The speaker had “a genuine case of nerves.” Usually confident when she spoke in public, this time she felt jittery as she approached the stage.
As Clinton writes in the latest issue of The Atlantic magazine, when she delivered one of history’s most iconic speeches about women’s rights — at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing — she suffered all the uncertainties that tend to plague other women speakers.
This time, the stakes were enormous and tensions high.
Before her in the large hall were delegates from 189 countries around the world, UN agencies, intergovernmental organizations, and other activists and organizations — 17,000 participants in all.
Many who heard her argument the abuse of women were representing countries where horrific gender-based violence and abuse was commonplace. One of the worst offenders was the very country that was hosting the event: China.
When she delivered her now-iconic line —”If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that women’s rights are human rights, once and for all” — she knew the eyes of the world were upon her.
Here are 3 key lessons about women’s public speech from Clinton’s article:
1) There’s a good reason women are nervous about public speaking. That’s because the bar is higher for women than for men. As Clinton writes, the double standard exposes women to far more scrutiny and judgment than men. Throughout history women speakers have been mocked and belittled. Just the anticipation of this kind of treatment can unnerve even the most savvy speaker, as Clinton’s experience shows.
“Women are often criticized if we show too much emotion in public,” she writes. “And I wanted to make sure my tone didn’t obscure the message. Hence, the nerves.”
Whenever you feel nervous about your speech — whether you’re worried about your delivery, your credibility, the sound of your voice, or your appearance — know that it’s not because you are weak. It’s because our society is too often judgmental and cruel towards women speakers.
Whenever you feel nervous and jittery about your speech — whether you’re worried about your delivery, your credibility, the sound of your voice, or your appearance — know that it is not because you are weak.
2) Even the most confident women second-guess themselves. Clinton was already a public speaker with years of experience at the podium and in the public eye. She was First Lady of the United States, the most powerful nation on earth. She had twice been First Lady of Arkansas. She had taught criminal law and defended clients in court. She had delivered countless campaign and political speeches, hosted events, chaired high-altitude meetings.
Yet she still suffered bouts of uncertainty. She too heard that all-too-familiar internal voice of doubt.
As she recalls: “Staring out at the delegates in front of me, I had a fleeting thought: What if this was a mistake?”
The lesson: for many women speakers, second-guessing is second nature. If you’ve done your homework and know your stuff, note your feelings and then move on.
3) The obstacles facing women speakers and leaders are real, and not going away any time soon. “Biases and cultural norms that subordinate women are everywhere,” Clinton writes. “Again and again, we’ve seen anger, hostility, and sexism directed at women who have the audacity to seek power . . . Deep-seated biases are even harder to change than discriminatory laws.”
The only way to counter these biases, double standards, and that nagging, internal doubt is to look them in the eye, then keep speaking out. Keep using your voice to advocate for whatever you believe.
These are the facts. So what can we do about them? What can we learn from Clinton’s experience delivering this iconic speech?
Here’s my takeaway: The way to counter these biases, double standards, and that nagging, internal doubt is to look them in the eye, then keep speaking out. Keep using your voice to advocate for whatever you believe.
Know that every time you do, you’re chipping away at those stubborn stereotypes. And you’re inspiring other women — especially young women and girls who so badly need role models.
Do not let fear, doubt and the jitters hold you back from using your voice.
(Photo: Sharon Farmer/White House Photograph Office – National Archives and Records Administration)
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