Dear Midterms, get at me.

For some, the word “midterm” connotes a wide range of negative emotions. Some people cringe merely when they hear the word, while others “freak out” and have panic attacks as the day of the midterm creeps closer. And unfortunately,  the worst is usually not over all that quickly.  Many students have two or three all clamped together, either in the same day or same week–I think we’ve even come to refer to it as Midterm Week.

This Midterm Week does have an end to it, and after it has soon become history, everything seems to be manageable. Well, at least for a while–until Round 2 I guess.

So while you’re enjoying a bit of regularity until Round 2, I want you to try this:

Close your eyes.

Take a deep breath.

And Smile.

No, you will not magically remember all the formulas you need for the Chem exam without opening your notes once, and no you will not have 5 pages of your Anthro take-home midterm magically written on your laptop without any of your physical input–though that would be kinda cool–but, you will own the midterm without cringing, without freaking out, or having panic attacks. Then you can say, “Dear Midterms, get at me.”

You sound pretty certain to me.

This past summer I worked for Barnard’s Young Women’s Leadership Institute (YWLI) for high-school women and future leaders as both a Program Coordinator and a Speaking Fellow. While leading Speaking Fellow sessions I challenged the young women, as I do all of my students, to be aware of their use of verbal fillers and qualifiers like, well, “like,” “um,” “I think,” and “you know.” This feisty group of young women responded, “Why is it bad that I say ‘like’? I didn’t always, but with my friends, it makes them feel less threatened by what I have to say. It makes me friendlier.” Again in my speaking fellow session last week I heard, “Especially in seminar, as a freshmen, no one wants to be contrary. Just coming out and saying what you mean can sound, well, mean.” These young ladies were proposing that “like” is not always a filler – something we speaking fellows usually define as a word that has no meaning and it used to fill space – but actually can be a deliberate tool for diluting a thought which otherwise might be perceived as abrasive. I had already been toying with the idea of verbal fillers and qualifiers as (predominantly feminine) strategic rhetorical devices, but mostly with skepticism. The events of YWLI week and this semester have only deepened my confusion.

In the middle of YWLI-week I took twenty of the program’s students to UN Foundation’s headquarters to meet with the goddess of American-UN relations: Gillian Sorenson. The girls mentioned their speaking fellows session, to which Gillian responded with glee that she wished she had taken a similar course or workshop much earlier in life. She next explicitly stated that learning to lower voice, speak slowly, and appear confident are essential for young women aspiring to be a professional in any field. I was blind-sided. Pace, confidence, modulation: these are all things I always preach in my sessions. But deeper? Lower? While I have always been hesitant to be prescriptive in my coaching, particularly in a way that might reinforce a gendering of public speaking, here was a woman I revere, and truthfully emulate, saying exactly the opposite.

Just yesterday, while waiting for the lethargic 600 elevator, I skimmed an article in Spec (http://www.columbiaspectator.com/2012/10/23/i-m-being-serious) by Noel Duan, called Like, I’m Being Serious, that commented on how dress and voice have often worked against her and her fashionable friends: “When we arrived on our respective ivy-covered college campuses, we were shocked to hear people tell us that we sounded or looked dumb.” Noel cites her up-talk (otherwise known as Unintended Terminal Interrogatory, when every sentence ends with a question mark) and her designer wardrobe, as factors that repeatedly lead her to be perceived as less intelligent. This phenomenon of girls who are smarter than they look and sound is not new, as voice and dress have repeatedly been categories of analysis for female intellect. Noel muses that sometimes, “critiquing capitalism while carrying our Louis Vuitton purses feels inappropriate,” but I’m interested in the other double standards she refers to. She quotes a friend who mentions having lowered her voice at work because women simply have to compromise in certain situations in order to be taken seriously. So tell me, Noel and Gillian, why don’t men have to be convertible in this way?

For starters, we rarely ask men to be convertible. Hegemonic masculinity is relatively explicit and straightforward (also exclusive, a sexism we will talk about another time), which translates into uniformity of normative masculine performances like dress and speech. Take, for example, models of style: the suit is the staple of man’s wardrobe that prepares him for work, a date, the theater, a wedding, etc. A woman would need a suitcase of options to concoct gender-normative appropriate outfits for each of these scenarios. And voice? While the young girls of YWLI were busy preparing a toolbox of speech-modifiers like fillers, tone, and depth, the few male friends of mine who I consider commendable speakers have professed to never considering the quality of their voice. Rather, they only consider specific verbiage and argument as factors that might affect how they are perceived.

