The Credible Presenter: Being Heard Versus Being Believed

Did you listen to or watch Dr. Christine Ford’s testimony in the Senate hearings for Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court? We all know how that turned out, but do men in power realize what a galvanizing moment that was, even for the most complacent suburban woman? Time Magazine described it well:

…for ordinary women around the country, it was a moment to listen to a woman, just like them, as she sat before a mostly male Senate committee to relive the most traumatizing experience in her life. …Women listened in the privacy of their homes and texted each other. Women watched by themselves at home and with supportive friends. They watched from their desks, or sitting in break rooms with C-SPAN streaming, or sitting in parked cars, missing their appointments. They listened on buses and on subways. Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange were streaming the testimony, their eyes glued to Dr. Ford’s terrified face instead of screens full of numbers. A Zen Buddhist monk broke her weeklong silent meditation to watch and live-tweet the hearings.

In my blog, I write about women speakers and how effective they are in communicating a big idea or taking a position. I’ve always assumed that in the year 2018, speakers are usually addressing rational people who can keep their biases under check. Does it matter how well prepared you are- even with great presence, accurate data in hand, and truthful- when the deck is stacked against you? I say this because Dr. Ford was all of that and more and yet the hearings proved to be a test of Dr. Ford’s credibility and not of Brett Kavanaugh’s.

When Dr. Ford stated under oath that she was 100% sure her assault involved Brett Kavanaugh, she was either not believed at all or only half-believed.  Many pinned their hopes on mild-mannered Senator Susan Collins who said she believed half of what Dr. Ford said – that some kind of assault did happen – but the more important half led her to believe Kavanaugh’s version of the incident. Dr. Ford was sincere, authentic, and precise in her sworn testimony, but in the long run, what she said didn’t matter.

If you have studied women’s history, you know that when women speak truth to power, their speech is often the subject of mockery. Starting with Aristotle and Plato, historians confirm the power of stereotypes about women: that they gossip, whine, and are full of guile. When women pointed out injustices, they were often called liars or branded as manipulators. Women’s complaints were trivialized, dismissed as idle chatter. They were also seen as intellectually inferior to men and easily confused. The attitude of Republican senators during Dr. Ford’s testimony showed that these antiquated notions are still alive and well in the present day. Given that Dr. Ford is a proven intellectual with a scholarly track record of publishing research in academic journals, how absurd is that?

Twenty-seven years ago, people were riveted by the spectacle when law professor Anita Hill walked into a Senate hearing room to testify about sexual harassment she had faced from Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. She was ridiculed and castigated for her sworn testimony. For us, the Kavanaugh hearings was Déjà Vu and it was painful to watch.

Sexism remains a reality. Even a woman with graduate degrees and professional awards who challenges the establishment will not necessarily be seen as a credible witness. Rather, if a woman decides to assert her authority in presenting evidence, she needs to be aware of the risks involved (for example, Dr. Ford’s life was threatened and she and her family had to move out of their home).

Would you take the risk of speaking up when you know in advance that  your audience is going to be skeptical at best, and hostile at worst? Why would you? Perhaps when you know it’s the right thing to do and you couldn’t live with yourself if you kept silent. Here are 5 suggestions to help you prepare yourself to show up both mentally and emotionally for a difficult presentation:

  1. Prepare an accurate presentation based on facts and be ready to defend them.
  2. Develop a thick skin. Everything about you will be scrutinized and might well be found lacking.
  3. Use reputable people as references, with no obvious blemishes in their past lives. Nobody’s perfect, but you will need witnesses who can hold their own against the toughest critic.
  4. Stay calm. The manner in which you are questioned may be confrontational and designed to get you ruffled.
  5. Prepare yourself to not be believed. Speak up if you feel you must.

Be realistic about the outcome. Don’t expect your presentation to necessarily lead to the desired success as you define it.

Designed by Welcomia

Some good might come out of the Kavanaugh hearings, given the context to include the impact of #METOO, #TIMESUP, and the increased number of Corporate Gender Initiatives. Along with the resulting suspicions about the present administration’s integrity and the groundswell of support for Dr. Ford mounting, there is momentum building to support women’s advancement into political leadership positions. Even now we see more than twice as many women running for Congress in 2018 versus 2016. The list includes doctors, scientists, and engineers, people who were previously apolitical. Women moved the needle in the mid-term elections, but can they thread the needle? It’s one thing to get elected, it’s another to stay elected.

If you want to see a more equitable future created, join with others who want to be “seen and heard!” Together, our voices will create a sonic boom and that’s what we need to shatter the glass ceiling.

15 Responses

    • Thanks Jill. So glad you read the piece. Actually, my point was that even when accomplished women do speak up for themselves and swear on the bible that they ARE telling the truth, they aren’t necessarily believed. It takes guts to “speak truth to power.” The Kavanaugh hearings were so difficult to watch. But they were viewed by millions of people who reacted in a positive way, many protesting by running for political office!

