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You vs. Meryl Streep: Confronting Barriers as a Public Speaker

No matter how fantastic or compelling their expertise, I hear many women say: "My expertise is incomplete. I'm not good enough. I don't know enough." Here's how to change that attitude.
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There has been a lot of debate lately about the reasons why there are so few women speakers out there. And I am not only talking about conferences; I am talking about media as well. Take, for example, data from the byline survey conducted by Taryn Yaeger of The OpEd Project, an organization that aims to diversify public debate. Women are practically absent in the debate on many hard news subjects, with their opinions accounting for 11 percent of commentaries on the economy, 13 percent on international politics, 14 percent on social action and 16 percent on security.

There are a number of reasons why the statistics consistently show the low numbers of female representation. However, I believe one of those reasons is particularly important to discuss. And that is this: Women are not confident enough to go on stage because they don't have access to the right mentoring and coaching opportunities.

To help address that I sat down with Jill Foster, CEO of Live Your Talk. As a speechwriter and presentation coach, Jill helps public speakers create the talk of their lifetime, like their signature keynote address or a TED talk. Last fall, she helped me with my own TED talk.

Ekaterina: Jill, I consider you a talented speaker coach. You have an uncanny ability to guide speakers toward the most powerful way of telling their stories and sharing their experiences, both personal and professional, and you work with lots of women. Tell me, why are there so few female speakers out there?

Jill: Thank you. That's a powerful question. And there is a mix of reasons. One in particular gets me out of bed in the morning: The self-assertion factor.

It's crucial, and within our immediate control as women -- and as potential speakers -- to change. No matter how fantastic or compelling their expertise, I hear many women say: "My expertise is incomplete. I'm not good enough. I don't know enough." Then they forgo a speaking opportunity for this reason.

This is an obstacle within our control to fix.

I believe this often rests in the way women perceive their expertise. Many women often qualify their professional caliber in all-or-nothing terms. This self-perception is unfair. It's limiting.

I suggest instead for all of us to put our expertise in the context of one question:
"What aspects of our experience are teachable and usable?"

There are other reasons as real and as challenging, yet less within our direct control to change. Like how women in general are portrayed (...or regretfully, not) as experts. One of Huffington Post's founding editors Rachel Sklar comes to mind. She started the Change The Ratio movement for that reason -- to tackle head-on women's underrepresentation as speakers (and as experts in the media).

Another great conversation and resource out there is Allyson Kapin's WomenWhoTech Telesummit. She features the diverse women leaders hitting it out of the park as technology experts, speakers and startup founders. These conversations and movements help raise the awareness bar for larger audiences, conference planners and media who engage over this issue.

But even with these inequities, we can still assert our readiness; we can be clear about what is teachable about our own perspective and work. That's exciting to think about.

Another factor is how we express ourselves as public voices. Authentic and clear delivery as speakers moves trust forward with our audiences (much more so than compulsive desires to entertain). The "I only have to entertain" mindset is a common misconception that often creates big psychological barriers. It can cause many speakers to think they are inadequate since they aren't sure how to entertain. And frankly, it can lead to speakers indulging their ego -- to be that 'hilarious charming speaker' -- vs. prioritizing the audience's need for real perspective.

Ekaterina: Ah, the desire to win the entertainment game. I definitely battled that one. Talk a little bit more about it and how one could overcome it.

Jill: I've grappled with it too. Here's what I see about an exclusive desire to entertain audiences. It stifles many-a-speaker when preparing. It happens a lot. Their expectations to be entertaining dynamos like Meryl Streep (...sprinkled with a Sheryl Sandberg/Steve Jobs quality) often inhibit their ability to establish an accessible point of view. Their clarity of mind usually suffocates under the self-imposed pressure to be funny enough, riveting, fascinating, provocative, etc.

So when preparing, I suggest looking first at the teachable truth in your fund of knowledge.

