Book Review: Speaking Out by Tara Moss

Cover Image for Tara Moss's book Speaking OutSpeaking Out: A 21st Century Handbook For Women & Girls by Tara Moss
Harper Collins AU RRP: $22.99 AUD

There’s plenty to admire about Tara Moss, but one of the skills I envy most is her effortlessly clever and engaging public speaking ability. Whether she’s delivering a prepared presentation or put on the spot in a Q & A, Moss’s tone is measured and calm, her posture composed and her messages thoughtful. Every. Single. Time.

And just when I thought this was some innate superpower and I simply lacked the ‘gift of the gab’ gene, Moss decided to reveal a secret: speaking out with confidence requires training. Her new book Speaking Out: A 21st Century Handbook For Women & Girls examines when, how and why to speak if you actually wish to be heard.

Learning how to speak so that others listen

In the social media age, we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to opportunities to speak out about issues that matter to us; but with great power comes great responsibility. Online debate can quickly degenerate into pointless discussion where everyone is talking and no one is listening – or, worse, aggressive tormenting of those who dare to have a strong opinion. ‘Speaking out’ isn’t just about public debate around the ‘big issues’, though; it’s about knowing what you want to say and getting your point across, whether it’s in the workplace, with your partner or in an online community.

Moss uses stories from her considerable experience in the public eye as a writer, researcher, model and social justice advocate, along with expert perspectives from psychologists and other public figures, to examine the formula for confidently speaking out. Covering everything from speech making, to blogging, to writing a book, to social media etiquette, we learn how Moss honed her impressive skills in the area and why she thinks it is so important for other women to develop these skills.

It is, of course, important for men, too. But the book opens with a strong literature review and potted history of women’s voices in the public sphere, which clarifies why women still have to work that bit harder to be taken seriously in many areas of their lives. Many women struggle with assertiveness; they are also heavily criticized for being assertive if and when they do manage to rise above the parapet. Damned if we do speak, damned if we don’t speak, we sometimes forget that we are absolutely entitled to speak and have important things to say.

Women’s voices are still undervalued

Tara Moss flags the historic biases that have resulted in a lack of representation for women in the media, for example. In Australia, 78% of television presenters are men, with even many women reporting they put more ‘trust’ in male commentators. Moss’s overview also does some myth busting around the notion that women talk more than men, and the stereotypes that disempower women’s speech, such as the ‘gossiping’ or ‘hysterical’ woman.

Moss talks about avoiding the ‘Shhh’ – a catch all term for the many weapons at the disposal of audiences to stop women speaking out. Political examples are fruitful, it seems: see UK PM David Cameron telling a female MP to ‘calm down, dear’ during question time, or Australian Senator Penny Wong being told not to get ‘hysterical’ by a fellow parliamentarian.

Hilary Clinton was told to ‘stop shouting about gun violence’ and responded ‘I’m not shouting. It’s just that when women talk, people think we’re shouting.’  If you’ve ever had someone try to invalidate your argument with a pithy put down, tell you you’re cranky because it’s your time of the month, threaten you with violence in response to an argument or even engage in faux concern in order to stop you in your tracks, you’ve been Shhh’d. Luckily, this book helps you notice these oppressive and diversionary tactics so that you may rebuff, redress or simply walk away as required.

Practical tips for effective communication

Like many life skills, training is the key. It takes practice to learn how to construct an argument without necessarily being combative, for example, or how to respond to feedback (including trolls) without taking it personally. Tara also shares the tools she’s developed for staying on your game under pressure, listening attentively to questions so that you can respond appropriately and keeping stage fright in check.

The final section of the book is about self-care, an oft-overlooked dimension of building and retaining personal strength. Tara Moss reminds us to nourish our bodies, get enough rest and stay connected to the community. You cannot have the clarity and resilience to speak out effectively in public without taking good care of yourself in private.

Speaking Out is a good read, with well-researched data and lively anecdotes that reinforce the ‘why’ of Moss’s call to arms. The ‘how’ is supplied via actionable lessons in researching, forming, editing and delivering your message across a range of media. I see this as useful in classrooms, lecture halls or families for ‘dip in and out’ problem solving as much as comprehensive public speaking training.

For further reading about feminist discourse, women in the media and the ways in which society constructs women’s roles, you might also enjoy Moss’s excellent work The Fictional Woman.

Do you feel confident about speaking out? Have you ever experienced the Shhh?

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