Monica Lewinsky’s speech to the Forbes Under 30 Conference this week coincided with a trip by Ian Hawkins, one of the PS Programmes team to New York City. Lewinsky, even today, is something of an enigma. A public figure – who hasn’t spoken in public for over a decade. Although she had a profound (if unwitting) influence on politics, she’s not a politician either.
Forbes themselves evidently aren’t entirely sure what to say about her, as on the event website, the line up of speakers all have a line of explanation under their names: Questlove, musician, Sean Rad, Tinder, even Malala Yousafzai is tagged The Malala Foundation. Monica Lewinsky, however, is just Monica Lewinsky. No explanation required.
So I got Ian, our man in Manhattan to ask around what the public thought about Monica’s return. ‘She must be looking for money,’ says one of the blue collar workers waiting on line for a coffee in a deli on 8th Avenue. ‘It’s a bit odd. Coming out of the woodwork. So to speak.’ And a taxi driver who arrived from the Punjab less than three years ago knows her name and clicks his tongue in a manner that oozes disapproval.
‘My name is Monica Lewinsky,’ she says early on in the speech. ‘Though I have often been advised to change it, or asked why on earth I haven’t. But, there we are. I haven’t. I am still Monica Lewinsky.’
Cyber bullying was Lewinsky’s subject, and her qualification for addressing the topic was that she considers herself to be the first person to have their reputation trashed online – and this in an unimaginably distant past, a time before Twitter, Instagram or even Google (a frisson of amused half-panic rippled through the room as the young audience imagined what such a prehistoric lifestyle might have entailed). Lewinsky’s downfall came in the heady early days of the internet, and you don’t need to spend all day on Twitter to know that the internet can encourage some pretty female-unfriendly views.
It wasn’t always like this. Women caught up in scandals that were written about in newsprint rather than pixels came out of their experiences rather better than Monica did. Celebrated brothel-keeper, Cynthia Payne, whose clients included politicians, celebrities and high court judges is a folk hero. When Lord Astor denied having an affair with Mandy Rice-Davis, in the fall-out of the Profumo Affair her response – ‘He would, wouldn’t he?’ – made us think rather more of her and less of him. And in John Major’s ‘back to basics’ government in the 1990s, the powerful men who strayed were the ones who were caught out and punished. It is since the internet took off, that infidelity per se stopped being a cause for politicians to lose their jobs.
Back to Monica: is this speech the beginning of a new, public chapter in her life? We watched the speech with a critical eye, and were struck by a couple of things. Well written and slickly presented, we instinctively felt the invisible presence of a fellow coach. If you’re making your first public appearance for a decade, you want to get things right, keep your message clear and tell your side of the story. The most powerful part of the speech was indeed her re-telling of the major events that occurred when the story broke – the threats from the FBI, the name calling in the paper. ‘How would you feel?’ is the unspoken question.
In ‘Insider Secrets of Public Speaking’ we have Three Golden Principles, and Monica Lewinsky nailed them in her speech:
Authority – speaking from a direct and unique perspective. Who, apart from Monica Lewinsky, is as qualified to discuss this subject from personal experience?
Authenticity – we see the story through her own eyes, and she isn’t afraid to show the emotional impact the experience has had on her.
Audience – Lewinsky makes direct appeals to the audience, acknowledges their experience, and gives them an action point to take away with them.
The one thing that we would have avoided was the apology at the top. ‘It is only my fourth time delivering a speech in public… So if I seem nervous, forgive me, because I am.’ The problem was that her speech was then delivered without an ‘um’ or an ‘er’ – the usual signifiers of nerves – in sight. There is such a thing as being too polished, and anyone looking for an ulterior motive might find this an contradiction a bit jarring. We will give Monica the benefit of doubt, with the apology reasonably well justified – she did move close to tears at one point – and she was sensible, having said sorry for her nerves once, not to do so again.
We hope that this is the beginning of a more public life for Ms Lewinsky. Her speech was not only from the heart, it was timely. For every celebrity who’s had their iCloud account hacked, or for every unfortunate schoolgirl being bullied on Twitter (a big story in New Jersey is currently breaking about exactly this) – Monica Lewinsky’s story is the one that puts things into perspective.
Finally, she addressed the critics who didn’t want to see her in public again: ‘There are those who say, Monica, why don’t you just shut up? Why don’t you just go away? They said it in June, after a piece I wrote in Vanity Fair, my first public words in over ten years. And they will say it today after this one, my first major public talk, ever, and they will say it tomorrow and the day after that.’
The reason why she shouldn’t shut up is because even if you think her affair with Clinton made her a ‘scarlet woman’ and a ‘home-wrecker’ (both of these antique phrases taken, incidentally, from readers’ online comments recently), it is right that we should see the public rehabilitation of someone who, in her words, regrets ‘falling in love with my boss in a 22-year-old sort of a way. It happens.’
She shouldn’t shut up because she is right when she says that online behaviour and bullying is often far more extreme than anything that happens face-to-face.
And lastly, she shouldn’t shut up, because it takes two to tango, and if one party in the affair can continue to have a life, why shouldn’t she?