Today, when people are fretting about Amazon putting robots in place of cashiers at Whole Foods, and voice assistants are common productivity tools, we are still using the principles of humanizing automation that were first advanced by psychologist, engineer, and famous mom Lillian Gilbreth.
With her husband Frank, she embarked on "motion study"--the movements and micro-motions we make in doing any task--but her emphasis always was on the human aspect of making movement more efficient. Her insights led to many things we take for granted, from shelves inside refrigerator doors to step-on levers that lift the lids of trash cans, among many others, and helped major companies make their assembly-line production more efficient and cost-effective. I could make a case for calling her a pioneer in UX, the user experience.
Gilbreth had 12 children with her husband, famously captured by two of her children in the book Cheaper by the Dozen. At home, the children were a testbed for ideas, learning languages and doing chores using motion study. But when Frank Gilbreth died unexpectedly, Lillian had to expand her range to include more public speaking. In Belles on Their Toes, the sequel to Cheaper by the Dozen, the book begins with her departure for Europe, just days after her husband's death. She was headed to two major engineering meetings where he had committed to speak.
She had been invited to substitute for him at the two sessions. At first, it seemed out of the question to accept. And then it seemed to be the one opportunity of keeping the family together. Engineering was, and still is, a man's field. Mother knew there would be difficulties in trying to continue Dad's business. But if she made a success of her two speeches in Europe, before some of the biggest engineers in the world, she might have an easier time in convincing Dad's clients that she could do the work.
It was a case of public speaking helping to establish her reputation in her own right. And it worked. After she began speaking, major companies--Macy's department stores, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, and more--hired her to advise them, and the family consulting business continued.
Considered the "first lady of engineering," and the first person to get a degree in industrial psychology, Gilbreth became a frequent and in-demand speaker throughout her long life. In 1957, when she was 79, she keynoted the national conference of the Society of Women Engineers, speaking on "The Human Side of Automation." And her message to engineers still works today:
There are two things it seems to me engineering groups have to offer when when any type of problem comes up and one is the code of ethics which we all share. It’s a very simple code stated in the beginning as being our responsibility “to do our best to utilize the resources of nature for the benefit of mankind.” I suppose the people who first worded the code thought it was self-evident that the resources of nature would include the resources of human nature, but some people didn’t seem to recognize that and so the code was expanded. And now it reads “to utilize the resources of nature and of human nature for the benefit of mankind.” And there you see we have human being really emphasized twice. First, as being an enormous resource and second, as being the reason for, the cause why we are using these resources at all.
And surely if there ever was a time when we needed to go on record not only as a profession, but as a people that we believe these resources should be used and should be used for benefit of mankind and not the harm of mankind, this is the time. And the other thing we have to offer, of course, is the scientific method. The questioning method. Not the kind of question, the Socratic kind, which we ask because we’re trying to show that somebody doesn’t know very much. Not even the legal type of question. But the simple question that a child asks when he really is intellectually curious and he wants to know the answer and he’s intelligent enough to listen to what is said. So I think we have those two things to offer and as we look at these challenges which are coming to everybody, perhaps we see as we put the question to ourselves that we do have a special responsibility.
What can you learn from this famous speech?
A lifetime of public speaking experience can start anytime: Gilbreth was in her mid-40s when her husband's sudden death forced her into public speaking. She was in her mid-90s when she died, and as this speech shows, she was a speaker for nearly half her life, a good four to five decades, despite her "late start."
Don't be a one-trick pony: Gilbreth pursued both automation and psychology because she was fascinated by both. That meant that, when technology became an issue at odds with humans, whether on the factory floor or in the broader society, she was equipped to talk about both in a meaningful way. You can do the same with your specialty by finding a way to broaden your expertise to another realm, and then combine the two in your speaking. It will expand your utility as a sought-after speaker.
