A wave of women’s voices will once again power the resistance and drive social change at the third annual Women’s Marches around the world this weekend. For the speakers taking to the stage to make themselves heard, standing before a gigantic crowd can be a simultaneously exhilarating and nerve-wracking experience.
I’ve been backstage coaching women leaders since the Million Mom March in 2000. Whether you’re speaking to the crowd or marching right along with it this year, these three tips will help you keep your head in the game so your message rings clear.
#1: Support the Broader Cause.
Keep the big picture in mind. Previous marches have inspired massive action—including support for the #MeToo movement, women candidates and civic engagement. Ask yourself: How can my individual voice complement the broader message of empowering women?
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make it personal. Sharing your unique point of view can help more people understand what’s at stake. The daughter of Honduran immigrants, America Ferrera spoke eloquently about how it is a heart rendering time to be a woman and an immigrant. “Our character, our dignity, our rights have been under attack, but we are America,” she declared at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. “We are here to stay.”
Even if you’re not a headliner, you can make a big impression. Ashley Bennett of New Jersey decided to run for office after a local official mocked marchers in a Facebook meme, asking if the women taking to the streets would be home in time to cook dinner. Bennett ran against him and won. Now she encourages others to rise up and speak up just the same.
“It’s because you marched that I found the courage to take the first step towards changing my own community,” she told the crowd at the New York City Women’s March last year. “If you wait until you feel ready, you many never take action. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be willing.”
#2: Stay on Message.
A rally is not the time to detail a laundry list of policy initiatives, give an exhaustive history of your organization or grandstand. (Documentarian Michael Moore’s statement went on so long last year that Ashley Judd nearly had to rip the mic out of his hands to get him to stop talking. Not a good look!)
A three-minute slot is plenty of time if you’ve organized your thoughts in advance. Aim to get on and off the stage quickly. Don’t waste time with a long introduction of yourself and don’t linger with multiple thank-yous. Don’t be upset if your speaking time is changed or shortened, either: the program agenda is an unwieldy beast the event producers wrestle to control. It’s likely not personal.
Most importantly, plan to be specific about what you want the audience to do, make the call to action easy and repeat it as much as you can. At the 2018 March for Our Lives, student activists who took to the stage shared a unified vision to prevent gun violence and reiterated a singular message: They called on politicians to pass sensible gun laws and asked voters to reject lawmakers who side with the NRA. The crowd was urged to take action by volunteering, signing petition sheets and calling legislators.
Don’t go rogue, either. Hateful commentators attempted to paint the 2016 Women’s March as a violent protest when Madonna said she had thought about “blowing up the White House.” An errant remark can detract from the goals and intentions of an event and eclipse its meaning, and an off-message comment can be fodder for conservative pundits who will attempt to demean and dismiss all marchers.
#3: Craft a Stage Presence.
Parkland survivor Samantha Fuentes famously threw up in the middle of her speech at the March for Our Lives, but when she regained her composure, the crowd of 500,000 roared its support.
Standing alone in front of a vast audience is not for the faint of heart—so do what you can to calm your nerves before walking out to greet them. Take a moment to steady yourself. Slow, deep breaths can help quell anxiety; simple head and shoulder rolls release tension and improve vocal quality.
Preparing for your remarks will ensure that you leave the stage with a sense of joy and accomplishment and ease anxiety in the moments before you’re slated to speak. Put your remarks on heavy stock notecards to withstand wind and drizzle.
It can be difficult to hit the right pace and energy level in any speech, especially at the beginning. Resist the compulsion to shout to be heard above the din, or to over-gesticulate to be visible—instead, let the microphone and video screens do the projecting and direct your eye contact at the crowd without scanning side-to-side. (Don’t scream! It won’t help the crowd hear you, and it sounds terrible on the livestream and YouTube. And don’t be distracted if the crowd isn’t listening: thousands of smartphones and cameras are capturing your words.)
Vary your speaking pace to sound energetic, and stand tall with your head up and shoulders back. Look like you have something to say. What you wear can send a powerful signal, too, such as a feminist pink pussyhat or an all-white ensemble to evoke the suffragists. Along with statement clothing, be sure to wear comfortable shoes and bring weather-appropriate gear.
The power of the collective voice is undeniable—and taking steps to strengthen your individual voice will help ensure that your message resonates far and wide.
Chris Jahnke is a speech coach. Her new book, The Well-Spoken Woman Speaks Out, offers more tips for events large and small.