Learning to Speak Up At the Women's Convention

Women’s Convention attendees monitor their breath at a public speaking breakout session. Photo by Ellie Shechet.
Women’s Convention attendees monitor their breath at a public speaking breakout session. Photo by Ellie Shechet.

DETROIT, MI—Around 11:30 AM on Friday, room 321 in Detroit’s cavernous Cobo Center was packed with women: teenagers, young women, women with babies, the odd pussy hat-wearer, all crammed in for one of eight breakout sessions kicking off this weekend’s Women’s Convention. This one in particular bore the lengthy title: “Belly, Heart, Mouth: Using the body to become a comfortable, confident and compelling public speaker.”

I hate public speaking, personally. My chest balls up and my voice gets weird; I went on a podcast recently and my brain just stopped working midway through a thought, forcing me to use a series of nonsense words to get to the end of my sentence. Apparently, I am not alone; I had anticipated a cozy, sparsely-attended pep talk, but the room was well over capacity, with attendees sprawled out on the floor and standing in the back in order to participate. Two women next to me chatted loudly to each other throughout the remarks, apparently having arrived with sufficient confidence.

Cathy McNally, who led the session, had a warm, unassuming air. The audience shared her energy; they laughed easily, letting out regular little whoop!’s of encouragement. It helped that there were, by my count, no men in the room. “Think about the role that our heart plays,” she instructed. “For public speakers who are beginners, or who are nervous, the connection with audience is really hard, and the last thing we think about.”


“What do we want our speaking to do to our listeners?” she asked. “We want to think about not just our hearts, but our arms. Can everybody hold up their arms?” Hundreds of arms floated up. “Think about these arms, and what you want to do to the audience with these arms. Do you want to talk to the audience? Do you want to shake the audience? Do you want to pat the audience on the back? Imagine your arms are the extension of your words.”

“When the audience leaves, what do you want them to do?” she continued. “So you have to give them something that’s memorable and specific.”

We were then instructed to speak to our neighbors about what we want our arms to do. Befuddled by this slightly cryptic suggestion, my neighbor, an Indivisible organizer who prefers that I not use her name, told me that public speaking stresses her out.

“I do this job where I talk a lot to people in public, but I hate it,” she said. We talked about what she hopes to get out of the Women’s Convention this weekend. “I want more people to get out and do something, you know?” she said. “We have a lot of people who like to complain on Facebook, but they don’t show up.”


We were quickly called back to attention. McNally asked attendees to stand up and tell the group how they’d want to impact their hypothetical audiences.

A blonde woman in a purple shirt shot out of her chair. “I want to hug them when I come in, shake ‘em, wake ‘em up, and hug them again!” she hollered, to cheers and laughter.


“I want the audience to empty their pockets,” another said forcefully.

“YEEESSS!” a woman in the back cried.

One of the main takeaways of the session was fairly simple, although a few women I spoke to found it helpful. “When we breathe, we calm ourselves down, but only if we breathe into our belly,” McNally said. “When we take shallow breaths, like we do when we get nervous, it actually makes us more nervous. Always take a moment to center your breath—it’s like medicine.”


We learned about using “sticky” phrases (“forced birth,” everyone agreed, was more evocative than the standard “pro-choice” language) and drawing pictures with our words. We were asked to write down a sentence about our issue of choice, and volunteers from the audience got up one at a time to read them aloud.

“I want to keep all the orange men out of office!” one woman said, laughing.

“I want a city where there’s a generation of children that can once again enjoy the joys of being just in a bubble bath, without having to worry about being in contaminated water,” offered another.


“I want to live in a world where I, as a black woman, do not have to worry about my black significant other when he’s on the way home from work,” said a woman from the front of the room.

“I want a world where people in need, whether they suffer from the disease of addiction, homelessness or poverty, are held and lifted up instead of asked to be invisible for the comfort of the privileged.”


“I want a world where sexual assault victims don’t have to walk by their rapists on the way to class.”

“I want a United States where women will be empowered to vote their own conscience and choice, not that of their husbands.”


“I want to live in a world where people don’t have expiration dates to live in this country.”

As more attendees stood up to say their piece, the audience’s cheers grew louder. Buoyed by a sea of friendly faces, no one seemed particularly nervous. It’s easier to speak, it seems, when everyone is in agreement.

Ellie is a freelance writer and former senior writer at Jezebel. She is pursuing a master's degree in science journalism at Columbia University in the fall.

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Interesting that the Issues statements quoted here are all about the needs of others. Women never think of themselves (as individuals) first! Nobody’s saying “I want a tax cut!” “I want Roe v Wade overturned!” “I don’t want statues taken down!” or anything that is self-directed. I wonder if that’s a good thing or not, in terms of garnering support from others?