Speaking to others in your profession? Take them to higher ground: Much of Gilbreth's expertise was in the weeds, the details and micro-details of how people move, behave, and think about tasks. But in this speech to colleagues, she took them back to the noble goals of the profession. Your professional conference isn't just a place for hands-on learning, but if you're the keynote speaker, taking the audience to a higher place and making them think is part of the job.
Writer Ashton Applewhite has made ageism her target with the This Chair Rocks blog and Yo, is this ageist? blog. And in her 2017 TED talk, she made a call to action to the audience, since, as she made clear from the start, older is what everyone in the room is going to become.
This is a polished, well-paced, often funny TED talk that not only walked the audience through contradictory ideas we share about aging, but modeled the very behavior Applewhite was encouraging. But the core of the talk is its logical arguments. Applewhite busts myths about aging, offers alternative data, and compares, effectively, ageism to other forms of discrimination. Here's the centerpiece of her speech:
Older people can be the most ageist of all, because we've had a lifetime to internalize these messages and we've never thought to challenge them. I had to acknowledge it and stop colluding. "Senior moment" quips, for example: I stopped making them when it dawned on me that when I lost the car keys in high school, I didn't call it a "junior moment."
I stopped blaming my sore knee on being 64. My other knee doesn't hurt, and it's just as old.
We are all worried about some aspect of getting older, whether running out of money, getting sick, ending up alone, and those fears are legitimate and real. But what never dawns on most of us is that the experience of reaching old age can be better or worse depending on the culture in which it takes place. It is not having a vagina that makes life harder for women. It's sexism.
It's not loving a man that makes life harder for gay guys. It's homophobia. And it is not the passage of time that makes getting older so much harder than it has to be. It is ageism. When labels are hard to read or there's no handrail or we can't open the damn jar, we blame ourselves, our failure to age successfully, instead of the ageism that makes those natural transitions shameful and the discrimination that makes those barriers acceptable. You can't make money off satisfaction, but shame and fear create markets, and capitalism always needs new markets. Who says wrinkles are ugly? The multi-billion-dollar skin care industry. Who says perimenopause and low T and mild cognitive impairment are medical conditions? The trillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry.
The more clearly we see these forces at work, the easier it is to come up with alternative, more positive and more accurate narratives. Aging is not a problem to be fixed or a disease to be cured. It is a natural, powerful, lifelong process that unites us all.
And a word about Applewhite's outfit: It's got lots of interesting detail in the top, which we are able to see because it is not black. I can't tell you how many TED talks I've seen where the gorgeous dressmaker details cannot be seen--either in the hall by the live audience, or on camera--because the speaker didn't listen to instructions not to wear black. Not a problem here.
What can you learn from this famous speech?
You don't need a personal story to give a TED talk: This talk is all about the data and logic, not about a well-crafted personal story. Yes, Applewhite includes some personal perspective here and there--see her knees, above--but this is a great example of an effective, story-less TED talk.
Tone is everything: Applewhite tackles a topic no one likes to discuss, and which provokes a lot of anxiety. But her delivery is direct and non-anxious, well-paced but not frenetic. She's modeling the tone she hopes we'll take in discussing aging in a forthright manner, a great job for your talks about controversial topics to take on.
A strong call to action is essential for a talk where you've layered on the data and logic. What should we do now that we know all this. Applewhite doesn't waste the moment, making a clear call to action in this convincing talk.
Now a resident of Australia, Al-Sharif is on a book tour and was interviewed recently by NPR's Terry Gross on Fresh Air. Many of her comments touched on her motivation for speaking up, the forces that prevent women from doing so, and the penalties for outspoken women.
AL-SHARIF: So these things really make you speak up. Most people inside are too afraid to speak up because the backlash from the society and from the government is unbearable. We live in one of the last absolute monarchies in the world. Men and women don't have political or civil rights. So imagine someone comes and asks for their civil rights.
The backlash is really huge. You get harassed. You get banned from leaving the country, which as we call it the internal exile. You lose your job. You cannot land a job after that, which was the case with me when I left my job. So the price - the personal price you pay is really high. And they make sure that everyone knows, so they don't follow you. They don't walk in your path.
