What Speakers Can Learn from Dr. Joyce Brothers

Joyce_BrothersAfter a 60 year career, Dr. Joyce Brothers, died Monday May 13. Joyce Brothers became a positive role model for all modern women, particularly those in communication roles, industries, and fields. Gallup indicated she was one of America’s most admired women. Those of us interested in learning how to remain cool, calm, and articulate when we speak in public should emulate Dr. Brothers.

LA Times coverage of her passing indicated the extent of Joyce Brothers’ “moxie.” The wife of a medical student and young mother, she decided to become an expert on the subject of boxing in order to compete on the $64,000 Question in 1955.

“They were going to knock me out with impossible questions, but they didn’t,” Brothers later recalled. “I’d memorized everything it is possible to know on the subject.” (1)

That’s where she defied the odds as the only woman who was a big winner  on the show (2) and won the equivalent of about a million dollars by today’s standards.

In 1958, Joyce Brothers went on to become a talk show host, columnist, and author during a six decade career. She doled out advice on personal problems ranging from love, marriage and raising a family. Brothers became the doyenne of Pop Psychology, soon diving into subjects  such as sexual behavior and marital infidelity that were considered taboo to speak about publicly. Let’s agree: before Dr. Phil, there was Joyce Brothers.

Brothers was low key. She appeared to have  no desire to shock or gain attention for its own sake. Make no mistake about her intellectual strength: with a doctorate in Psychology from Columbia University, her academic credentials were first rate. As a result, she could talk about a delicate subject with respect for its complexity, normalizing an issue without ever “dumbing  it down.”

While few of us will appear on a game show or become a talk show host as Brothers did, speaking to groups has similar requirements when it comes to preparation. Channel Joyce Brothers when you prepare yourself:

  • Be prepared to take risks and tackle controversial subjects. Then, immerse yourself in your subject matter so you know more than your listeners, just as Brothers did.
  • Don’t speak down to your audience. Normalize the feelings they are having about a particular subject.
  • Speak to your group in a conversational tone as a confidante would.
  • Be prepared for anything. What might some hostile person ask, and how would you respond?

If you’ve been sincere and candid, people will be, too. Don’t be shocked by any question that comes your way.

As a speechwriter and an executive coach, I’ve had clients who were technically brilliant and/or high on the sparkle factor and when facing their staff or Board in their leadership role, they were tempted to simplify the complexity of their subject matter in order to reassure people about some pressing issue. Who wouldn’t? But in the long run, what people remember is how you made them feel. Brothers overarching message seemed to be “You can lean on me.”

In her own quiet way, Joyce Brothers began a revolution of candor by demonstrating that it’s okay to discuss uncomfortable or controversial issues never before discussed in public. You might find yourself in a similar situation some day. If all goes well at the mic, you’ll soon be identified as “the resident expert.”

When you present controversial information and ideas to your audience  in a way that is helpful, great things can happen to you and your career. That’s what happened to Joyce Brothers when she presented herself with poise and confidence during the quiz show that made history.

(1) http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-joyce-brothers-20130514,0,5792539.story

(2)) http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/05/13/18235313-dr-joyce-brothers-dead-at-85?lite

 

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