Candid Conversations: Clint Smith

As National Poetry Month comes to an end, National Poetry Slam Champion Clint Smith discusses his speaking opportunities, including the historical contexts infused into his poetry, thought-provoking audience Q&A, and the most fulfilling audience experiences.

OA: What are you Outspoken about?

CS: I want people to understand the way that history has shaped our current sociopolitical landscape, specifically with regard to racial inequality. When you understand the trajectory of American history, everything around us makes sense. The reason certain communities look one way and other communities look another way is because of decisions people enacted through public policy, and often through political or literal violence. If we fail to understand that, we fail to adequately understand our current social realities.

OA: How has your recent work [with poetry and/or your PHD studies] transformed the focus of your content when delivering a speech?

CS: My presentations move between social commentary grounded, historical narratives, and poetry. The poems often serve as the anchors throughout the speech that hold the narrative together. I don’t believe in a traditional keynote. I try to make the presentation dynamic by including art, education, research, and history lessons.

OA: How do speaking events help your growth?

CS: Every talk provides an opportunity to engage with a new audience about ideas that shape all of our lives. The poems serve as catalyst for a larger discourse that I get to have with the audience during the Q&A and from that conversation, new ideas always emerge. It’s great because, as a researcher and writer, I’m always getting the chance to hear new ideas about my work.

OA: What would you like to see happen more often at events to engage with the audience?

CS: I don’t at all mind people sharing viewpoints than are divergent from my own (as long as they are respectful) and I hope that people always feel free to ask the hard questions. It makes the event more illuminating and thought-provoking for all of us.

OA: What has been one of the most fulfilling audience experiences at speaking events and why?

CS: I love speaking to educators. I taught high school English before beginning graduate school and I know how important though often underappreciated K-12 education is. I have such profound respect for teachers and if I can help provide them with a toolkit to think more critically about the work, that’s an incredible privilege.

OA: How can people become more involved with your work?

CS: You can take a look at my website: www.clintsmithiii.com and/or follow me on Twitter @ClintSmithIII where I’m always sharing and wrestling with ideas.

OA: If you could hear someone give a speech alive or dead, who would it be and why?

CS: I’ve watched so many videos of James Baldwin speaking, it would have been incredible to hear him in person. His ideas and writing have been transformative for me, so that would be a real treat.

Candid Conversations: Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

For our monthly Candid Conversations series and in honor of Women's History Month, we asked Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, health and wellness expert and history/culture podcast host, to answers some questions about what she's Outspoken about and how that translates to her speaking content.

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OA: What are you Outspoken about?
NMP: U.S. culture and politics, past and present. More specifically, feminism, fitness, wellness, and education.

OA: How has your recent work transformed the focus of your content when delivering a speech?
NMP: My first book was about education and civil rights around sexuality, language, and immigration, and it was really clear to the people I interviewed for that project and everyone to whom I spoke about it that this was a very important and serious topic. Now, writing about fitness culture in the U.S., one of the most exciting things is opening people's eyes to the fact that, as I say, "the gym is not just the gym" and that this routine of so many people's everyday lives (and by routine, I mean even thinking you SHOULD exercise, not even actually doing it) is a very recent and development. It's really exciting to share the research that shows how this transformation has happened. Beyond this project, having to speak to a wide range of topics each week on my podcast, Past Present, forces me to look at the big picture in American news and politics and to ask, "what does a historical perspective add to the 24-hour news cycle's hot takes?" It's pushed me to get educated and eloquent on a lot of topics beyond my specific expertise!

OA: How do speaking events help your professional growth?
NMP: There's the obvious "exposure" factor of speaking that is helpful, but I find that I learn something new from every single audience I encounter, both in how I write a talk and from the insights people share during Q and A. I've spoken to everyone from 8th-grade girls to non-profit professionals to entrepreneurs to academics and more, and I find with every event I emerge not just a better speaker, but a clearer thinker. I am grateful for that!

OA: What would you like to see happen more often at events to engage with the audience?
NMP: It's hard with big groups, but I love unconventional setups that challenge the usual "sage on a stage" setting. Recently, I was on a panel around a fire on a mountaintop lodge on Powder Mountain in Utah; a less glamorous but similarly inspiring setting was speaking about the politics of wellness in Union Square NYC, which with its Greenmarket, fitness studios, and rising rents, is a really exciting spot to discuss these dynamics.

OA: What has been one of the most fulfilling audience experiences at a speaking event?
NMP: As a historian, I am always so excited when older folks who lived through the eras I am talking about approach me and both confirm I "get it" (phew!) but more importantly, when they share that my historical perspective gave them new insights on their own lives. This happens a lot when I speak about feminism and fitness; I can't count the number of times I have gotten some variation of, "I never thought I was making history..."

OA: How can people become more involved or engaged with some of the work you do?
NMP: Join me at an event or contact me to create one together. In addition to researching fitness culture, I have been teaching an amazing mind-body class called intenSati for over a decade and there are some really cool possibilities to create experiences with both an embodied and intellectual component. In January 2017, when it was both peak New Year's Resolution season and peak political anxiety before the inauguration, I ran a workout-dinner-conversation series called EXERCISE YOUR POWER, in which we did intenSati, shared a meal, and engaged emotionally, intellectually, and as activists around the very fraught moment. It's exciting to be able to co-create experiences beyond the standard Expert Sharing Expertise model.

OA: If you could hear someone give a speech in person alive or dead, who would it be and why?
NMP: Gloria Steinem because she has not only lived feminist history but also has been crucial in making it. Role model!