Later in the interview, she spoke again about the price of speaking up:
GROSS: Are you going back to Saudi Arabia anytime in the near future?
AL-SHARIF: Yes, of course. I have my son there. So after the tour, right away I'm going back to Saudi.
GROSS: Are you worried?
AL-SHARIF: Hopefully I don't get arrested. I I'm always worried. Every time I go to Saudi Arabia, I'm always worried because it's never - you never know when you get arrested again for a tweet or a retweet or something you said in an interview like what I'm doing now with you, something that slipped.
So you have to always have this filter going on the whole time you talk. Can I say this or not? Will this get me in trouble or not? Because at the end of the day, I always think I'm going back to Saudi. I have to - I want to see my son. So it's tricky.
I read a lot about women and public speaking, and post my finds first on The Eloquent Woman on Facebook. But I always collect them here for you on Mondays as well. Here's what I've been reading lately:
In May 2017, Megan Red Shirt-Shaw became one of the first Native Americans to give a convocation speech at Harvard University, speaking on behalf of her fellow students in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the venue, the speech garnered much attention for its passionate defense of education for all. But Red Shirt-Shaw's take on the topic is a reminder that education doesn't start, end, or remained confined within a school--even a place as prestigious as Harvard.
Red Shirt-Shaw spent her graduate years balancing study time with time as a front-line activist working with the Harvard student group Future Indigenous Educators Resisting Colonial Education (FIERCE) on urgent issues such as the Dakota Pipeline Access movement. Her convocation speech is unusual in that it highlights the way that traditional classrooms and assignments can often be the least important parts of an education. This part of the address, describing her work with a Canadian education program for indigenous girls called Moving the Mountain, is just one of the striking examples of this fact:
That day with faces like mine would remind me in my greatest lesson of the year what resilience is, unlike my own experiences. Almost every person and every system in their life has let them down, and yet they persevere, rising like fire from the ashes. Moving the mountains, unleashed in their ways. I cried in anger for the entire flight back because I knew what I was learning here in the classroom wasn't going to make the world better for them tomorrow.
What can you learn from this famous speech?
Take advantage of an historic opportunity. As one of Harvard's first Native American convocation speakers, Red Shirt-Shaw found ways to explain how her background had fueled and influenced her time at the university. The passage about how she carried the voices of her family and other native students with her, from her first day on campus, reminded me of what institutions have to gain from expanding the diversity of their student body. And one of the most popular lines from the speech passed around on social media (see below) was her mother's cherished Lakota phrase: "Weksuye, ciksuye, miksuye." ("I remember, I remember you, remember me.")
Reach for poetry, if it's in your grasp. Red Shirt-Shaw, among her many talents, is a gifted writer and editor who founded the online publication Natives in America to highlight the work of young Native writers. I think part of the appeal of her speech is the gorgeous bits of writing in it that verge on the poetic--lines like this one: "We cannot begin to predict in the future what will be difficult, what will feel safe, who will be beautiful to us, and what will make us feel like we've come undone."
Keep the conversation going after your speech. There are plenty of ways to make your speech resonate far beyond the time and space occupied by its original listeners. Recording and sharing video, transcriptions, links to materials used in preparing your talk and following up on social media are all great options. I was touched by Red Shirt-Shaw's follow-up on Twitter as the speech gathered more online viewers, listing her hopes the speech's future impact, including the hope to "honor indigenous voices and let's move more of them onto stages everywhere, every day, all the time."
Almost one week later and watching my convocation speech rise over 770,000 views today, here are my hopes:
And aside from being a beautifully made volume--one you will want in hardcopy even if, like me, you mostly collect ebooks--this book does something I wish we'd see more of: It collects actual scripts (or in this case transcripts) of complete talks. Talks at The Moth must be personal experiences of the speakers and they must be true, but after that, anything goes.