Presentation Training, Speech Writing

Why are there so few great women speakers and presenters? (Or have I just missed them?)

I’m conscious that I’ll either get brickbats or accolades for this blog but I feel the need to write it anyway on International Women’s Day @womensday #IWD2017. Whenever I’m talking to a speechwriting client or doing speechwriting and presentation training I always mention some examples of good speeches and speakers. Given that I talk about the value of examples and stories it’s only right that I should practice what I preach. So I’ll also ask my client or the participants on courses for their thoughts and any case studies of speakers, male and female, who have impressed them and who they’d like to emulate.

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The only problem is that they and I really struggle to find examples of great women’s talks and presentations that are both contemporary and relevant to a professional audience. Obviously, there have been, over the ages, great speeches by women. The blog Eloquent Women gives some interesting examples.

Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton

Is it perhaps because so many women politicians, even (or especially?) those with powerful intellects and even more powerful personalities come across as stiff and manufactured? I’m thinking of Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton, for instance. Watch any coverage of these great stateswomen speaking and you’ll certainly see conviction and force of personality. And yet, even more than many other female politicians, they look stiff and unnatural, as if they’ve been trained and polished to within an inch of their lives. Perhaps that’s why both, whatever their merits, turned off so many voters.

The Queen is another interesting example of an experienced, well-known woman speaker. “Why doesn’t she put more energy and effort into it?” people sometimes ask. Well, the truth is that she knows that she’s speaking other people’s words and that she needs to make it clear that she’s not a politician. Only the Queen does what the Queen does.

Personally, I like Her Majesty’s serious, correct and understated speaking style. I also like the “Single Story” talk by the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, especially because of her use of stories and her personal experience. I thought that Michelle Obama’s speech in response to the release of the recording of Donald Trump’s comments about women was fantastic with its blend of passion, controlled fury and quiet determination. Not that I’ve actually heard her say the words but Elizabeth I’s speech at Tilbury also fires me up. Watch Cate Blanchett deliver it.  There are some great women speakers on TED too.

What makes a great speech or presentation by a woman

A random selection, I’ll admit, and I could probably think of more if I spent more time on it but the important thing I suppose for me, as a speechwriter is to analyse what it is that allows a woman to deliver a great speech or presentation.

After all, if you take its three constituent parts – an idea, the words needed to express that idea and the ability to deliver those words – women are every bit as good as men. Some of the greatest writers and actors are women, of course. No one ever reads a book or sees a play or film and comments with surprise that it was written by or starred a woman, do they?

I’m obviously not going to pigeon hole anyone and suggest that there’s a distinct style in which every woman should deliver a speech or presentation any more than this is true of their male counterparts. Finding the right words, messages, stories and delivery style that suits you is, after all, key to talking to people in a way that will convince and inspire them.

However, could it be that we’re all – speakers, their speechwriters and their audiences – still working our way towards identifying how women can speak more effectively and naturally at conferences and meetings in the business world?

New ways for women to speak and deliver presentations 

I’ve had the pleasure of writing speeches for women in business, in the public sector and from the voluntary organisation and then helping them to deliver the words that we’ve created together with genuine energy and conviction. In my experience, the transformation is remarkable once a woman realises that she neither has to sound like Margaret Thatcher or Hilary Clinton nor does she have to feel like an imposter with an implied apology for standing up and saying what she believes.

Perhaps we all need to look at new ways for women to speak in public. Women need to find speaking styles that they feel comfortable with, that are free of unhelpful historical influences and that don’t seek simply to ape male speakers. As more women adopt leadership roles and take their rightful position around board tables we’re seeing the style of management in many organisations evolve and become more diverse.

Just as the power shouldered corporate culture of the 80s and the “laddette” values of the 90s that parodied the worst of male behaviour have been consigned to the social history books, the I’m-going- to-speak-in-public-just-like-a-man culture is also waning, it seems. Identifying a replacement for it is the challenge now.

As we find it and as we celebrate International Women’s Day we can look forward to a new generation of powerful women speakers who can engage, inspire and motivate the women – and the men, of course – who will listen to them.