December 2, 2011

Relating to the audience, TEDxWomen-style



How often do you get to hear one amazing woman after another speak on critical issues that affect us every day as individuals and as a global community? Not often enough.

But yesterday's TEDxWomen brought 30+ women and men, in New York and Los Angeles, together through the magic of the Web. Joining them were more than 100 simultaneous TEDx events around the world showing the live stream as well as introducing local speakers. I attended the closest local event, TEDxOjaiWomen.

There were a couple of common threads that tied many of these presentations together and made them compelling and powerful, and I don't mean topic-wise. The style of the presentations was overwhelmingly personal, and I want to talk about why this made them so effective.

1. Emotion

Many speakers are afraid of emotion. Any emotion. Emotion that's too real, too raw, or too personal has no place in public speaking for many people.

But the only way you will connect with your audience is through emotion. Not facts. Not statistics. Those are interesting and will flesh out the details of whatever point you're trying to make. But if the audience doesn't CARE about what you're saying, you've failed. And people don't CARE unless you stimulate them emotionally.

Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who made the documentary MissRepresentation, teared up while talking about the different treatment her son and daughter received from friends and politicians when they were born. Tan Le, technology entrepreneur, held back tears as she told the story of her family's dramatic emigration to Australia when she was a child. Matt Petersen, of Global Green USA, choked up when he talked about women he met in the Congo who were still able to dance joyfully, even after surviving multiple rapes. And Jane Fonda not only got teary-eyed, but sniffled, as she introduced Gloria Steinem, someone who is clearly a hero to her.

Besides the tears, there were many speakers who engaged me through humor, through intensity, through aha! moments. My emotional engagement allowed me to take in and absorb more deeply the speakers' messages.

2. Storytelling

If there was a common tool used by most of the speakers yesterday (especially our local ones), it was storytelling. I've never heard so many personal stories from a group of speakers. I don't know if it's because most of the speakers were women, and personal stories are a shortcut to building connection and helping the audience relate to the similarities in our lives. I don't want to overanalyze it, but the stories made for a constant stream of fascinating speakers.

Alana Sheeren shared how she learned to grieve, stay present with grief, and help others who are grieving, through stories of painful loss.

Poet akka b told us of "coming out" as a poet, and how strange it was to call herself that once she gave herself permission.

Writer and editor Suzanne Braun Levine described her experiences jumping off a 90-foot cliff as a celebration of turning 50, and gathering the courage to say "NO" when informed by her Outward Bound guide that she was expected to climb back up the way she came down.

Communicatrix Colleen Wainwright asked us "Are you sure it's impossible?" as she took us through the harrowing and "impossible" process of raising $50,000 in the 50 days leading up to her 50th birthday (yes, she raised the money, and more -- and has the shorn head to prove it).

Dyana Valentine, self-proclaimed instigator, made her entire presentation about the incident and epiphany that brought her to be speaking on the TEDxOjaiWomen stage.

Why do we like stories so much? Here's one reason: "Stories help us to keep tabs on what is happening in our communities. The safe, imaginary world of a story may be a kind of training ground, where we can practice interacting with others and learn the customs and rules of society. And stories have a unique power to persuade and motivate, because they appeal to our emotions and capacity for empathy." (Read the rest of that blog post here.)

Stories help audiences relate to a speaker. Stories (and analogies) take concepts that may be unfamiliar and translate them into real-life examples that anyone can understand. Stories paint mental pictures of things your audience can't see in person. Stories bond us together in a common experience.

3. Authenticity

I'm not sure I've ever come across such a large group of speakers who radiated such confidence and realness. There wasn't a single person throughout the entire day who appeared stagey, fake or overly rehearsed. Some lost their place and recovered gracefully, some speakers used notes with no apologies (Barbra Streisand had black notecards... interesting). Not once did I sense a speaker showing off, condescending to the audience, trying too hard to be profound or to impress, forcing enthusiasm, or doing any of a hundred things I've seen bad motivational speakers do.

It was refreshing. I felt that I could sit back, relax, and take it all in without the stress of cringing every five minutes feeling embarrassed for the poor sap who oozes insecurity.

I'm not saying that these speakers weren't nervous on the inside. Or that there weren't a few feeling desperately anxious to be liked. Or that some of them weren't completely faking their confidence. But I'm not a mind reader. I can only guess that these things were going on because I'm a speaker and I know speakers, and these things are happening internally much of the time.

This talented and knowledgeable group of women and men pulled themselves together, decided to just "be," and gave us a day full of insights, laughter, hope, tears, debunked myths, pride, promises, joy, struggle, memories, epiphanies, clarity, reflection, possibilities, passion and love.

If I had one complaint about the day (and I didn't get to see the whole live stream, so it's possible that some of these issues were discussed), it's that I would like to have seen more presentations on what innovations are happening in the fields of rape and domestic violence prevention and gender equity education -- topics that aren't warm and fuzzy or easy to talk about, but are part of our world nevertheless. However, it's not easy to cover, in one day, all the ways girls and women are re-shaping the future.

Well done, TEDxOjaiWomen!

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