Clifford Chance’s Dubious Public Speaking Tips For Women

A leaked memo from the giant law firm Clifford Chance has been getting a lot of attention for offering its female lawyers (just the female lawyers) public speaking tips, including these bits of wisdom:

  • Wear a suit, not your party outfit
  • Don’t giggle
  • Avoid the urinal position
  • No one heard Hillary the day she showed cleavage
  • Project power by visualizing filling a fat arrow extending 10’ out
  • Don’t take your purse up to the podium
  • Practice hard words
  • Understated jewelry, nothing jingly or clanky
  • Move your mouth when you speak
  • Think Lauren Bacall, not Marilyn Monroe

I know it’s hard to believe, but those bullets are directly quoted from advice to highly accomplished lawyers at one of the world’s biggest law firms.

Some of the responses to the memo have come from sources that usually cover the legal industry, but the controversy has taken on a broader life in the general media, too. As I’m writing this, the story is currently the top item you get when you google “Clifford Chance” (which can’t be a happy result for the firm’s marketing department). But I’ve been waiting to write about it for a little while because there’s so much wrong with this document that I’ve been trying to figure out how to respond.

Is it sexist? Sure.

Is it surprising that the lawyers receiving the memo were insulted? Nope.

Do the condescending tone and sloppy writing detract from the writer’s message? They do!

Is it especially troubling that this was written by a female lawyer and distributed by the firm’s Women’s Committee? You bet!

But on top of everything else, what I find really shocking about the advice in this document is how shallow most of it is. Sure, there are many helpful tips included among the more mystifying suggestions (“Make nose contact”), things that would be helpful for speakers of any gender. Of course you shouldn’t read your slides to your audience. Yes, you need to make sure that people can hear your voice. But almost all of the tips in this list are about surface effects: how you look; how you sound; what you should wear. And very little of it is actually concerned with making sure you have something interesting, important, or useful to tell to your audience.

I’m not saying that the surface details don’t matter–they do. It’s hard to have credibility with an audience if you don’t look and sound the part. But the content of any presentation should be given much greater priority than it’s appearance should. One of the reasons that this document comes across as sexist is because it focuses so relentlessly on how female presenters should look without giving them much guidance on what they should say. After all, if you don’t have something important to say and a good reason to take up peoples’ time and gather them in a room, you really shouldn’t be giving a presentation in the first place.

During my presentation training I always ask the audience for examples of the best presentations they’ve seen and what made them so great. In every single case, the elements of great presentations that audiences bring up are things like expertise, sincerity, storytelling, humor, commitment, emotional content, and making a connection with the audience. No one has ever mentioned what a speaker looked like or how they sounded.

When you’re putting together any presentation, the strategies you will use to engage your audience are what you should plan first. Yes, it’s important to give a polished performance. But it’s much more important to figure out what you have to say and how you’re going to persuade your audience to see things the way you do. The only good reason to have a presentation in the first place is because you want to take advantage of having the live audience there to interact with them. So you have to give them a good reason to show up and listen to you. Once you’ve done that you can worry about the polish, the surface elements that the Clifford Chance document tried to address.

There’s nothing wrong with offering speakers tips about how they can improve their performance. Even experienced presenters need to be reminded of the basics sometimes so they don’t get sloppy. Because the way you present yourself does matter. You might have great material, but people won’t hear any of it if you mumble through your talk or if the audience is distracted by a big stain on the front of your shirt. But the content of your presentation has to come first.

If I were going to offer a quick list of tips for creating substantial, effective presentations, I’d suggest that any speaker start with these questions:

  • What do you want your talk to accomplish?
  • What is interesting about what you have to say?
  • Why should your audience care about this?
  • How are you going to engage your audience?
  • What do you want your audience to take away from your presentation?

Once you’ve answered those questions, you’re well on your way to knowing what your presentation is about. Then you can start to worry about how you’re going to say it.

If you’re interested in much more extensive advice on creating better presentations, some samples of the handouts I’ve created for law firm and legal department clients are here, and embedded below.