Decide a few topics and then consider:

How are these topics teachable from your point of view?

How do these topics relate to and benefit different segments of people?

What three problems can you solve?

Is it human to want our audiences to crack-up from welcomed laughter at our stories? Sure, it's understandable. But I invite us to ask one question first when assessing a speech's entertainment value: Does the content entertain while supporting a core idea? Any wit, story, or piece of content needs to explicate a usable idea or perspective.

Our teachable experience is what we have in common with our audiences. As in, they want it and we've got it. No perfectionism or entertainment hoo-ha... just some usable, human truth and clear point of view.

Ekaterina: Ok, ok the truth already! You mention perfectionism, too. What helps women in particular overcome perfectionism as public speakers and realize more clearly what they can truthfully speak about?

Jill: First, embrace the fact you have insight, which could help at least one person on this planet. Then maybe consider two people, then a room full of people, then maybe a whole department. Believe that something useful and teachable exists in you, even if it is not clear to your self-confidence right this minute. Assert this possibility in your mind.

Next, welcome imperfect ideas as useful tools for achieving better ideas.

Then write under timed conditions to practice realizing your professional beliefs as a public voice.

My favorite 20 minute exercise goes like this. Set a timer for 20 minutes. Then answer this question:

What five beliefs do you hold true about your business and your industry? What drives you professionally? Permit the flow of ideas without judgment. Then write, write, write. Write the phrase "I believe" in front of your assertions if that helps to stimulate the flow of thought. As example: "I believe public speaking is a self-assertion game and a clarity game; it takes time to achieve at both."

Again, this exercise is a no-criticism zone. Just write for as long as your timer ticks. The main purpose is to get out of your head, and recognize more clearly your points of view.

Ekaterina: Let's talk more about point of view and confidence. Women often lack confidence in themselves to speak in public. What if they are unsure which stories could help explain a core idea? How do you suggest they trust themselves more, increase confidence in their stories, and get out there more to speak?

Jill: There are tons of ways to test one's voice and stories -- like joining Toastmasters or starting a videoblog.

My favorite option these days is to shape your own platform as a speaker. Create your own stage and assert it like there's no tomorrow. As example, gain experience and storytelling confidence through hosting your own meet-ups.

With this meet-up idea, you can build your speaking strength from your own trusted network. Consider inviting a small trusted group at first, 15 people to a coffee shop or your office. Then lead a conversation central to your professional beliefs. Test your point of view in a brief lightning talk, like a 10 minute presentation. Solicit feedback to improve. Learn what resonates. And even get testimonials from positive commenters (and publish them online!). Try this every four to six weeks if your schedule allows.

Then evaluate your stories and ideas: what worked most?

Ekaterina: Let's address the hardest question of them all -- battling butterflies before your speech. Any tips?

Jill: Two ideas: Create energy outlets relationally and physically.

About one hour before your talk, create allegiance and meet your audience. Are conference-goers hanging out at the coffee stand? Arriving early in your session room? Meet them and shake their hand. Look them in the eye if you can at all invest that time, or certainly engage with them online before the day arrives.

Then 20 minutes before you present: Be alone and quiet. Breathe deeply a few times. Then stand in your most confident, shoulders-back stance and punch the air, like a boxer. Breathe, box, breath, box. And finally, close your eyes, envision standing on stage and saying your first lines to the audience. In that mental moment, look 'em in the eyes. Give and receive this attention in your mind.

Ekaterina: Practice makes perfect. Every time I do a solo talk I practice beforehand to feel the flow, to know exactly how long it will take, etc. Any tips on how best prepare for and practice for your speech?

Jill: To ensure you are leading the audience to your most relevant, useful ideas, consider this hypothetical question when preparing: If your stage time was limited unexpectedly to 90 seconds, what would you say?

Ekaterina: Jill, great advice! Thank you so much for your time and sharing your pearls of wisdom with us today. Jill can be reached on Twitter @JillFoster or at

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