  • Few are born to fight, stand up to power or even stand up for ourselves and take our intuitive hits seriously or know what to do when we are violated or overlooked. We need skills and practice and we need to be clear on our endgame hopes. We not only need to understand the game powerful systems and people play but the inner game we have to play within ourselves. You’ve laid out 5 excellent suggestions and you really have the know how to accentuate the skills of feisty folks and the faint of heart. You’ve been beating this drum for many years and it’s needed more than ever.

    Thank you for your tireless work and passion.

    Alyse

    • Hi Alyse, A belated thank you for staying in touch and supporting my work. I have no idea why I harp on these themes but the material still beckons and yes, the Kavanaugh hearings were a reminder that progressive achievements can be overturned and LIFE as we women knew it can change with the top leadership. Sigh… But I hope you are still enjoying your art and achieving success, however you define it. We live our values, not matter what, right? Warmest, Lois

    • Dear Gloria, I hope this belated THANK YOU finds you well and happy. As a former teacher, I want to share what I know and always hope readers find it useful. Warmest regards to you during this crazy time, Lois

  • Thank you for this, Lois. I spoke out about a sexual harasser and can totally relate to the humiliating experience of Dr. Ford and countless others. I am heartened after our election yesterday to see so many women run for office and get elected. There is hope that things will get better. I will share this post with my students and friends–excellent and meaningful writing!

    • Dear Lori, A belated thank you for this note. One never knows if a blog makes a difference to readers but as a former teacher, I want to share what I know. I hope this note finds YOU well and happy, reaping the benefits of a life well lived. Warmest, Lois

  • Excellent article Lois. In the 1980’s, I was an AIDS Educator managing an AIDS Speakers Bureau. I have also taught Sex Ed. You are certainly right that speaking with facts is important. I discovered any content that involves sexuality, your audience possibly “may listen with closed ears”. I have often said that it is much like trying to discipline a cat or a dog-“I hear you, but I may not behave”. I also discovered that in such matters as Sex Ed and AIDS, the concept of “my mind is made up and do not bother me with the facts” is often how your information is received. Your article dovetails with my own experience.

    • Kathy, A very belated thank you for your kind note. It’s gratifying to know anything I write hits a responsive chord. The work you did was critical to moving society forward and you had to have “true grit” to remain tenacious when some people had closed minds.
      Wishing you success, however you define it! LOIS

  • Hard to accept that everything you say is as true today as ever. I found her testimony completely credible and excruciating to watch. Knowing on some level that even as she spoke, the correct response was unlikely. We didn’t know yet that Kavanaugh would be confirmed, but as much as I did not want to see it happen, I felt it probably would happen in spite of her testimony.
    Your article is excellent. You raise the most relevant issues, you bluntly confront the reality that women have been fighting an uphill credibility (and respect) battle forever, and it will continue. Your suggestions are excellent and important. Because the one thing that is happening now that is positive, is, as you say, that women are really stepping up. And will need all the support and coaching and reality-based advice we can get. Thank YOU!

  • Excellent analysis of the situation, Lois, and I especially like your suggestions for others who may find themselves in the position of speaking truth to power. So discouraging that in 2018, women still need to work twice as hard as men to be credible, and to have their voices heard. Hopefully once our current administration is voted out – and with the continued growth of women’s movements – the situation will improve. In the meantime, thanks for your realistic take on the Kavanaugh hearing.

    • A belated thank you, Annette. It’s a joy to know someone reads the blogs. I give such serious thought to them and, as a former teacher, want to share what I know to help women succeed in life. You’re the best! I’m glad that you and Dennis re-united as the connection was a gift to me with my teeny/tiny family. Best always, Lois

  • Excellent piece Lois. The Kavanagh hearings were a horror, and the treatment of Dr. Ford
    unspeakable. Yes women have a long way to go to finally be believed and treated with respect. I can only speak to my own experiences of learning to “speak up” as a S.B. Planning Commissioner, chair for 2 yrs. I learned early on that our hearings or audience’s, were going to
    compose of all 3 types, positive, skeptical and hostile, depending on the case we were reviewing and voting on. i think your 5 suggestions to help one prepare are brilliant and crucial. It took me a while to feel confident (I wish I’d had your list back then) and when I did, it was empowering and effective. And as women make strides in the political arena, it makes it incumbent on all of us to take an extra step, to outshine your opponent(s) by preparing for anything.

    • Dear Kathy, A belated thank you for reading my post(s). One wonders but…it’s hard to know how many actually do. And to know my ideas are helpful is such a blessing in my life. I give serious thought to them as a former teacher and want to share what I know. You’re in my thoughts often, and hope that your situation is more stable now. Warmest regards, Lois

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