In class just this morning, a wide-eyed underclassman with purple feather earrings raised her hand to say, “I’m a little confused… it just feels to me that, we’re like, super confined by this politically realist, heteronormative matrix.” Her uncertainty was not convincing, and I’m convinced she was in fact confident about the limitations of our realist study.

Both the up-talk of Noel and the YWLI students and the down-talk that Gillian advocated are certainly valid rhetorical strategies: but on either end of the spectrum, aren’t we still just reinforcing that for young and aspiring professional women, saying what you mean is never sufficient?

I have some confessions…

My name is Lauren, and I’m a speaker.

Well, how else are you supposed to say it?

Truthfully, calling myself a “speaker” sounded strange at first, and I suppose it still does. But every day, it grows on me. I will clarify, though: I’m not a “speaker” because I’m a Speaking Fellow, or because I think I’m a great orator, or because I do it for money or something. I’m a speaker because I care very much about how I speak, my own voice, and how I present myself to the world.

Speaking in public used to kill me. Kindergarten, first grade, second, third, fourth, etc… In my Language Arts classes, we took turns reading paragraphs aloud, speaking one-by-one around the room. My turn approaching, I’d sweat and stare down the bathroom pass, debating whether or not to snatch it and dash out.  Why do they always make us say stuff in front of people all the time?  In fourth grade, I faked a fever to skip giving a group presentation.  Why can’t they just let us read and write like normal people? School forced me to speak, and I hated it.

It became a problem. Desperate to ease my dreadful fear, I took my mom’s advice and pushed myself into all kinds of public speaking. I tried theater, debate team, and student government. But as soon as I had to speak, my stomach always panged and I choked on nerves. I eventually gave it all up.

Sometime in middle school, I realized I was funny. People liked my jokes, and I won “funniest” in class. I started performing comedy – with friends, in shows. Oddly, I enjoyed it. I didn’t mind speaking to ten, twenty, hundreds of people all at once… just as long as I could be funny. So naturally, I got on by being funny for a long time.

Right up until college.  Here, I started thinking very seriously – in class discussions, in my conversations. I feel funny bringing humor around always. Some things are serious, right? And especially when I care too much, I just don’t want to be funny.

But I don’t want to be too serious either (though sometimes I fear I’m starting). To balance myself, I’m called to find an authentic voice – a way of expressing myself truly, without cutting any parts of myself off.

Finding this voice is ongoing for me,  for everyone.  Our voices change when we adopt new beliefs and opinions and when we assume new roles. Although our voices are fluid, fulfilling authenticity across all spoken moments is very possible. In fact, it is necessary. When I speak, I believe my presentation is literally a presentation of my Self. The presentation therefore should and must be true.

Listening to my present voice, I hear if it’s authentic. I also recall the sound of my former voices – some of which I’m not so proud of: my phony moments  and all those times I was utterly silent.

Fellow Voices, I’m now here to share my speaking story – from childhood to present. Through my blog series, I hope my stories reveal my personal growth to celebrate a truth: developing a voice is a process. “Good speaking” is not a trait, talent or secret; If it were– if some people really were born “good speakers,” and others not – some of us (myself included) would be deeply disadvantaged, presumably unable to grow to present ourselves well at all.

I’ve got good news. Truly anyone can become – and probably is on the way to becoming- a “good speaker.” We all have voices, true ones; whether it takes crying mid-speech in front of a class, faking a fever to avoid a presentation,  hiding behind a mask of humor, or peeing your pants during a public debate (stay tuned, stories to come ), we find them.

Are my exclamation points undermining my authority?(!)

In a recent email exchange, a friend and I were invited to participate in a research discussion about the youth feminist movement(s).  Having interviewed with this researcher before, we were both extremely excited about the prospect.  My friend first replied to me only, writing:

“SOOO INTERESTING!!!!!!!!  AHHHH I WANNA DO IT LOL”

A few minutes later, when he replied-all, I was struck by his comparatively restrained response:

“Thanks for updating us!  I would love to participate.”

In the second version, my friend reigned in his charmingly explosive enthusiasm to express a more collected, formalized tone, balancing the need to “keep cool” without sacrificing a show of interest.  I, on the other hand, quickly replied-all with very little restraint: “Yes yes yes!!!!!!!!!” I said.  (The originator of the email quickly followed up: “Thanks for getting back to me so quickly and with excitement (Cecelia, these exclamation points!  Are great!)”).

The exchange made me think back to some of the emails I’ve sent to friends recently.  Below, I shamelessly reveal a few of my most recent subject lines:

“i’m on my way don’t wait for me!!!!!!!!!!!”