And here are the Cliffford Chance tips:

Bulletproof Presentations Handouts

https://bulletproofpresentations.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/bulletproof-presentations-handouts.pdf

Clifford Chance Presentation Tips for Women

Advertisements

Eliot Spitzer’s Ideas for Improving the State of the Union Speech

I have to admit, I’m still a little resistant to the idea of taking advice from former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. And President Obama obviously didn’t decide to throw out the speech he’d written in favor of the ten minute version Spitzer created for Slate. The State of the Union is a particularly difficult speech to reform because people have very specific expectations for it; it’s going to be a long list of policy proposals that will never happen (missions to Mars, hydrogen fuel stations on every corner) and it’s going to be upbeat, no matter how grim the real state of the Union.

But Spitzer’s article for Slate contains some great ideas for simplifying and clarifying any talk. Cut the length way down. Limit yourself to a few ideas that people can easily remember. Back up what you have to say with clear visuals like the sample slides he provides (and I’ve attached at the top of this post).

Try these strategies with your next talk and I’ll bet you’ll be pleased with the results. There’s no reason that presentations have to be the length of TV shows or movies. Unless they’re paying to see you, people are almost always happy when you manage to get to the point and cut your meetings short.

Save the State of the Union

Planning Your Presentations: Message, Audience and You

Unfortunately there are no quick shortcuts, no “one weird tip”, that can make you a great presenter. Developing the ability to communicate your ideas effectively is just too complicated for there to be an easy fix.

But whatever kinds of presentations you do– and we’re all presenters these days– keeping a few big ideas in mind while you’re planning your talk can go a long way toward helping you achieve your goals. Making sure that you’ve clearly defined your Message, that you’ve taken the needs of your Audience into account and that You act as a good representative for your argument will make your presentations much more effective, whether you’re giving a keynote speech to a ballroom full of people or just hoping to charm your favorite barista into upgrading your latte.

Here I’m using that perennial junior high geometry favorite, the Venn diagram, to represent the way these three critical issues should overlap in your presentations, though you could also think of trying to manage them as juggling or as a balancing act. The main thing is that you need to engage all of them simultaneously.

If you can remember back as far as the seventh grade, the concept represented by the Venn diagram above is that you want to hit the sweet spot where all three concepts intersect; this is the point where you have the best chance of persuading your audience and achieving your objectives. Neglect one or more of these elements in your talk, on the other hand, and you risk losing your audience’s attention or making them start to wonder why they’re listening to you at all.

So take the time to figure out the relationship between all three elements of any presentation. Here are some questions about each that can help you make a good start.

Message:

This may seem like an obvious question, but what do you hope to accomplish with your presentation? Far too many talks happen for no other reason than that they’ve been scheduled. You don’t want your presentation to be one of those because there are few things that audiences resent more than having their time wasted; don’t leave them trying to figure out what you want. Try writing the objective of your presentation in one sentence and keep referring back to it to make sure that you’re still on track. If you can’t come up with a clear objective, think about whether you should really be having a presentation at all.

Audience:

It’s impossible to completely separate your audience for your message, and you should really never try to. You need to ask yourself who they are, what they already know, and how you want to persuade them every time you set out to develop what you’re going to say. Every audience is different and every audience will feel differently about you– so you need to plan accordingly. How will you target your message specifically for them? What challenges are they likely to pose?

You:

The first question you always need to ask yourself before taking on any presentation assignment is whether you’re the right person to give this specific talk. Are you qualified? Will the audience see you as authoritative? What preexisting feelings do they have about you? Sometimes you just have to say no or recruit someone else to help when you’re asked to give a presentation that isn’t well suited for you. If you do decide to move ahead you need to ask yourself how you will present yourself and “perform” for this audience. What’s the right tone?  What should you wear?  How will you interact with these people?  What can you do to make this presentation as successful as possible?

You’ll never be guaranteed that a presentation will be successful; I’ve had talks interrupted by building evacuations and disrupted by feuding audience members. But planning your presentation around your Message, your Audience and You will help make you a much more effective speaker.