound. I was lucky enough to be addressed at my graduation from Wellesley College by our illustrious alumna Nora Ephron. She had a very clear message to us graduates: "Be fearless. Don't waste your time being nice. And don't be a lady!" I seem to recall a collective gasp from the parents seated behind us when she made this last point, but I recall (though perhaps imperfectly) that my classmates and I burst into applause.

I am not going to tell you here how this "advice to the graduates" shaped my life. I use it simply to illustrate that people do actually remember their Commencement speeches. Even decades later.

Nine days ago my family and I attended the graduation of our daughter from Bowdoin College. We heard many speeches over the course of graduation weekend. A few of them were memorable. But there was one that was universally lauded; it meant something to everyone who heard it, from grandparents to younger siblings. "Failure in Perspective" was given by a member of the Class of 2014, Kate Kearns. If you want to view this excellent speech you can find it here.

Kate's message of learning from failure is not that unusual. We hear it everywhere these days. In start-up circles the mantra "fail fast" seems to be on everyone's lips. But Kate is not invoking this as a "success strategy." She reaches deeper than that. By involving us in the story of her personal journey to embrace the lessons of failure, Kate touches on our fundamental reluctance to admit to anything less than success. But we must fail, if we are to grow and keep growing. So Kate turns the glib mantra into deeply held article of faith. Everyone I spoke to after the ceremony felt they could relate to the story Kate shared. She was vulnerable, honest and funny. As a listener you believed and trusted her. And took her words to heart.

When I advise my clients on content development, I tell them they need to include the element of story in their speeches if they want them to "stick." Of all the speeches that weekend, the one that stuck with us most did not just incorporate story, it grew organically from that story. A personal story that was also universal.

Nora would have approved.