“Zip Car!!!!!?!?!?”

“sooooooo funnyyyyyyyyy aaahhhhh!!!!!”

And, my personal favorite: “ARE WE GOING TO TARGET AFTER WORK TODAY?!?!?!?!?!??!?!?!?!?”

Rest assured, I always reserve manic punctuation for only my personal life — these emails went to friends of mine, not anyone with whom I have a more professional relationship.  But what was I trying to convey in these elaborately dotted titles?  Why do I use exclamation points so sparingly during business hours, and rampantly on my own time?

On first inspection, the exclamation points in “i’m on my way don’t wait for me!!!!!!!!!!” convey urgency — I was running late.  Yet, at the risk of losing service while riding between subway platforms, I took an extra 3 precious express train seconds to hold down the exclamation point key on my iPhone.  Why?  Because if I hadn’t, I feared my message might seem insincere or careless.  The primary message hiding among that corn field of punctuation, I would argue, is something our generation (and women in particular) often have a complicated and troubling relationship with: apology.

In speech, qualifiers serve the same function.  Starting sentences with, “I don’t know if this is right, but…” — or more subtle qualifiers, like “I think” — express doubt, reservation, and, indeed, apology.  They make meaning obscure and indirect, questionable and inconclusive, rather than powerful and decisive.  In some cases, qualifiers can be used as a tool to introduce a question or invite collaborative thought; but more often than not, they detract from the statement in ways the speaker does not intend.  The irony of the exclamation point as qualifier, in this case, is that exclamation points are supposed to emphasize a point, not reduce it.

In an academic paper, where the writer is the author-ity (see Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”) of the text, exclamation points are rarely, if ever, used.  The writer creates emphasis with rhythm, pacing, and alternating grammatical structures, all of which are shaped by other forms of punctuation, like a colon, a semi-colon, or even a well placed period.  In this context, exclamation points would appear emotionally charged and brash; but worse, they could appear unthoughtful and impulsive, undoing any readerly trust the writer may have gained through more reflective, controlled, and carefully constructed argumentation.  In other words, the very same punctuation that I use so frequently in personal emails completely discredits the writer in contexts where her authority is being tested.

On the other hand, let’s take a look at that last subject line (here, again, for your reference: “ARE WE GOING TO TARGET AFTER WORK TODAY?!?!?!?!?!??!?!?!?!?”).  As the author of this subject line, I can tell you that it was intentionally overdone, and contained a very specific message.  If you’ve ever been to Target after work, you know it is both indulgent and overstimulating.  It sells toilet paper in bulk (something no one wants to carry home) alongside candy flavored makeup and toothbrushes that suction to your hand (things you may not buy, but would likely interest you for quite a while).  The series of seemingly redundant “?!”s in the subject line condensed my, well, inner struggle into one, nearly instantaneous block of punctuation, encapsulating the following:  “Are we actually going to Target after work today?  In truth, I really just want to go home, but I know we are practically out of hand soap and toilet paper, so it seems we simply must go.  After all, I suppose I could take a look at their selection of cold weather tights, which is something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time now…. Oh, I don’t know!  I really just want to get home as soon as possible, so if we’re going to do this, it has to happen on an extremely tight schedule.  I know that if we just do it all together we can make it through, so please say yes!  But, if you want to say no, I’ll kind of be relieved.”

When you look at it this way, the slew of “?!”s seems surprisingly efficient.

The question here, of course, is whether the reader actually understood that message without any pretext.  If not, you could argue that my exclamation points did undermine my authority just by virtue of making my message vague and, no matter which way you look at it, hidden.

So:  What are your exclamation points hiding?

How to Win a Debate

1. Answer the question directly.

2. Make eye contact with your relevant audience.

3. Gesture as you would in normal conversation. 

4. Respect the moderator.

5. Respect your opponent(s).

6. Pause, don’t stutter/stumble.

7. Keep your cool.

8. Stay on track.

9. Be conscious of your time limit.

10. KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT.

Presenting Yourself through Body Language

Amy Cuddy brings up interesting points and anecdotes about nonverbal communication. She looks at power dynamics expressed through body language and the connection between how we think and feel about ourselves and how others judge us based on our nonverbal communication. As a Speaking Fellow, I am constantly aware of power dynamics in the classroom. Who talks? Which students feel more assertive and more confident while others shy away from sharing their opinion? This talk includes a discussion about the origin of such power dynamics on a physiological level. Presenting yourself is about much more than what you say and how you say it. Body language makes a huge impact–both consciously and subconsciously–on the way that we perceive others.